On Becoming a Worm Farmer

15 Aug

Until recently, I rarely thought about worms at all (earthworms, that is; I am glad to not have had many occasions to think about other types…). In the course of digging flower beds, or planting and shifting things around in the garden, I’ve noted with satisfaction the patches of earth that contained lots of worms and worried about areas where there were very few worms. I knew worms signaled healthy soil. But that’s about all I knew. After guiding the occasional uncovered worm back to a good burrowing spot, I never stopped to ponder its existence, or think about its contribution to the garden.

And then I read two of Amy Stewart’s books–From the Ground Up, about her first garden, and The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, which is pretty self explanatory. The achievements of earthworms are remarkable: they not only aerate the soil by burrowing, but their castings (manure) enrich the soil tremendously. It turns out worm poop is like gold for the garden.

And so I rashly decided to try vermicomposting–ie, composting with the help of some red wigglers. Our yard is too small and too close to our neighbors for an outdoor composting area, so I had given up on the idea of ever composting until I learned about vermiculture–which can  easily be done inside (ie, in our garage).

I bought a worm factory, carefully read the instructions, and set up the first tray: shredded newspaper, damp coconut coir bedding, a handful of garden soil with manure, and food–in this case, chopped up zucchini from the garden that was slightly past its prime, coffee grounds and filter, and crushed eggshells. Then I waited for the worms to arrive–1 lb., or about 1,000 worms.

When they arrived, I immediately added them to the mix–though it was difficult to see any actual worms, since they are quite little at first, they had burrowed into the bedding they arrived with, and they curl up together in a ball as a protective mechanism when traumatized. But I assumed there were lots of worms in the lump I added to the worm factory. I covered the worms with a damp newspaper as instructed, put the lid on, and left them alone for two days so they could adjust.

Then came the hard part: I had to open the lid and check on them. I needed to see if the worms were now spread out around the bedding/food (good sign), make sure I hadn’t left everything too dry (not good–worms will die), or too wet (also not good–the food will rot too quickly and upset the fine balance of the composting process, and attract fruit flies). As I slowly made my way to the worm tower, I realized I was nervous. What would I find when I lifted up the lid and then the damp newspaper? Dead worms, due to inadvertent negligence on my part? I berated myself–what with work, kids, dogs, and a garden, how did I think I could also assume responsibility for 1,000 worms? But perhaps they weren’t dead. Perhaps they would be so happy they would be crawling up the sides and all along the underside of the lid. The damp newspaper was supposed to help stop that, but perhaps these were intrepid little worms, and when I went to lift the lid, worms would start dropping all over my feet, the floor, and everywhere else. That was also not a scenario I relished. As I crept closer to the worm factory, I contemplated one last possibility: what if everything was too moist, and it all smelled horribly, and had attracted thousands of fruit flies that would well up in a cloud about my face as I peered into the tray?

I had to force myself to open the lid and peel back the newspaper. And then I heaved a sigh of relief. Everything was just as it should be–happy-looking worms already producing lots of castings and looking a bit plumper than when they arrived, an environment that was damp but not too moist, and no smell at all. This photo is not ideal–by the time I got my act together, most of the worms had burrowed back underneath; they do not like light. But the photo does give a nice view of the rich humus they are beginning to produce.

Since then, I’ve added more food, kept an eye on the degree of moisture, put some shredded newspaper on top of the damp newspaper to make it more difficult for fruit flies to discover what’s going on underneath, and have seen the worms getting bigger each day. Once the bottom tray is full, I’ll add a second tray and lure the worms upward. As they get bigger and reproduce, I’ll add more trays, removing the humus and incorporating it into the garden. I am so happy to have a way to compost indoors, and I have the worms to thank for it.

I still have lots to learn about vermicomposting, but perhaps I am on my way to becoming a worm farmer after all.

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