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Worming Your Way to Success
Vermiculture is the phrase that describes the process of using worms to turn kitchen and garden waste into a very valuable humus-rich product. My wife Denise and I have been using worms to compost kitchen waste for six years. (We recently lost our can of worms to a remodeling project and an overzealous contractor, but we’re getting back into the game.) Developing countries like India and Cuba have extensive government vermiculture projects underway. They can’t afford to import expensive petrochemical-based fertilizers and are looking at worms as a way to turn waste into a usable product. In an Indian program, about 1,000 farmers are now using vermicompost in their orchards and have reduced their use of chemical fertilizers by 90%. India now produces more than 5,000 tons of vermicompost annually and they started only in 1985. Cuban scientists have found that the nitrogen content of vermicompost is higher than conventional aerobic compost. The governments of Britain and France are also active in harnessing the power of worms.
We all know the value of worms in our gardens and most of us are only too happy to find them when we dig in our beds. They promote bacterial growth, aerate compacted soil and help decompose organic material. Further, since they are 60% protein, when they die, they add even more to the soil. There are 3000 species of worms. Of these, it turns out that there are really only two basic types that concern us, and they have divided their worlds into two environments. Eiseniafoetida (red worms) may be familiar to you as red mushrooms, manure worms, fish worms, dung worms or even apple pomace worms. These are “humus formers” and live on or near the surface in highly organic places such as manure piles. Their diet consists of 90% fresh organic matter and 10% soil.
The second group, the type you are most likely to encounter in your garden, are the “humus feeders”. These are deep burrowing creatures (up to three feet vertically) whose burrowing habits make our soil more porous. They leave hummus behind them as and when they go.
Humus feeders or Lumbricus terrestis (night crawlers) need large areas to live. Unlike redshifters, who are quite happy living on top of each other, nightcrawlers don’t encounter their own kind that often. I was told, when I was a child, when worms come to the surface after the rain, it is to avoid drowning. Not true! Moisture is vital to their survival. They are really looking for a sex partner and a suitable flat place to mate. A wet surface is a big attraction as they need moisture to move and is where they can meet other worms with similar tendencies. One writer described it as “nature’s singles herb.”
So why would you want to get involved with the red shakers on an up close and personal basis? I had been hearing the virtues of their final product touted for some time, so soon after we started producing what ended up being trash cans full of molds, we did a field test. We bought a pack of six years, (petunias, if I recall.) and planted half of them in our garden in our normal way. This was the control group.
Our experimental group consisted of the other half-plot planted in vermicompost-enriched dirt. We watered everything the same. As they were all planted in full sun and side by side, the environments were nearly identical. But the plants were very different by the end of the season. The composted plants were significantly larger and slightly flowerier. We were convinced and every new plant that came on board was introduced to a medium rich in vermicompost.
It was simple and it was fun. We told everyone about our new animals, the worms. Many of our friends were too mean to actually look inside the worm box, but a significant number (gardeners) wanted a supply of worms to use themselves. In doing the research for this publication, I learned how it all works. Thomas J. Barrett, in The Exploitation of the Earthworm, wrote:
… they literally serve as colloid mills to produce the intimate chemical and mechanical mixture of fine organic and inorganic matter that forms their castings. In the mixing that takes place in the alimentary canal of the earthworm, the ingested materials undergo chemical changes, deodorization and neutralization, so that the resulting droppings are a practically neutral humus, rich in water-soluble plant food, readily available for plant food.
In short, they turn waste into humus. And how important is that? Humus, and the humic acid found in humus, do a number of things that benefit your plants.
Experiments show that even in the presence of small amounts of humus, plants are stimulated to grow beyond what is expected from normal nutrition. In addition, heavy metals harmful to the plant (and to you and me) are often found in sludge, crop leaves and organic manure.
Humus has the ability to “regulate” metals so that the plant does not absorb more than it should. Later, it releases the heavy metals when the plant needs them. Finally, humus can help somewhat when the soil is too acidic or too alkaline. In other words, if you have a lot of humus in your soil, an acid-loving plant can still grow well in alkaline conditions. So where do we get this hummus? Composting is a great start. Turning various plant materials into humus is what it does. Vermiculture is simply a more efficient way to end up with an even more humus-rich product.
