• Worms in the spotlight: wiggling their way to better gardening

    by Cameron Douglas

    Banana peels, carrot skins, apple cores, lettuce scraps. A healthy diet can generate a healthy amount of trash. Generations ago, people disposed this refuse in basement incinerators. That practice was identified as a source of air pollution. Then came the in-sink garbage disposal machine. That can be a source of water pollution and a cause of plumbing problems. Of course, a lot of food scrap goes to the garbage dump to be placed in landfills — along with plastic and other non-biodegradable materials.

    IMG_0023Recently, the focus on what to do with trash has shifted to a different approach called worm composting, or vermicomposting, where nature is simply allowed to take its course. It’s actually a very old method. Many families are processing food waste right at home via worm composting, a very earthy practice that has come back into vogue.
    In essence, worms are housed in dirt-filled bins where they digest garbage. Their castings blend with the dirt to produce a potent soil that plants love. Fruits and vegetables grown in this rich soil are consumed, and the scraps go back to compost.
    There are countless resources for advice on vermicomposting, but it comes down to a few basic steps:

    1. Make or obtain a suitable worm bin.
    2. Build your ecosystem. This is where you select the best worms for your purpose, and then mimic what happens in nature.
    3. Maintain and harvest compost. This takes patience as the first batch comes slowly, but it gets easier after that.

    Do’s and don’ts
    While worms will digest meat scraps, meat is generally blamed for noxious compost odors, and most composters avoid putting meat in the mix. Bread and other grains are fine, along with tea leaves, coffee grounds and eggshells. It’s always good to process your scraps into smaller pieces before mixing them in with the worm bedding.
    There are some strict “don’ts” in the art of worm composting, mostly having to do with things that are harmful to the worms or difficult for them to digest. Prohibited items are:

    • Excess citrus. No more than 1/5 the total worm food.
    • Meats or fish.
    • Fats or excessively oily scraps.
    • Dairy products (rinsed egg shells are OK).
    • Cat or dog feces.
    • Twigs or branches.

    IMG_0031Getting set up
    Worm composting bins are for sale through many resources such as Wal-Mart and available for order through Amazon. There are indoor composters, outdoor composters, and all-around composters, ranging in price from $29 to $200. Compost bins can also be built at home. Many prefer wood for its ability to absorb excess moisture, which, in turn, protects the worms. However, the worms will eventually eat the wood. The advice is to never use chemically treated wood. Rubber lasts just about forever and is a great material for compost bins. Some people fashion them out of stacks of old tires. Galvanized metal is good. Plastic will crack but can be used in a pinch.

    IMG_0034Of course, the worms are important. Simply digging up anonymous earthworms from the yard is not recommended. Several varieties of worms are bred and sold commercially for vermicomposting. The most common is the red wiggler, Eisenia fetida. These have a healthy appetite, reproduce quickly and can eat more than half their body weight each day.
    Eisenia hortensis, also known as European night crawlers, make a good second choice. They don’t reproduce as fast as red wigglers, but can digest cardboard. Night crawlers seem a little heartier, and make good bait for fishing when full grown. A pound of worms is a good start, and that will usually number 1,000 individuals.
    It is important to prevent these special worms from escaping into the wild, where, as an invasive species, they can upset the balance of hardwood forests by consuming too much leaf litter too quickly.
    The worms themselves can be purchased online. For that matter, the finished compost can be ordered for those who desire the benefit without the work. A simple Google search under “worm composting” turns up an impressive 1,000,000+ results.
    Ambitious composters are brewing special “compost tea” that serves as a powerful fuel for plant growth. Compost tea is regarded by many as a better alternative to chemicals and fertilizers.

    Ten things you may not know about earthworms
    Depending on soil quality, there are between 250,000 and 1.75 million worms present per acre of land. The more worms, the higher the soil quality.

    1. Worms can process up to ten pounds of organic material per worm per year.
    2. Charles Darwin noted the ability of worms to bury things — even buildings — into the ground as they soften and turn the soil.
    3. Earthworms are hermaphrodites (possessing both male and female sex organs). When two worms mate, both produce new worms.
    4. Earthworms can survive the loss of a body segment, and some can even become two worms if the damage is not too great.
    5. Earthworms not only work tirelessly throughout their lives cultivating and fertilizing soil for plants, but are also an important part of the food chain. They are a staple for birds, beetles, bears, and many others.
    6. South African earthworms grow to an average of six feet long, with some as long as 22 feet.
    7. Earthworms breathe through their skin, which is why they will surface if the ground is soaked after a rain.
    8. Earthworms have no eyes but can sense light, which they need to avoid.
    9. Fossil evidence shows earthworms have been around for at least half a billion years, surviving the mass extinction 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs.

     

    Send comments and suggestions for future Green Pages to: cameron@cedarstreettimes.com/

    posted to Cedar Street Times on October 3, 2013

    Topics: Cameron Douglas, Green

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