When Michelle Gardner of North Waterboro ordered her first batch of red worms last July, she had no idea how quickly her interest–or her garden boxes–would grow. From a plastic baggy about the size of a cup that held 1000 dehydrated red worms cushioned in peat moss, Michelle’s worm “farm” now encompasses several large outdoor garden boxes, 18-gallon plastic tubs, and even an old canoe.
Gardner is hoping to continue to expand her army of red wigglers–which handily compost old produce, eggshells, newspaper, cardboard, and other household garbage into highly usable fertilizer–and she wants to teach others how to utilize worms in their own gardens, as well.
“They multiply very fast,” Gardner said as she walked around her Lake Arrowhead property showing visitors her various composting boxes full of worms, table scraps, and shredded newspaper and leaves. “The worms are hermaphroditic. They will lay two eggs from which hatch two to twelve babies. In less than a month, these newborns are ready to reproduce.”
According to Gardner, worms are extremely helpful for building gardening soil. They increase air flow in the soil by making tunnels. The break down organic matter into castings that act like time release capsules of nutrients into the soil. The speed up the composting process. They also add microbes and good bacteria to the soil. A study at Cornell showed that not only are worm casting good for fertilizing, but it also could help suppress plant diseases caused by pathogens. Beneficial microbes can colonize on a seed’s surface and release a substance that protects the seed from a pathogen.
Worms do not eat living plants, Gardner explains, but rather ones that are already starting to break down. She put some worms in her indoor plant pots with some compost and was amazed at the prodigious growth of the plants once the worms went to work. “I’ve become increasingly successful with them,” she said. She is hoping to start teaching classes on vermiculture, calling her venture Michelle’s Happy Worm Farm. Students will learn how to build their first tub for composting–drilling holes in simple plastic tubs, adding strips of newspaper and leaves, a little bit of soil, and the worms. Worms like coffee grounds, but Gardner warns that because of its acidity, grounds should be accompanied by some other organic matter such as fruit or veggie scraps, manure, or plant debris.
One of the most sustainable ways of using worms is to compost manure. Placing a box of worms and soil under a rabbit hutch, for example, can quickly turn something unpleasant into valuable fertilizer for your vegetable or flower gardens. Red wigglers will not outgrow their container, Gardner assures, although sometimes they seem to be crawling out of the bin. The reasons for this include too high temperatures, too much moisture, or too much acid in the mixture. Adding more air holes, opening the top of the bin, or adding ashes or lime to the soil can remediate these problems.
Getting started with red worms is as easy as creating a bin and keeping it in your cellar, adding a bit of table scraps every so often. They won’t survive freezing temperatures, but once spring comes, the worms can be added to outdoor compost bins. Vermicompost “tea,” which is worm castings steeped in liquid, is also a good liquid fertilizer for household and garden plants.