In the garden: Worms + composting = organic fertilizer

05/24/2014 12:00 AM

05/23/2014 11:27 AM

My husband lit up when I brought home worms last week.

“I’m goin’ fishing!” he said (sang!) as he plucked a squirming red wiggler from the big plastic foam soda cup.

“Not with these!” I told him.“They’re for my worm farm. And they cost $19.95 a pound!”

Ben hadn’t seemed to notice the big black Can-O-Worms vermicomposting bin I had assembled a few days earlier and left sitting in the middle of our Florida room. He just walked around it. Until I told him that’s where my cup o’ worms, about 1,000 of them, was going.

“In that? There? You’re putting it outside, right?”

Sort of. It’s in the garage.

That’s what my new friend, retired chemist Karen Johnson of Sun City Center, suggested.

“Don’t put it outside,” she said.“Flies will get into it, they’ll lay their eggs in the castings and then you’ll have maggots! Ugh!”

Karen adores her worms, and she’s super smart. I flunked college chemistry, and this worm-ranching thing has proved more challenging than I expected. I require hand-holding.

If you haven’t heard of worm farming — vermicomposting — it’s another way to turn your kitchen scraps into rich humus for your garden. The worms eat the bedding and scraps you provide, including vegetables, eggshells, coffee grounds, cereal, bread, pasta, even paper and cardboard, and turn it into worm poop, called castings.

Add them to your soil for a great fertilizer that also boosts water-holding capacity.

For an organic pesticide, Karen collects the “worm pee” that drains into the bottom tray of her Can-O-Worms (turns out Can-O-Worms is very popular). She mixes half a cup with a gallon of non-chlorinated water and sprays it on troubled plants.

I found a lot of conflicting information online about that “pee,” including whether it really is worm urine. So I called Bernie Moro, who with her husband, Carl, owns Our Vital Earth, an Apopka company that has specialized in worm composting since 2001.

“It is worm pee,” Bernie said, adding that worms excrete urine through their skin. “It’s great for your garden — very effective against pests, mold and fungus.”

In the United States, she said, it’s often confused with worm tea, which is brewed from the castings.

From the University of Florida’s website: Put castings in a burlap bag or panty hose leg and tie it off, and put the bag in a bucket of water to steep overnight. Use it to water or spray your plants.

But never use tap water with your worms, whether it’s to brew tea or moisten the bedding, Karen advised. The chemicals will kill the good microbes that are oh so good for your garden. She uses rainwater or buys deionized water.

Karen started her worm farm about three years ago, and her initial pound of worms has grown to 20 pounds. “I have to buy vegetables on sale to feed them because I don’t have enough scraps.”

Pulverize your scraps in a blender and the worms will eat them much faster, she said. She occasionally adds cornmeal to fatten them up.

Hers also like oatmeal, melons and the occasional slice of bread. Ground eggshells provide the grit they need.

They don’t like orange and other citrus peels.

“Don’t add dairy products or meat, or your bin will stink,” she said.

What can you do with their digested goodies?

Karen top dresses her soil with it. A little pot of pure castings is great for starting cuttings, and she mixes one-third potting soil with a third perlite and a third castings for container plants.

And oh, by the way, not all worms work for composting. Red wigglers are said to be the best.

You can also find them at bait shops, but don’t expect to save money there. As I told my husband: Drown a fake one instead. Much cheaper.

Find lots more tips for worm farming at ourvitalearth.com and hillsborough.ifas.ufl.edu, or read Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof.

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