A vermiculture container should be sturdy, able to let air in, keep light out (redworms hate light.) and not allow moisture to seep out the bottom. A 2′ by 2′ by 2′ bin is supposed to be enough for the kitchen waste of a family of two, but I’ve found that larger bins are easier to empty and maintain. It’s hard to predict how much waste you’ll generate in a given week, as most of us don’t weigh it! Whatever size box you end up with, be sure to punch holes in the bottom and/or sides for air intake.
Many vermiculturists advocate keeping your bin indoors. I did it for a month in our basement. When fruit flies started to appear in numbers on the third floor, it was time to move the bin outside. The reason for the inside of the worm bins has to do with the ideal temperatures that the little fellows prefer. Ideally, the temperature range should be 550F – 780F. The survival range is more like a high of 900F and no colder than 320F. Like me, their activity slows down when it’s too hot or too cold. Some research shows that worms can be frozen solid and survive if the freezing is slow and they don’t thaw and refreeze too often! If you live in a colder area, try insulating the box with balsa straw or other material to prolong worm activity.
In the Pacific Northwest (USDA Zone 8) our worms survived summer and winter most years in good condition outside in a shady spot. However, after a few winters, we noticed a decrease in numbers and even lost them all once or twice. But if you don’t get too attached to your particular worms, they aren’t hard to replace. Worms are available almost everywhere. If none are for sale in your community, there are several mail order suppliers. As a rule of thumb, you should start with two pounds of worms for every pound of litter per day you expect to produce.
The bedding can be almost anything organic. Straw, sawdust, peat moss, compost, shredded cardboard and newspaper will all work. I live in a city so I called a company that shreds office paper and was able to get large bags of shredded paper for free. I mixed it 50-50 with wet peat moss. Since I’m not into peat these days (see the section on mulch), I’ll probably use dry compost that I can buy by the bag next time. The moisture content should be about the same as the squeezable sponge level recommended for your compost pile. Worms use a lot of water. They produce 60% of their body weight in urine every day. Urine, of course, is an excellent source of nitrogen that will be available to your plants when the process is complete.
Food is what you would normally throw away. No animal products such as bones, meat, dairy or fat as they have a nasty habit of becoming sour and smelly. Some vermiculturists advocate simply throwing compost on the surface, arguing that the worms will come for it. I bury it under the surface myself, thinking I can trick a fruit fly or two into not noticing.
If your worm bin smells, you may have done something wrong. Stop feeding, stir the box to get some air into it, check and clean the air holes, add dry material and it should be back to its old sweet state. It’s that old aerobic versus anaerobic thing again. Worms work aerobically.
Remember that worms do not have teeth. Moisture in litter or bedding softens their food so it can be swallowed in the gut where grinding begins. If you really want to make the worms happy and speed up digestion by a factor of two, grind up the scraps in your food processor before feeding. It’s also a good idea to occasionally throw in a few handfuls of sand or a small shovel full of dirt.
If you have provided a good environment for your worms, they will be motivated to start families. A twinkle takes just six weeks to reach maturity. They can reproduce three times a week for the rest of their life, which is about a year. Even babies are hungry. A red worm can consume more than its own weight on the day it is born and every day thereafter. In most household systems, adult worms consume about half their body weight each day, but given ideal temperatures, ground food and moist bedding, they can eat their weight each day.
The finished product is relatively easy to assemble. I have usually used a strategy that makes the worms do the work. When it is clear that you have a valuable amount of acting to collect, about two or three months after you start, think of the box as having two halves. All food now goes to the left side only. Move any pieces you see to the right side. Considering the size of their brains, worms are surprisingly smart. They realize that the food is no longer on the right and either go looking for it or a curious and exploratory worm comes back and tells them to look on the left side now. So, in a month or less, practically all the worms have moved to the left side of the bed. Empty the right side of the finished product and replace the bed. Any worms that happen to still be around are probably too dumb or genetically damaged and I’m happy to eliminate them from the gene pool. Now you only feed on the left side for a while and the worms will move there, allowing you to similarly replace the bed on the right view. From then until the whole basket looks finished again, you can feed from both sides.
A hint: You are only limited by your imagination. However, a word of caution. The final product is very rich and some writers feel that it should not be used unless diluted. Personally, I’ve never had a problem using it directly. Vermicompost is an excellent potting soil. But if it is mixed with some other material like coir (a type of coconut waste that is now entering our markets) it will go much further. Use this in your fall plantings and your plants will be better equipped to handle the challenges of winter.
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