Way to Compost 2: Worm Husbandry

They eat, breathe, and burrow beneath us in the darkness of the earth. Darwin described worms as “the intestines of the earth” and went on to say that “it may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.” Lowest of the low, or saints of the soil?

Anatomically speaking, worms are wild. Between mouth and tail, earthworms are divided into more than 150 segments. If you cut a worm on the 75th segment, it will not, as the urban myth suggests, become two worms. The head may grow a new tail, but the tail will not grow a new head. With one, long digestive tract that runs the entire length of its body, worms are born to digest. They are also hermaphrodytes, have five hearts, no need for eyes, hatch three of four at a time from a cocoon, and breathe through their skin.

But not all worms are the same. In fact there are over 7,260 species of worms. Some, like the inch-long ice worm called Solifugus (sun-avoiding), have adapted to living on the edge of icebergs in Alaska. Their ability to provide a burst of energy to their cells in extreme cold may help scientists understand how life could survive on icy moons like Europa.

One of the largest earthworms on the planet is found in Washington State, if you can find one. The giant Palouse earthworm is pinkish white and smells like a lily if you were to scratch its slimy chin, hence the name Driloleirusis, “lily-like” worm. The Palouse worm is a native species that thrives in the bunchgrass prairies, but agriculture has destroyed much of its habitat. Only one person has seen this lovely giant since 1978.
For composters, the red wiggler is the holy grail of humus. Eisenia Fetida loves to live in loose, rich, warm places like manure piles and worm bins. The manure, or castings, they produce contain about 50 percent more calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and bacteria than the surrounding soil.

Each red wiggler can digest up to its body weight in one day. So, five pounds of red wigglers can eat up to 35 pounds of food waste every week! In economic terms, there is no better return on an investment. Worms are livestock that eat leftovers, multiply themselves twice or thrice every three weeks, and create one of the most balanced, nutrient rich soil amendments on earth. All life in and above the ground is partly dependent on worms’ ability to transform detritus into available plant food.

Here are the basics of worm husbandry. 1) A home. Any kind of closed container with good drainage will work. I made one from plywood, but Rubbermaid bins with holes in the bottom work, too. 2) Bedding. Red wigglers need plenty of carbonaceous material to move around in. Shredded paper from the office, a shredded Sentinel (after reading it), peat moss, and manure are all good sources of bedding. 3) Moisture. Dry conditions suffocate the worms. If you squeeze the bedding, a little water should drip from your hand. 4) Food. Red Wigglers are mostly vegetarian, and dislike anything acidic like tomatoes and lemons. Occasionally, I throw in some citrus peels and a little leftover cheese because the worms are active enough to eat it up quickly. Like us, worms need carbohydrates. All carbon sources like paper towels, napkins, paper plates, and newspapers go in the worm bin. Crushed egg shells help balance the pH in the bin, and a few handfuls of dirt give the worms grit for their gizzards.

Once all of the essentials are provided, an amazing transformation takes place. A worm bin becomes an entire ecosystem unto itself. I’ve had beetles, springtails, frogs, lizards, spiders, tiny white worms, and an earthworm or two find their way into my bin. The red wigglers enjoy the company and will not run away. Worm herders are often afraid they might escape out the drainage holes, but if the bin is raised off of the ground, the worms will stay in the dark and in the food.

I hope these facts have brought a tiny bit of the fascinating life of worms to light. Now, instead of jumping back at that giant worm in your garden bed, you might examine how it moves. And instead of sidestepping that worm on the sidewalk, you might just toss it on the lawn.