Friday, 8 May 2009

Don't underestimate the importance of the worms

By Marc from GardenDesk

I have been interested in vermicomposting for nearly 20 years now. I learned about "raising worms on purpose" during my master gardener certification and had the privilege of interviewing a vermicomposting expert for a newspaper article I was writing. She taught me about how great the worms nutrient rich castings were for your garden. I wrote the article about composting with bins and with worms. I then went on to compost in my backyard for many years. Even though the worms excited me for all those years, I never managed to actually set up a good vermicomposting system until recently. With re-kindled interest in worms, I read all that I could find about them in books like The Worm Book and Worms Eat My Garbage, and even CHARLES DARWIN ON HUMUS AND THE EARTHWORM.

My excitement lead me to write about the worms on my blog. When I noticed that they were having babies, I really got excited and showed many close-up pictures. That's when I discovered that not all gardeners share my joy and excitement for worms. Some people, I found out, actually dis-like worms. What? Really? Words like "Gross" and "Disgusting" were uttered about my wonderful new garden helpers. Perhaps our friends the worms are just misunderstood.

Worms are possibly the most important creature on the earth. Earthworms are essential in good soil composition. They aerate it to allow water and oxygen to reach the roots of plants, which in turn supports all animals. Earthworms actually feed by ingesting humus and the soil that they burrow through. Out the other end comes the best natural fertilizer possible. This actually creates rich new topsoil. Charles Darwin estimated in his earthworm writings, that England's farmland had over 50,000 earthworms to the acre. He calculated that they turn over 18 tons or about 16,000 kilograms of soil per acre. This, according to Darwin, brings over an inch of rich soil to the surface every five years! Without worms, our earth would be completely rocky and barren.

What does this really mean to us? Most of us do what we can to be "greener". There are many efforts made to recycle, reduce and reuse. We worry about carbon emissions and over consumption of energy. Many people talk up gardening as a way to be more self-sustaining and to help reduce food transportation energy. All of these things are good and as an avid gardener I do get excited about more people returning to food gardening. But I have to stress that we need to be gardening organically.

Traditional gardening often leans on chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. Most people know that spraying these chemicals are bad for our air and water quality, but do we think enough about our soil? These things are harmful to the worms and are destroying our soil structure and our earth! Not gardening at all would be better than gardening with chemicals.

Now to step down off my soap box a little, I can emphasize with those gardeners who refrain from chemical pesticides, but don't think a little fertilizer will hurt anything. After all, the plants do grow much better don't they? I used to have this mindset until I learned the many benefits we get from worms and the fact that fertilizer drives the worms out of your garden. It is much better to employ those worms to make natural fertilizer.

So what should we do?

One word - COMPOST. Instead of chemical fertilizers, the organic gardener MUST rely on composting to feed the soil (and the worms). You can learn more about composting here and here. If you don't have enough room for large bins like Compostwoman, give worm composting a try.

Anyone can compost with worms because a worm bin can fit anywhere. We have ours right behind the kitchen table! There is no odor and no mess. The worms take care of composting your kitchen vegetable scraps and they don't make a peep (well actually, our house cats can hear them moving). If you don't like the idea of housing worms inside, they do well on a patio or deck as long as they don't get extremely hot, cold or dry.

You can make a bin out of wood or a plastic tub but I recommend getting one designed for vermiculture. I wrote about the many different kinds of worm bins available in my first worm post. We settled on the multi-tier GardensAlive Worm System. Gardens Alive is an organic gardening company that we have trusted for years and we love our new worm bin as well. We are already able to harvest the rich worm compost (vermicompost) from the first tray!

If you have never considered raising worms, I encourage you to give it a try. You will be helping the environment. Whether you make or buy your worm bin, you should look for a reliable source to purchase your first 500 or 1000 worms. You will not be able to dig up enough worms to sustain a worm bin. If anyone is interested, I will post again about the specifics of setting up and maintaining a worm bin.

So am I crazy? Do any of you already raise worms? Have I changed your mind if you used to say you hated worms? Just remember, don't underestimate the importance of the worms.

Keep Growing!

- Marc