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Worming Your Way to Success
Vermiculture is the phrase that describes the process of using worms to transform 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 worm box to a remodeling project and an overzealous contractor, but are getting back in the game.) Developing countries like India and Cuba have extensive government vermiculture projects underway. They cannot afford to import expensive petrochemical fertilizers and see the worms as a way to turn waste into a useful product. In an Indian program, about 1,000 farmers now use 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 is higher in vermicompost than in conventional aerobic compost. The governments of Great Britain and France are also active in harnessing worm power.
We all know the value of worms in our gardens, and most of us are quite happy to find them when we dig in our beds. They promote bacterial growth, aerate compacted soil and help organic matter break down. Being 60% protein, they add more to the soil when they die. There are 3,000 kinds of worms. Of them, 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 wigglers, dung worms, fish worms, dung fireflies or even apple stick 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 material and 10% soil.
The second group, the kind you are most likely to encounter in your garden, are “humus feeders”. These are deep burrowing (as much as three feet vertically) creatures whose burrowing habits make our soil more porous. They leave humus behind as and when they go.
Humus feet or Lumbricus terrestis (night crawlers) need large areas to live in. Unlike the red wigglers, which are quite happy to live on top of each other, night crawlers do not encounter their own kind very often. As a child I was told that when worms appear after a rain it is to avoid drowning. Not true! Moisture is essential for their survival. They are really looking for a sex partner and a convenient flat place to mate. The wet surface is a big draw, as they need moisture to move, and this is where they can encounter other worms with a similar propensity. One writer described it as “nature’s singles bar.”
So why would you want to get involved with the red wigglers on an up close and personal basis? I had heard the merits of their final product touted for some time, so soon after we started producing what ended up being bins full of castings, we did a field test. We bought a six-pack of annuals (petunia, if I recall.) and planted half in our garden in our normal way. This was the control group.
Our experimental group consisted of the other half-pack planted in vermicompost enriched dirt. We watered everything equally. Since they were all planted in the sun and side by side, the environments were close to identical. But the plants were very different by the end of the season. The vermicomposted plants were significantly larger and slightly more flowery. We were convinced and each new plant that came on board was introduced to an environment rich in vermicompost.
It was simple and it was fun. We told everyone about our new pets, the worms. Many of our friends were too tired to actually look into the worm box, but a considerable number (the gardeners) wanted a supply of worms to use themselves. Doing research for this publication, I learned how it all works. Thomas J. Barrett wrote in Harnessing the Earthworm:
…they literally serve as colloid mills to produce the intimate chemical and mechanical mixture of fine organic and inorganic material that forms their castings. In the mixing that takes place in the earthworm’s digestive tract, the ingested materials undergo chemical changes, deodorization and neutralization, so that the resulting casts are a practically neutral humus, rich in water-soluble plant food, immediately available for plant nutrition.
In short, they convert waste into humus. And how important is it? Humus, and the humic acid found in humus, does 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 would be expected from normal nutrition. In addition, heavy metals that are harmful to the plant (and to you and me) are often found in sludge, crop waste and manure.
Humus has the ability to “fix” the metals so that the plant does not absorb more than it needs. Later, it releases the heavy metals when the plant needs them. Finally, humus can somehow help when the soil is too acidic or too alkaline. In other words, if you have plenty 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 good start. Converting different plant material into a humus is what it does. Vermiculture is just a more efficient way to end up with a product that is even richer in humus.
A vermiculture container must be sturdy, able to let air in, keep out light (red worms hate light.) and prevent moisture from leaking out the bottom. A box 2′ by 2′ by 2′ should be sufficient for the kitchen waste of a family of two, but I have found that larger boxes are easier to empty and maintain. It’s hard to predict how much waste you’ll generate in any 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 access.
Many vermiculturists advocate keeping your bin indoors. I did that 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 rationale for inside worm bins has to do with the ideal temperatures the little guys 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 a lot when it’s too hot or too cold. Some studies show that worms can be frozen solid and still 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 straw bales or other material to prolong worm activity.
In the Pacific Northwest (USDA Zone 8) our worms survived summer and winter most years in good shape outside in a shady spot. However, after a few winters we noticed a reduction 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. The worms are available almost everywhere. If none are for sale in your community, there are several mail order suppliers. As a rule of thumb, start with two pounds of worms for every pound of waste per day you expect to produce.
Bedding can be almost all organic. Straw, sawdust, peat moss, compost, shredded cardboard and newspapers all work. I live in a city so I called a company that shreds paper for offices and was able to get large free bags of shredded paper. I mixed it 50-50 with moistened peat moss. Since I’m peat-free these days (see the mulch section), I might use bagged dried fertilizer next time. The moisture content should be about the same as the wrung out mushroom level recommended for your compost pile. Worms use a lot of water. They produce 60% of their body weight in urine every day. Urine is of course a good source of the nitrogen you want to make available to your plants once the process is complete.
The food is what you would normally put away for your waste disposal. No animal products such as bones, meat, dairy or fat as they have a nasty habit of going rancid and smelly. Some farmers advocate just putting the waste on the surface, claiming the worms will figure it out. I bury it just under the surface myself, thinking I might trick a fruit fly or two into not noticing.
If your worm bin smells, you may have done something wrong. Stop feeding, stir up the box to get some air into it, check and clear the air holes, add dry material and it should be back to its old sweet self. It’s the old aerobic versus anaerobic thing again. Worms work aerobically.
Remember that worms do not have teeth. The moisture in the litter or bedding softens their food so it can be swallowed into the gut where the meal begins. If you really want to make the worms happy and speed up digestion by a factor of two, chop the waste in your food processor before feeding. It’s also a good idea to throw in a few handfuls of sand or a small shovel full of dirt from time to time.
If you have provided a decent environment for your worms, they will be motivated to start a family. It takes only six weeks for a hatchling to reach maturity. They can reproduce three times a week for the rest of their lives, which is about a year. The babies are hungry too. A red worm can consume more than its own weight on the day it is born and every day thereafter. In most home systems, adult worms eat 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 typically used a strategy that makes the worms do the work. When it is clear that you have a valuable amount of castings to collect, about two or three months after you start, think of the box as two halves. All food now only goes on the left side. Move all the pieces you see on the right side. Considering their brain size, worms are surprisingly smart. They find that the food is not there on the right anymore, and either they go looking for it, or a curious, exploratory worm comes back and tells them to look on the left side now. So in a month or less, pretty much all the worms have moved to the left side of the bed. Empty the right side of the finished product and replace the bedding. Any worms that happen to still exist are probably too stupid or genetically weakened and I’m happy to remove them from the gene pool. Now you only feed on the left side for a little while and the worms will move there so you can change the bedding on the right sieve in the same way. From that time until the entire bucket looks finished again, you can feed on both sides.
A suggestion: You are only limited by your imagination. A word of warning though. The end product is very rich and some authors believe it should not be used unless diluted. Personally, I’ve never had a problem using it straight. Vermicompost is a fantastic potting soil. But if it is mixed with some other material like coir (a type of coconut waste now entering our markets) it will go much further. Use this in your autumn plantings, and your plants will be better prepared to face the challenges of winter.
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