In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
February, 2007
Regional Report

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Instructor and vermiculture expert Mark Highland shows children a small, yellow cocoon that holds a baby worm.

Red Wigglers Turn Garbage Into Gold

Funny how life happens. This morning a dear friend suggested I get a cat or dog for company. Good idea, I was once quite partial to a blonde, long-haired Afghan hound. But I've grown allergic to furry, four-legged pooches and kitties. By day's end, though, I had a handful of new pets -- redworms (Eisenia foetida) -- and was ready to start a vermiculture project.

Getting Settled
The worms' home is a plastic box in my pantry on the microwave. "In the house?" you ask. For the first week they need 24-hour-a-day light, instructed Mark Highland, at a recent Vermiculture Demystified workshop at the Tyler Arboretum in Media, Pennsylvania. Mark is president of Organic Mechanics, which makes organic, non-peat potting soil with pure worm castings.

At my cottage the pantry is the best temporary worm home. I've attached a large "Don't turn off light" note to the bulb cord. But pulling the cord is a difficult habit to break, even for the worms' sake. Mark told a story about picking up 100,000 red wrigglers who'd crawled out of boxes onto an Oregon barn floor because one uninformed fellow turned off the light. Even worms have to get used to new digs, he explained.

"During the first week, the brighter the light, the better. They'll think the light's the sun so they'll stay in their bin." Shortly "they will figure out where their food is, that this is their new home."

Why bring these wrigglers home? "The worms will turn your garbage into gold," Mark promised.

Nature's Greatest Fertilizer
In three to five months, I'll have worm castings, he explained. Castings are humus-like material composed of enzymes, plant nutrients, and microbes. Casting nutrients are both immediate and long-term plant fertilizers -- approximately 2 percent nitrogen, 2 percent phosphorus, and 1.5 percent potassium. Castings build healthy soil structure and hold water. Most importantly, castings carry microbes that release nutrients locked in the soil, inhibit plant diseases, and stimulate plant growth and good health.

Mark uses redworms (also called composting worms) because they're tolerant of variable temperatures and pH under anaerobic (insufficient oxygen) conditions, which can occur in indoor worm bins. They also eat a lot. Night crawlers or earthworms that you find in your garden aren't suited to indoor composting.

Worms need water, food, bedding, air, and temperatures between 55 and 85 degrees. The warmer the bin, the more active the worms. They prefer 85 degrees. At 40 degrees, they'll start drying out or hybernating.

Here are some other tips:
1. Be sure the worm bin has holes. "They'll stay in that bin," Mark assures.
2. Worms eat half their weight in one day. They have gums, not teeth, so cut fruits and vegetables so worms can break them down faster.
3. Mist the bedding with water to keep it moist; some condensation on the lid is a good indicator.
4. Avoid salty or oily food; no condiments, no grass!
5. The bedding should look fluffy; add straw and wet paper strips to fluff it up.
6. If your garden is adjacent to a forested area, it's recommended that you freeze your worm compost before using it because nonnative worms can be invasive in the wild and damage woodlands.


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