The green side of worms

Wigglers can provide good compost for organic gardens.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Earthworms may soon have their own Facebook fan page if some worm enthusiasts have their way.

"I had forgotten how good food could taste fresh from the garden until I was experimenting with worm castings and started an organic garden," says Ron Crum of Williamsburg, Va. He now raises worms commercially for composting and for bait.

In Yorktown, Va., master gardener Rebecca Cho is also into worms, on a much smaller scale for personal gardening needs.

"The worms are the most carefree creatures I have ever tended to, only needing food every couple of weeks and fresh newspaper bedding," Cho says.

Also in Williamsburg, Gina Ridgway recently launched the WormWatcher, an educational tool for teaching children about worms and how they enrich soil. It's a clear box kit that uses 500 red wigglers and kitchen garbage to make compost tea, which drains through a built-in spigot into a container for easy use. The kit is also suitable for home gardeners.

"We all talk about going green, but the worms demonstrate how easy it is to be green, eating two to three pounds of garbage a week," she says.

Crum's 300,000 worms have it nice, composting and breeding in 60 box-within-a-box bins he's created with air holes and a bottom drain spigot.

A stonemason by trade, Crum grew up helping his father raise and sell night crawlers for bait. Some of Crum's worms become fish bait, but most are kept warm and cozy while they turn a mixture of peat moss and horse manure into worm castings. Gardeners call this form of compost "black gold" because the nutrient-rich castings are far more beneficial to plants that any man-made fertilizer.

"Oh, we're moving around today," he says to the worms, reaching into a 27-gallon bin to pull out a handful of red wigglers.

Most worm enthusiasts rely on red wigglers to do the composting work. Crum, however, likes to mix them with the European night crawlers, which grow as long as 10 inches and bury deep, about 18 inches, in a bin's mixture. Their holes help aerate the environment for the smaller wigglers, which stay in the top four inches of a bin's media.

Many gardeners also use shredded newspaper to keep their composting worms energized, but Crum prefers cardboard soaked with algae water he collects from an outdoor pond.

"Giving them that cardboard is like adding sugar to my cereal," he says.

Vermicomposting on this major scale means Crum is constantly creating food sources for the worms. He gets horse manure from nearby stables and uses a concrete mixer to blend it with peat moss. When Halloween is done, his worms love to feast on rotten, leftover, and unwanted pumpkins, so he's thinking about becoming a recycling collection point for the fruit this fall.

After becoming a mother, Ridgway worked on an outdoor classroom and taught middle school science. She worked in schools with great equipment and no equipment, and found that worms were the best tool.

"One half-pound of worms can process between two and three pounds of garbage a week," she says.

Eventually, she saw potential in the WormWatcher, a clear composter that's lockable, durable, and portable. After learning more about worm composting through Crum, she added the spigot to the WormWatcher so students also could learn about the liquid fertilizer that drained out of the bottom. She added a "worm skirt" to make observing the worms easier.

A basic unit is $250; there's also a starter kit/service that provides weekly tips to help anyone learn the process.

Cho's worms live and work in a plain Rubbermaid bin. Inspired to recycle food scraps after a worm-composting demonstration, she took home a takeout food carton of worms and compost and got started. Her husband drilled small ventilation holes in the lid and top third of the sides of the plastic box.

"Long vacations are worry-free," Cho says. "If you go away, just open a can of beans - I rinse and crush the beans first.

"When the worms get going, you will be amazed at how quickly they multiply. Once your worm population exceeds your bin, you have fun dividing them among friends or you can release them in your garden.

"Worm castings can be worked into the soil for almost any type of plant. The best thing is a little goes a long way."

 

Worms like . . .

A warm, moist, dark, and quiet environment with lots of bedding, such as newspaper strips and cardboard pieces.

Kitchen scraps such as fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds and filters, and tea bags - no meat, bones, dairy products, greasy foods, or pet manure.

A little fiber - paper, sand, or grit - for their digestive process.

 

Wonderful worms . . .

Convert organic matter into nutrients plants can use.

Loosen soil, making it easier for plant roots to grow and absorb nutrients.

Balance the soil food web that naturally fertilizes your plants.

Provide a valuable food source for songbirds.