- Author: Terry Pellegrini
Red Wigglers (Eisenia foetida) are different than the earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) I find in my garden. Instead of processing things found in soil, such as decaying roots and leaves, or eating living organisms such as nematodes, protozoans, rotifers, bacteria, fungi, the Red Wiggler prefers our kitchen scraps. Since these little red guys (getting no larger than 5 inches in the proper environment) can eat up to three times their weight each week in such things as veggie and fruit waste, cardboard, and shredded paper, bread, and pasta (in moderation) and even coffee grounds, they are able to create compost in about 6 weeks.
How do they do it? By digesting all of the yummy (to a worm) waste and then excreting it as “castings” – more commonly known as worm poop. The process starts as the worm takes in the food by mouth, technically called their buccal cavity. It then travels through the worm's pharynx, esophagus, crop, gizzard, intestine, and lastly, their anus and out into their habitat where we humans can collect it.
These castings are full of the nutrients iron, sulfur, calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK rating: 5.5.3). They are water-soluble, allowing your plants to easily absorb these nutrients with little chance of “burning” that can often happen with chemical fertilizers. This poop also contains good bacteria from the worm's digestive system along with fungi, enzymes, protozoa, and actinomycetes. All of this combines to create a wonderful humus that your plants will love.
But one little worm doesn't do this alone. You need an entire colony of them! Good thing Red Wigglers are prolific breeders. Did you know that worms are hermaphroditic, meaning they have both male and female organs? They join with another worm in a three-hour mating session (phew) and when complete they create a small cocoon. They can create 2 to 3 cocoons per week. These cocoons darken and harden over the next 20 days. Then the little hatchlings inside the cocoon – anywhere from 1 to 5 of them per cocoon- grow for the next three months. Once hatched these wiggly babies will mature in 9 weeks, able to reproduce again at that point.
In order to have the best success at both the reproduction process and the production of worm castings, the Red Wiggler needs a cozy habitat to do its thing. A simple rubber tote will work as an ideal environment, or you can purchase specialized stacking trays from the Internet. If you create your own you will need to provide your worms with proper ventilation, a moist – but not too wet – bedding source (such as shredded newspaper) and food. Keep their habitat in a temperature regulated space, moist, and with an adequate supply of tasty scraps and an initial colony of worms will increase to perhaps double in 3 months and quadruple in 6 months.
Harvesting your castings is simple. When the bedding has darkened, looking more like soil than the newspaper or other material used, it is time to harvest. To do so, add new moist bedding material and kitchen scraps to the opposite side of the habitat and stop adding food to the side with all of the castings. The worms will migrate to the side with the food on it – usually in a few days. You can then harvest your castings. When the new area fills ups, repeat the process and you will have a steady supply of new compost for your plants.
Photos by Terry Pellegrini.
- Author: Terry Pellegrini
Composting is a fabulous way to turn your garden waste into garden gold. By taking your dry waste and combining it with your green waste, you can transform it into a rich, usable material to enhance your soil. You can also use it as a mulch around plant beds to reduce weeds and fill your containers and pots without the cost of store-bought soils.
Not only is composting good for your garden, but it is also good for the environment. By composting your garden (and some kitchen) wastes you are conserving precious landfill space, reducing the need for commercial soil conditioners and fertilizers, as well as adding beneficial microbes and nutrients back into the soil. Compost, either added to the soil or used as a mulch, saves on water usage as well.
Turn your compost every day or two (for rapid composting), or once per week. Check to make sure it isn't too wet or too dry (it should feel about as moist as a wrung out sponge) and protect it from the weather (a tarp or covering to keep out intense heat or rain) and in no time you'll have rich, usable compost.
Composting is a science but still, things can go wrong. The number one complaint I've heard from friends is, “My compost always turns out stinky and I give up.” Stinky compost is a sign of an imbalance in your pile. A healthy compost pile should smell earthy and not look wet and slimy. Trust me, stinky compost is a real turn-off. I should know – it's happened to me on occasion. Checking your moisture levels, adding in additional brown materials if needed, and making sure to turn your pile will help with this issue.
Don't let composting scare you. It can be a fun and rewarding way to give back to the environment, save money and water, and enhance your landscape. With a little bit of work, a pile of waste becomes the garden gold we all desire. Still have questions about composting?
Sign up for our Composting Basics class!
When: November 24, 2020 6-7:30 p.m. PST.
Where: on Zoom.
How: http://ucanr.edu/compost/2020 sign up by Nov 24 at 4 p.m. to receive a link sent the morning of the class.
Instructors: Master Gardeners Terry Pellegrini and Heidi Aufdermaur.
And remember, all classes are recorded so you can always watch it again later.
Hope to see you there!