Friday, February 11, 2011

The Wonder of Worms

This weekend I'm giving a vermicomposting workshop to our neighborhood garden club. It's the first workshop I've ever done on the subject and I'm thrilled to be able to share my knowledge of this unique practice with others. In case you're unfamiliar, vermicomposting is a special way to return the nutrients in vegetable waste to the soil. It involves keeping earthworms indoors, using them to eat coffee grounds, apple cores, carrot peelings, and other waste. They eat kitchen scraps and turn this "garbage" into a rich natural fertilizer.

My interest in vermicomposting began several years ago, when I began hearing that folks were keeping "pet worms" in boxes in their homes and using them to compost. I was fascinated by the idea of having a little composting factory right in my house. So one day I decided to give vermicomposting a try. I did some research and built my own bin using an 18-gallon plastic storage tote. I bought several containers of red wiggler worms from a local bait shop, dumped them into the bin atop moistened newspaper strips, and began my vermicomposting adventure.

Truth be told, my first couple of years experimenting with worms were rocky. All went well with my first bin until I started noticing tiny fungus gnats all over the place. Frustrated with the pests, I moved the bin outdoors, buried the too-moist, nitrogen-rich bin contents with with dry, carbon-rich materials, and left the bin alone for a spell – a very long spell. In fact, I left the bin outside all the way through the winter. When I returned to the bin in the spring, I had a container full of lovely compost, but no worms! It was then that I learned the hard lesson that worms cannot survive above ground outdoors during a Wisconsin winter.

Determined not to give up, that spring I started a new bin, this time with a bucket of worms from Growing Power in Milwaukee. As I started to get the hang of vermicomposting I soon added a second bin. Then a third. Then I started building bins for friends and family. I'm now at the point where I'm so into vermicomposting that I just launched a little side business called Gardens, not garbage! to help others establish their own worm bins. I also hope to continue to give workshops in the area. Vermicomposting is a fabulous way to reduce waste while creating an amazing organic fertilizer in the process. If you do it right it doesn't smell and works like magic.

The best perk of vermicomposting, for a gardener like myself, is being able to use vermicompost to revive tired houseplants. I brewed up some "vermicompost tea" about a week ago using this method. Before using the tea to water and fertilizer my houseplants (everything from dracaena to dwarf pomegranates, figs, and coffee plants) I decided to try something I recently learned about in my Master Gardener class: I gave my houseplants a shower. I took all my houseplants and put them in my two bathtubs, then rinsed them with warm water, cleaning dust from their leaves (excessive dust can inhibit photosynthesis). After rinsing the leaves and soil thoroughly, I allowed the water to soak through the pots, washing away the build-up of salts that can occur in the average houseplant pot due to treated water. After their bath, I poured my brew of compost tea on the plants' leaves and into the pots. The compost tea serves the dual purpose of acting as a foliar rinse and a fertilizer. The beneficial microbes in the tea strengthen the plant, positioning it to better resist diseases and pests. The tea also adds nutrients to the pot, bringing dead soil back to life.

My plants now look so healthy and shiny and new. Though the task of showering them was a bit painstaking, I don't imagine that the process will have to happen more than once or twice a year. Of course, I will probably repeat the compost tea every few weeks, because it's so beneficial. It doesn't take much vermicompost to make the tea – only about a quart per five gallons of water -- and it's fairly easy to make. The benefits are definitely worth the trouble if you want happy house plants!

1 comment:

  1. Hello there. I'm happy for your progress as a vermicomposter. I just got into it under a year ago. So far, my worms are not even enough to finish my own organic wastes. I hope I can establish a side business like yours in the future. How's it doing so far? Do people call to donate scraps?