I have a manure farm in my backyard. Before you decide to move on to another article, you should know that my farm is small, only about two square feet in size. It consists of a plastic bin in which live hundreds of small, red worms. Known as "red wigglers", they are different from the earthworms you find in your garden. These little wonders will eat your food waste and create nutrient-rich manure that you can use in your garden.
My worms live very comfortably in their little storage bin, nestled in a bedding of shredded newspaper. Every now and then I take some leftover vegetables and place them under the bedding. Before long, the little red wigglers are all over it, chewing it up and turning it into the garden version of "black gold."
Their manure, or castings, looks much like soil at first glance. It is, however, around five times more nutrient rich then regular soil. The worms are good at their job of consuming and excreting up to half of their body weight in organic matter each day. This leaves me in awe. What if I could attempt such a feat?
Getting started on worm composting, also known as vermiculture, is easy. Obtain a wood or plastic container roughly one foot deep. Drill ¼-inch holes on the sides and bottom to allow air and moisture to pass in and out of the container.
Fill the bin with 1-inch thick strips of damp, but not wet, newspaper. This bedding will help your worms stay cool and damp, as well as give them an additional food source. Glossy newspaper inserts or magazines won't work as bedding. Choose a location that is not too cold or hot. I keep my bin in a shady corner of my patio, but many people keep theirs inside in the basement or laundry room.
Now that you have built your worm home, you can add worms and begin feeding them table scraps. Don't overwhelm them with too much food at first. Watch to see how quickly they eat what you give them, and raise the amount as the population grows. They reproduce rapidly, so you won't have long to wait.
Your new friends will be happy to have any leftover vegetables, fruit, dead flowers, tea bags, coffee grounds and even egg shells. They are vegetarian, however, so don't feed them any meat or dairy products. It is also best to minimize acidic foods such as citrus.
If all goes well, in a few months you will start to see worm castings accumulating at the bottom of the bin. There are many ways to harvest them, but I find the following method to be the easiest. First, remove the finished compost and set it aside. After adding fresh bedding, place hardware cloth across the top of the bin. Put the finished compost on the hardware cloth and let the sun or another bright light shine onto it. The worms will move away from the light, through the compost, and out the bottom into the new bedding. Afterward, pick through the compost to find any stragglers that you can transfer by hand.
Now you have a highly nutritious, homemade fertilizer. You can use it wet, but to store it for later use, let it dry. Just sprinkle it in your garden before watering to enrich your soil. I also like to put a handful in the bottom of a planting hole to give the new plant a healthy start in my garden.
Red wigglers can be found at many fishing supply stores and online. You can also get some worms and a free bin if you attend a Master Gardener worm-composting workshop (https://compost.naparecycles.org/). The workshop is also your chance to get more detailed information on vermiculture. I started my bin after attending such a workshop, and now can't imagine how I ever gardened without it.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Landscape Trees, Shrubs and Maples” on Saturday, June 10, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. The workshop continues from noon to 2 p.m. with a field trip to a local garden. Trees and shrubs add pleasure and value to your garden. Discover an array of options for the home garden and how to add structure and interest with landscape trees and shrubs. Tips for selecting, planting, and caring for trees and shrubs will be discussed. Please bring a sack lunch, dress for outdoor conditions and wear good walking shoes. Online registration (credit card only)
Mail-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.
- Author: Deborah Stevens
My worm hobby began in 1999 after I attended a Master Gardener composting class. This hobby continues to fascinate me. Worms recycle my kitchen garbage, and I'm still amazed by the process.
Two years ago I went to North Carolina State University's annual vermiculture conference. The conference was so inspiring that I went again last year. It is the only conference about earthworm farming and mid- to large-scale vermicomposting in North America.
The conference, coordinated by a university extension specialist, offers science-based information. One of the topics was the difference between vermicompost tea and leachate.
Both begin with red wigglers, which are small earthworms that live near the top of the soil and consume organic matter. I feed my worms kitchen garbage and disease-free plant debris from my yard. My goal is to create vermicompost and aerated compost tea for nourishing a healthy, chemical-free garden.
To make aerated compost tea, you need a 12- to 24-hour aeration cycle, de-cholorinated water and finished compost. Alternatively, you can make the tea in a bucket in three to seven days by stirring occasionally.
By introducing air, you encourage the proliferation of aerobic microorganisms and discourage the anaerobic microorganisms that may produce byproducts unfavorable to plant growth.
Vermicompost tea contains a large diversity of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes. These microorganisms increase soil biological activity, encourage plant vigor, yield, bud break, fruiting, flowering, color, root volume, seed germination, and pest and disease resistance. You can use vermicompost as a foliar spray or soil drench.
Many worm composters are unfamiliar with the topic of aerated compost tea, preferring to use the leachate that many vermicompost systems encourage. Although leachate seems to benefit plants, it comes with some risk.
Research suggests that the use of leachate should be discouraged. Vermicompost is not leachate. The excess water that drips through a worm bin is leachate. It picks up undigested material which may contain pathogens and chemicals toxic to plants and humans.
A properly maintained worm bin will not collect or seep excess water or leachate.
Use leachate to water a favorite weed, or flush leachate down the toilet. Using leachate on plants, especially edibles, is not worth the risk of pathogenic contamination.
As for the vermicompost produced by red wigglers in the worm bin, the worms and microbes gobble up the pathogens in their environment and do not release the pathogens back into the soil.
Microbes are part of a worm-bin ecosystem. They live and work amongst the worms in the vermicompost, eating and overpopulating the pathogens while being ingested by the worms.
The vermicompost is ready to use when you don't recognize the original feed stock. It should smell clean and earthy and appear brown and crumbly.
I wondered if the pathogens the worms previously digested are freed upon their death. Otto D. Simmons III, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at North Carolina State University, says that “live worms digest the dead ones and the pathogens are eaten by the surviving worms.”
So why use aerated compost tea? Because it adds organic life to the soil, improves soil structure, water retention, root depth and growth.
A foliar spray of vermicompost tea protects plants from pests and diseases, thus reducing the need for chemicals. I love the idea that my plants seem happier and stronger due to my kitchen waste.
Be sure to use non-chlorinated water when making tea or watering your worm bins. City dwellers can set a jug or bucket of water out for 24 hours to de-gas the chlorine. Rain water collected in buckets is a good alternative.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. Napa County Master Gardeners (http://napamg.ucanr.edu) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4221, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions?