by Charlene Burgi
As if four horses, four donkeys, two dogs, one very old cat, and six chickens weren't enough to feed (not to mention the vast wild bird population), I added a pound of red wiggler worms (Eisenia fetida) to the table that also need tending and feeding.
Worms. People ask if I got them to use for fishing. Others want to know if I'm going to add them to my compost pile. And some are curious if I plan to feed them to the chickens! Still others scratch their heads asking, "Why worms?"
Vermiculture is the act of farming worms. Let's face it, they are much cheaper to raise than cattle and horses. Their manure, called worm castings, is far richer than what we can expect from our four-legged critters. They don't require stud fees to multiply as they can potentially double their population in 90 days if they are happy. They are quiet and take up very little space. And every day they eat half their weight in scraps that would otherwise be thrown into the garbage or compost bins.
The biggest plus to vermiculture is that worms are extremely beneficial to the soil food web. They digest our garbage and give back usable nutrients faster than a cold or hot compost pile, thus adding life to our starved soils.
Beneficial organisms found in soil include bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and antinomycetes, which are tiny decomposers that feed on organic matter. Since these little red wigglers are digesting our garbage, they are converting waste into castings that are full of these healthy beneficials or that serve as food for the beneficials in the soil. Once added to our gardens, the castings boost the microbiological activity.
In farming, inputs produce outputs. Feed the chickens, get eggs and manure. Similarly, worms provide three by-products:
Leachates, a liquid runoff found at the bottom of the bin, can be good or bad depending on if the liquid was processed through the worm. Since yours truly is a novice at this, I plan to dilute the leachates with 10 parts water, shake vigorously to add air, and use immediately on my ornamentals only.
Worm castings can be a great fertilizer as they contain a 50% higher level of organic matter than your native soil. You can top dress your potted plants with the castings and let the overhead water leach the nutrients down to the root zone. Most important is the castings increase the water-holding capacity of your soil, allowing it to retain our precious resource for a longer period of time.
Lastly, we can benefit by making worm compost tea, which is a bit trickier to work with. It is kind of like making yogurt. The worm castings are the starter. Add a bag of castings to water and let steep as if preparing a cup of tea. Add a little molasses to give the microbes a kick-start. The next part is a bit tricky: Add air to increase oxygen in the mix. Try shaking it vigorously and using it immediately for foliage feeding. Worm compost tea adds an enormous amount of beneficial microbes to the plant and thwarts infestations of aphids, nematodes, and other parasites.
I haven't even scratched the surface of worm farming. Books have been written on the subject, and I am beginning to sound like a late-night infomercial. I can't promise if you call now you will get, not one, but two pounds of red wigglers. What I can promise is trying vermiculture can open up another avenue to saving water, saving money on fertilizers, and growing a very healthy garden.
Speaking of healthy gardens, Zero Waste Marin is offering a two-hour course on "Home Composting Made Easy." You'll learn about the science of composting along with several composting techniques you can put into practice in your own garden, including working with worms. The class is offered 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. tomorrow, May 2, and again on May 30 and June 20. The fee is $10 and preregistration is required. Learn more: zerowastemarin.org/compost.