What a Can of Worms!

by Terry Kaufman - Date: 2007-02-02 - Word Count: 962 Share This!

Most little girls (and big ones, too) do not like worms. To some of us, nightmares are made from such creatures. Their negative reputation precedes them; they are the quintessential creepy crawlers, oozing themselves side to side in a bed of slime, tangling themselves together into a pulsating mass. (I think I am scaring myself here. Oops!)

Back in the Dark Ages (AKA the 1960s), I had a high school biology teacher who seemed to thrive on worms and assorted insects, the more bizarre the better. One exceptionally odious assignment for a particularly sunny, breezy day was to dig up and then transport back to school the next morning a full dozen of the plumpest, wiggliest earthworms we could find, with an extra five points for each additional worm we evicted from the ground. How could I ever complete this assignment without having a nervous breakdown? Eww! Fortunately for me, a boy down the street with whom I had a platonic relationship for the previous ten years, rode to my rescue (figuratively and literally as bikes were still an accepted mode of transportation), armed with a garden trowel and a roomy glass jar. My hero! Gallant gentleman that he was, Marc dug for me a baker's dozen of the juiciest, writhing earthworms ever to come out of a rose garden. And so, here begins my uneasy alliance with the earthworm.

Forty years later and a movement to be environmentally friendly is in the air. We recycle water, recycle paper, recycle old automobile tires, even recycle used computer printer ink cartridges. Why shouldn't our friend, the worm, join the crusade? However, we will need to look at its cousin, the common red worm, Eisenia foetida, to do the job. Also known as the tiger worm, brandling, angle worm, manure worm, or red wriggler, the red worm lives in a different ecological niche than does the common earthworm burrowing in garden soil. You can find the red worm making its home near the surface in areas of high concentration of organic matter, such as what might be found in pastures, leaf mould, or underneath a compost pile. Another breed of red worm, Lumbricus rubellas, can be used in worm composting as well.

The art of worm composting is known officially as VERMICOMPOSTING. The worms can be bought at garden centers, mail order, or online. Some vendors offer special "high-performance" breeds or special "hybrids." Take this with a grain of salt - there is no such thing as a hybrid worm. That is just wishful thinking.

Let us start with a description of the components needed for vermicomposting. Of course, the most important item is a large supply of worms which will leave worm castings (dung). Also essential is a fair amount of decayed organic material. In an optimum scenario, worms have the ability to eat up to their own weight of organic waste in the course of one day. Although they consume the organic matter, the true nourishment comes from the micro-organisms to be found inside the worms, busily eating away. Strange but true, the worm casts have eight times as many organisms as their food does. These micro-organisms encourage healthy plant growth; the castings do not have any injurious disease pathogens, which have been reliably destroyed in the worms' gut. This is literally an instance of vermicomposting having its cake and eating it, too. A big cheer for the red worm!

About 1,000 red worms are needed to start your compost heap on its way to fame and fortune in Fertilizerland. Worms reproduce at an incredibly rapid rate; within a month, your initial 1,000 worms will have doubled their numbers to 2,000 (and they thought rabbits reproduce at the speed of light!). Under ideal situations, one pound of worms (1,000 worms) can multiply to 1,000 pounds (one million worms) in the space of one year but, to be more realistic, one pound will probably increase itself to 35 pounds during that same time. The reduced numbers are the result of the hatchlings and capsules (cocoons or eggs) becoming nonviable when the vermicompost is harvested.

Adult red worms put out two or three capsules per week, each capsule producing two or three hatchlings after approximately three weeks. Beginning life at only half an inch long, the hatchlings resemble miniscule white threads which develop so quickly they are sexually mature in four to six weeks, ready to make their own capsules. By the age of three months, our original hatchlings have become grandmas and grandpas.

In order to survive, red worms must have a source of hydration on a steady basis. They also need a constant reserve of food. A hungry and thirsty red worm is a dead red worm. Remember to feed them daily. They cannot display their hunger and/or thirst such as a dog or cat might, so you must learn to fulfill their needs on a scrupulously kept schedule. What goes in must come out. Feed and water your worms well and their castings will make fine compost for you.

Some of the best foods for red worms are:

Rabbit manure.

Manure (every type but human but allow poultry manure to age a minimum of six months to a year before using).

Food scraps.

Shredded cardboard and newspaper.

Powdered worm food. Purina actually markets a worm food called "Worm Chow." What's next? "Aphid Ambrosia"? "Butterfly Broth"? The possibilities buggle [sic] the mind.

Some closing thoughts:

Also called "compost worms".

Live two to five years unless there is an untimely meeting of worm to the sole of a boot.

Makes two to five cocoons per week - four is considered normal under good conditions.

Two to three worms hatch (the "hatchlings") from each cocoon.

45-day hatch time.

A span of six weeks takes the worms from hatchlings to adult breeders.

Watch where you step after the next rainstorm. You may be squashing someone's mom!

Related Tags: worms, composting, compost, vermicomposting, red worms

Terry Kaufman is Chief Editorial Writer for Niftygarden.com, Niftykitchen.com, and Niftyhomebar.com

2007 Terry Kaufman.

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