“Worms! You need worms in your menagerie,” my cousin urged me this summer. Three cats, three chickens, the desire for getting my hands in the dirt again, not enough hobbies … sure, why not?
Once I made up my mind, I got a plastic tub and went looking for worms. Not your regular garden variety earthworms but “red wigglers” (Eisenia fetida), specially adapted to decaying organic material. Just so happens, I’d had a conversation over lunch at the Live Oak Music Festival back in June with some folks who lived in Paso Robles whose life was poop — worm poop to be specific.
Worm castings, as their poop is called, are like gold to farmers and gardeners of all varieties as they are a super food for plants. Unlike chemical fertilizers or manure, they are quickly and easily absorbed, help retain water in the soil and can inhibit root diseases. They’re also full of beneficial microbes that give life to soil, as well as numerous minerals. And they eat garbage. And they’re odor free. Not like cow or horse poop.
I contacted my acquaintances at Black Diamond Vermicompost to see if I could come purchase some worms from them. “Sure! Just follow the map on my site” (http://bit.ly/2wpNChP). I happily trotted out to the east side of Paso Robles, going along until I realized I’d obviously missed a turn off the dirt road. “Hmm. There’s a vineyard there — perhaps someone is around who’ll know,” say I.
Two gentlemen politely greeted me in their barn. Turns out one was the owner there of Kokopelli Vineyards. He looked at my map and pointed me back in the right direction. “Yeah, they’re right down the road there. … Cristy came just recently and gave us a presentation on the stuff. Amazing! I put it on a few plants in the form of compost tea and I swear they grew almost twice as fast!” I was excited now. After a delightful conversation I continued on.
Acknowledging defeat after still not finding the road, I called my worm friend and got a landmark. Their property was up on a hill, a former cattle ranch, among vineyards, of course. Lovely, rolling hills and oaks. And a big, long building with a translucent roof — the worm house.
So, lots of us make bins out of tubs and boxes. These folks are serious. Two elevated boxes probably 5 feet wide and 20 feet long, a couple of feet deep with automated misters above. Out back were a series of high-tech (by my standards!) composting containers with blowers and covers where they pre-composted “clean” dairy manure to feed the worms. Not just ol’ cucumber skins like I’d been giving mine.
“It all started with the broccoli in 2009,” said Christy Christie, who owns the business with husband Jac Reid. “After setting up a small worm bin and being amazed at what the worms had done to transform horse manure and food scraps, I used some of their castings when transplanting a few broccoli plants. Harvesting the beautifully dark green, fully formed stocks and leaves was a new experience. The stocks were crisp with color throughout, not the typical hollow I was accustomed to seeing. The leaves were strong, and not one bug was in sight. The broccoli never made it to the salad. My husband, Jac, and I stood at the kitchen counter and ate every last bit of it!”
I asked her what the best and worst of it all was.
“The best part is knowing we’re helping people rethink how they garden, what they’re putting in the soil. If we can continue to show people how well natural fertilizers work, how much better they work than chemicals. Well, I feel we’re doing the earth a favor, not just the gardeners! And we’ve got people ordering soil from San Jose even! Vineyards, home gardens — everybody can benefit.”
“The hardest thing is, we need to move to where there is more level ground so we can expand. It’s a good problem — it means people are catching on and we want to grow with them, so to speak.”
We both had to move along so she sold me my pound of worms and off I went. That evening, I drilled some holes in my plastic tub, shredded some recyclable office paper (no shiny stuff!), dampened it, mixed it in with some timothy hay from the chicken yard and put the little critters in their new home. I added some kitchen scraps (said cucumbers peels, banana peels, tea bags, loose tea but no meat, dairy, citrus, onions, greasy stuff), threw a handful of bedding on that and called it good.
I’d like to name them (kidding) but they keep hiding within the top 3 inches of soil — they are not burrowers, hence their skill at composting so quickly. They eat about half their weight in garbage every day! (I think I do that, too.)
If you aren’t up to feeding your worms every day but would like to benefit from their hard work (ahem), encourage your local garden centers to buy locally from these folks in Paso (one more way to help the environment besides composting — buying locally).