Got Worms?, by Girl Raised in the South (GRITS)

Saturday, Jun 18, 2011

I felt a sting of envy while admiring a neighbor’s tomato and pepper plants. They were lush and heavy with fruit, bursting out of their containers, while the straggly things in my garden struggled to produce an occasional ping pong ball for our salads. Our neighbor, Bud, mentioned that he had added castings from his aunt’s worm farm, and he figured that must be how come his plants were doing so well.

We have our share of earthworms in our home dirt, and knew they were beneficial, but had never seen the value of  concentrated worm poop demonstrated so clearly. That chance encounter sent me off to research how I could harness worm power to nourish my ailing garden.

Here in northeast Florida, our soil is mostly sand. It doesn’t seem to have a lot of natural fertility for growing good stuff, though impenetrable jungle growth will choke any neglected patch lickety-split. Besides that, I’ve been cursed with the brownest of thumbs. I have always pitied whatever plants had the misfortune to end up at my house. Contrast that with my dogs, who thrive and win championships in various venues. I’ve always felt more affinity for animals than vegetables.

A desire for increased self-sufficiency drove me to buy plants, seeds, potting soil, Black Kow, and give a raised garden a try. Here came the famous Florida bugs sans bees, last summer’s record-setting heat which stopped fruit-setting dead, my ignorance, bad advice, a record-setting freezing winter and anything else that could go wrong. I figured if I had to depend on my garden, I’d starve right quick. Meanwhile, the untended blackberry patch in the ditch and the wild elderberries hanging over the fence produce better crops than all my carefully cultivated veggies combined. God does have a sense of humor.

My fit of jealousy turned constructive. After researching the wonderful composting job worms do, I decided a worm farm was just what I needed. When I told my husband my plans, he did a lot of eye-rolling. I need to remember to break such news to him gently. Poor man. He’s put up with litters of pups and a houseful of Collies for most of our 43 years of wedded bliss. “You aren’t keeping worms in the house!” he ordered. “And forget about chickens!” I assured him I had no intention of keeping the wigglies in the house, and my herding dogs think sheep are fun to boss around, but birds are way too tasty. I planned to pamper my new charges in a climate-controlled outbuilding. Intense summer heat can be lethal to worms, or at least slow down their feeding and reproduction. If we had a basement, that might be a good spot, but basements are a rarity in Florida. With our soggy water table we’d end up with a disgusting indoor swimming pool.

I asked around for a source of worms. Bud said his aunt simply collected her worms from the yard and kept the bin in the backyard shade. A fellow at a plant nursery has a worm farm, and he got his Canadian night crawlers from the bait section of Wal-Mart. Both of them seem to be successful, but my research suggested that they were lucky. Luck rarely works for me, so I wanted to try to do it right from the start. Big old night crawlers like to burrow deep into the earth and a plastic tote bin is a mite confining for them. The local worms might work out fine, but red wigglers (eisenia foetida) seem to be the gold standard for cultivated worms. They are top feeders and can adapt to a bin.

Apparently aquarium or reptile dealers feed earthworms to their critters, but I didn’t find one that had worms for me. Besides, if the worms were lunch for tropical fish, perhaps their health and well-being would not be a big concern.

Habitat
The first thing to consider before welcoming my new pets was providing a proper habitat for them. They have the same aversion to light as do vampires, so clear plastic bins don’t work. I bought a large opaque tote bin at Wally World for under six bucks. We drilled line of air holes along the top sides for ventilation. Some worm farmers recommend drain holes to get rid of excess fluids, but apparently they aren’t necessary if the moisture level is kept about right. They need bedding with a neutral pH. Although shredded newspaper is sometimes recommended, coconut coir or peat moss give a better start. Peat moss needs some crushed egg shells to neutralize the pH and provide calcium and grit to help the worms’ digestion. Birdlike, they have gizzards to grind their food.
Their digs need to be moist, about like a damp sponge.

What do they eat? Garbage. Vegetable cuttings, shredded paper or cardboard, banana peels, their own bedding. Nothing of animal origin except eggshells except in tiny bits or pre-composted, because of the nasty conditions rotting meat create. Other items requiring care include citrus peels because of the low pH and the toxicity of the oils, or anything spicy or peppery. They don’t like to be disturbed too often, and you shouldn’t handle them without gloves because the oil from your skin clogs their breathing apparatus. Seems they get their oxygen through their damp skins. Not too wet, not too dry, just right, and let the little hermaphrodites eat, reproduce, and make that wonderful compost for my garden.

Sources
Where to get the worms? Do an Internet search and you’ll find plenty of folks willing to sell you a pound of worms. If you’re lucky, you might find a local source. I decided to buy them from Big Tex Worms for a number of reasons. Liz offers all sorts of clearly stated instruction on YouTube as well as on her web site. She also will send a “starter kit” with the worms shipped in their familiar bedding. She has done studies that prove this is a more successful system than selling a container of worms by the pound, which arrive stressed and less likely to thrive. From the video tour of her home, she’s into self-sufficiency. And she seems to care about her little guys.

I made my order, and she shipped them out priority mail on a Monday. She refuses to mail them after the summer heat sets in, because a delivery of parboiled worms would spoil anyone’s appetite. Evidently they do all right in Texas heat as long as they are kept in the shade with plenty of moisture, though they may slow down their eating and reproducing until more comfortable temperatures arrive.

Although we’re experiencing mid-90 degree weather, my worms arrived cool to the touch in their cloth bag. I followed the directions, installed them in their new home, and kept the light on for a day so they would bury themselves in their bed and not try to squirm away. Then I fed them some nice strawberry cuttings, avocado that had turned brown, and chopped lettuce core. Later I gave them coffee grounds, carrot tops and an apple core. They are eating and don’t seem inclined to escape. After a couple of weeks I turned the bedding to aerate it, and found lots of wigglies moving around. So far so good.

I was prepared to expect other critters to grow in the bin besides the worms, and boy, are they! So far the only bugs I’ve seen are fellow composters, according to my information. Odor is minimal, and the food is turning into what looks like coffee grounds in a matter of days.

For Your Library
If you’d like more information on worm composting, check Liz’s web site referenced above, or a couple of books on the subject, The Worm Book: The Complete Guide to Gardening and Composting with Worms and Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System.

I expect they’ll produce a nice crop of compost in a couple of months or so, and I hope I’ll need to invest in a second bin for the population explosion.
If it doesn’t work out, I can always eat worms. I found recipes in one of the books I read. Yum. Or I can go fishing.

I’ll be checking back after I get more hands-on experience. Stay tuned!


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