Com­post­ing with worms

The Progress-Index Weekend - - OBITUARIES - By Len DePrisco Prince George Mas­ter Gar­dener

If you are plan­ning to com­post your garbage, con­sider us­ing worms in­stead of a com­post pile. This en­sures faster com­post­ing and a rich dark fer­til­izer. Worms are good for the gar­den soil for mul­ti­ple rea­sons. Worms are great ex­ca­va­tors. They bur­row un­der the soil and cre­ate channels; this pro­vides pas­sages for air and water to per­meate the soil. They spend their lives in­gest­ing, di­gest­ing, and ex­cret­ing soil. The ex­cre­tions are called worm ‘cast­ings’. Th­ese cast­ings are rich in nu­tri­ents and bac­te­ria. The bac­te­ria con­tains mil­lions of mi­crobes that help break down nu­tri­ents al­ready present in the soil into plant avail­able forms. They se­crete a mu­cus when eat­ing that is a ben­e­fi­cial com­po­nent that is ab­sent from tra­di­tional com­post. This mu­cus slows down the re­lease of nu­tri­ents; this pre­vents nec­es­sary nu­tri­ents from wash­ing away when it rains or when you water.

The worms’ abil­ity to con­vert or­ganic waste into nu­tri­ent-rich ma­te­rial re­duces the need to use syn­thetic fer­til­iz­ers. Some syn­thetic fer­til­iz­ers con­tain chem­i­cals that can be harm­ful over a pe­riod of time. The re­duc­tion in the use of syn­thetic fer­til­iz­ers re­duces the amount of th­ese chem­i­cals that end up in storm drains and our wa­ter­ways.

There are a cou­ple of ways to en­sure that you are get­ting ben­e­fits from worm cast­ings. The first is mak­ing sure that worms are in your gar­den. Use a shovel and turn some of your soil to see if worms are present. The sec­ond is ver­mi­cul­ture and ver­mi­com­post­ing. Ver­mi­cul­ture is the cul­ti­va­tion of worms. Ver­mi­com­post­ing is the process of us­ing worms to trans­form or­ganic waste into a nu­tri­ent rich fer­til­izer. To ac­com­plish this, you will need worms and some type of bin to con­tain the worms. You can ei­ther build a con­tainer or pur­chase one of the many dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties in stores or on-line. You can also pur­chase your worms at nurs­eries or on-line. The best worms to use are red wig­glers (Eise­nia Fetida). They are sur­face worms that stay in the top 18 inches of soil.

The most com­mon ma­te­rial for bins is ei­ther wood or plas­tic. Wood is good be­cause it breathes but will de­te­ri­o­rate faster than plas­tic (2-3 years). Do not use pres­sure treated wood due to the chem­i­cals present in the wood. Plas­tic con­tain­ers re­quire more holes for aer­a­tion but gen­er­ally last longer. The con­tainer needs to have screened holes in the sides or top to al­low air in and keep flies out. The ideal bin is usu­ally 12 inches - 18 inches deep. It should be kept in an area that sees tem­per­a­tures be­tween 59 - 77 de­grees Fahren­heit. Worms can tol­er­ate a wider range, but freez­ing will kill them.

Keep track of how many pounds of or­ganic waste that you pro­duce and throw away each week. Plan the size of your bin based on square footage. En­sure that you have one square foot of sur­face area for each pound that you throw away each week. This garbage should not in­clude an­i­mal prod­ucts (meat, oils, fats, etc.), onions, and gar­lic. Worms’ fa­vorite foods are cof­fee grounds, pump­kin, can­taloupe, and wa­ter­melon (any fruits and most veg­etable. You can add some grass clip­pings and leaves (not too much since they heat up the bed). Do not add non­biodegrad­able ma­te­rial to the bin. The amount of worms that you will need de­pends on the amount of garbage that you gen­er­ate. The ra­tio of worms to garbage is 2:1; for each pound of garbage gen­er­ated, 2 pounds of worms will be needed.

The bed­ding for the worms is im­por­tant. It’s mul­ti­func­tional be­cause it holds mois­ture (worms need mois­ture) and pro­vides a medium for the worms to work and bury garbage. The best bed­ding is usu­ally some source of ma­te­rial that is light and fluffy.

This may in­clude shred­ded news­pa­per, shred­ded card­board, co­conut fiber, or wood chips.

Make sure to add a hand­ful or two of soil; this pro­vides grit, which gives the worms the abil­ity to digest.

Worms feed from the bot­tom up. You will add your garbage on top of the bed­ding. You can ro­tate burial spots for your garbage. Be sure to closely mon­i­tor the pro­duc­tion of worm cast­ings. When the cast­ings ap­pear to over­whelm your worms, it is time to pre­pare fresh bed­ding and re­move the cast­ings. This is usu­ally ev­ery 2 - 3 months. Worm cast­ings are usu­ally too rich to use alone; it can be used as a top dressing or as an en­hance­ment to pot­ting soil. The mix is 1 part cast­ings to 4 part mix.

You can also use the Vir­ginia Co­op­er­a­tive Ex­ten­sion at www.ext. for ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion.

Len DePrisco is a Mas­ter Gar­dener with the Vir­ginia Co­op­er­a­tive Ex­ten­sion Prince George County of­fice. Vir­ginia Mas­ter Gar­den­ers are vol­un­teer ed­u­ca­tors who work within their com­mu­ni­ties to en­cour­age and pro­mote en­vi­ron­men­tally sound hor­ti­cul­ture prac­tices through sus­tain­able land­scape man­age­ment ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing. Vir­ginia Mas­ter Gar­den­ers bring the re­sources of Vir­ginia’s land-uni­ver­si­ties, Vir­ginia Tech and Vir­ginia State Univer­sity to the peo­ple of the com­mon­wealth.

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