This spring I fell in love with worms. Red wiggler worms to be exact.
Why do I love them? Let me count the ways. They have five hearts! They eat half their body weight each day! They breathe through their skin! They love moderate temperatures, just like me! They work faster than a compost bin! It’s fun to show them off to friends and grandchildren!
Best of all, they produce high-quality compost for the garden.
I’ve had an ongoing relationship with red wigglers for quite a few years, but my actual fondness for them is recent. When we first moved out to the Key Peninsula, inspired by some friends with a worm bin on their back porch, my husband bought a worm composting system. He was enthusiastic. I was willing to go along.
We read the brochure and got started. We took our fruit and vegetable trimmings and coffee grounds to the bin and periodically my husband would deliver the resulting vermicompost to our vegetable garden.
This spring I was worried about my worms. They hardly ate anything all winter long. Even with warmer weather their appetites had not improved, and the population seemed low. I reached out to fellow gardener Waneen Post-Marks, and she made the trek from Vaughn to assess the situation.
It turns out my concerns were misplaced. We separated the nesting boxes and worms were happily swarming in the lower trays. There was plenty of food in the top tray and it didn’t smell bad. “Your worms look great,” Post-Marks said. But she noticed there was no bedding on the top. Some fine-tuning was in order.
I attended an online class through Pierce County and got educated about keeping worms happy.
Red wiggler worms are not native to the area and won’t survive for long if released into the garden where earthworms burrow and reproduce. But put them in a bin and feed them decomposing vegetables and they will not disappoint.
They can survive temperatures from 32 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit but thrive in the 60s to 80s. At their peak, they will eat up to half of their body weight in a day and double their population in three months. Worms are hermaphrodites — they need a mate to reproduce, but they have both male and female sexual organs. Red wigglers mature in two months and produce two to three cocoons each week, and four or five baby worms emerge three weeks later.
Worms depend on bacteria and fungi to break down the food they eat, but they also have a crop and a gullet that require some grit to work, so adding some crushed eggshells is not a bad idea. Bedding — shredded cardboard or newspaper, dipped in water, wrung out, and placed liberally over the top of the kitchen trimmings — keeps the moisture level optimal and discourages fruit flies.
We purchased a tiered worm bin, but it’s easy to build your own and the county website has simple instructions. You can build a wooden bin that sits on the ground or create your own nesting system using plastic tubs with holes drilled to let oxygen in.
Red wigglers are available online. There are about 1,000 worms to the pound and a half pound will get you off to a good start.
It takes time for the worms to adjust. Be sure the floor of the bin is welcoming. If you are using a plastic tub, place a thin layer of bedding on the bottom. Add a few handfuls of rotting fruit and vegetable trimmings, followed by your worms and then a liberal layer of moistened bedding. Cover and be patient. It may take a little time for the worms to adjust. Feed about once a week, adding more scraps when you can’t recognize what you originally put in the bin.
When the vermicompost is ready it’s time to separate worms from the gardener’s gold. There are many techniques to encourage the worms to move away from what you want to collect, and they are described on the county website, but honestly, I think it’s fun to put on a pair of gloves, pull the worms away and toss them back into the worm bin.
My fingers are crossed that my 7-year-old granddaughters think so, too. Red wigglers are going to play a part in grandchild entertainment this summer.
For more information, look for the sustainable solutions class at www.piercecountywa.gov.
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