The Smallest Horticulturist

"Earthworms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm...worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them,..." -(Gilbert White of Selborne, 1770)-

"(Worm) casts are manufactured in the alimentary canal of the earthworm from dead vegetable matter and particles of soil, and contain everything the crop needs...nitrates, phosphates, and potash in abundance and also in just the conditions in which the plant can make use of them. Recent investigations in the United States show that the fresh casts of earthworms are five times richer in available nitrogen, seven times richer in available phosphates and eleven times richer in available potash than the upper six inches of soil. The earthworm is, therefore, the gardener's manure factory."-(Sir Albert Howard in "Organic Gardening", May, 1944)-

"Earthworms are the shock-troops of nature for the quick production of humus while she is waiting upon her slower processes. Climaxing her millions of years of experimentation, she created in miniature a perfect humus mill, easily adapted to the use of man. In the body of the earthworm we find a complete, high-speed humus factory, combining all the processes (both mechanical and chemical) for turning out the finished product, topsoil, properly conditioned for best root growth and containing in rich proportion, and in water-soluable form, all the elements required of the earth for plant nutrition."-(Thomas Barrett, 1976)-

"Golly, I hope Carolyn doesn't notice that a worm just bailed out of that spider-plant I keep forgetting to water, and landed on her head."-(Brian Paley of Prince Albert, 1994)-

As can be seen from the above-noted quotations (just ignore that last one), the idea of using earthworms, and their casts, to promote plant growth is not a new one by any means. Unfortunately, with the arrival of chemical fertilizers in this present century, this earlier system declined almost to the point of extinction. It seems agriculturalists became quite focused on growing both houseplants and food crops as large as they were able to, in as little time as possible. Only recently have we really begun to see the hidden cost of our "advancement."

Part of the financial problem is quite obvious to anyone who has ever bought a container of fertilizer, then another container five or six months later. Same box, same contents, whole new price. We accept this as simply being the way things are, the normal rise in the "cost of living," the reason our wages go up from time to time. Even if we accept the fact that money is, after all, meant to be spent, perhaps the time has come to consider those "costs" which are not quite so obvious.

With Canadian figures rather hard to come by, let me use an American example to illustrate the drain on natural resources brought about by our reliance on chemicals. According to government sources in 1992, approximately 2% of all the natural gas consumed in the United States goes into the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer. On top of this, consider the gasoline and diesel fuel which is used to transport the fertilizer to market. We may get another paycheque every week or two, but once the natural resources of this planet are depleted, where exactly are we supposed to go with that money to buy some more?

Another problem which must be considered is the after-effect of using these products. As more and more of these chemicals get dumped into the soil, the soil becomes less and less productive. This results in using larger amounts of chemicals to produce the same kind of results (like drug addiction on a planet-sized scale), and a larger amount of damage being done to the soil. Though it may sound like it, this is not an endless cycle, but rather, a one-way street to destruction. There is something we can do, however, and our old friend the earthworm can help us do it.

The first thing we should be careful not to do is point a finger at the local farmer, and try to lay all the blame at his doorstep. (My mother was quite fond of telling me that whenever I pointed a finger at anyone else, three of my fingers were pointing back at me.) The farmer is, after all, usually in the business of providing food for people, and that sounds like a pretty decent idea to me. The farmer is also not the only user of these chemicals. How many people do you know who have houseplants, trees, shrubs, lawns, or gardens? How many of those people do you figure use fertilizers (or pesticides)? Well, those are the people who can make the difference.

Trying to fertilize an entire farm the natural way, without reducing the yields we have come to expect (and even require), would be a task of immense proportion. The term "herculean" comes to mind, as does the word "impossible." However, the idea of using a small population of Red Worms to produce a sufficient amount of fertilizer for our everyday at-home needs, is something we can easily handle. The worms, perfectly willing and able to help us in this noble endeavor, ask very little in return. A place to work, some garbage to eat, and in return, an unlimited supply of the most perfect plant food available anywhere!

Though there are several ways of using both the worms, and the resulting product, the majority of this information will be covered in various other sections of this home page (as fast as I can make it available), and for now we will simply take a quick look at two of the most popular methods.

First is the in-home worm-bin method, known more commonly as vermicomposting. You simply take a suitable container, fill it with a bedding material such as peat moss, shredded newsprint, or well-worked compost, add a small population of worms, and feed the little guys your daily kitchen wastes. Depending on how long you leave the worms in the bedding, and how varied your waste materials are, you will soon have a container of very nutrient-rich compost just waiting to be introduced to some fortunate plant.

If the worms are left in the bed until all the food and bedding is "converted", the finished product will more properly be referred to as "worm casts", or "castings". At this point, however, the resulting product is a very high-grade fertilizer, and caution must be taken to ensure it does not come into direct contact with the root system of any young plants. Though this is the method used by most commercial "breeders", the material is only sold after being blended with loam, sand and clay to form potting soil, the final price of the product being determined by the percentage of "castings" it contains. The most expensive potting soils usually contain 50-60% worm casts.

A major problem with producing material of this nature, however, is that it often involves sacrificing the entire population of worms. As the level of casts increases in the bedding, the worms will start to die off since no animal can live in its own waste material. For this reason I recommend removing the worms while there is still an amount of organic material left unconverted, eliminating the need to raise a new batch of "composters", and ending up with a product that is much less delicate to work with. No special care is required when using vermicompost since the plants can use its nutrients at their own pace.

Over the years, vermicompost has been the subject of many laboratory studies,and it has never failed to prove its worth as both a plant food and a soil enhancer. This is due in part to the high levels of organic matter and humic acids it contains, topics we will deal with elsewhere in these pages. For now, however, let's take a quick look at a second method of using worms to enhance your plants, one that has no need of a special container, and can be operated with a bare minimum of effort.

Since people that have seen the results of vermicompost on my plants invariably want to obtain some of this wonderful material for themselves, I am often asked to supply them with a bag or two for their personal use. Taking into account the reactions of a couple of these people when they discovered a worm or two in the material, I have started "pasteurizing" everything before I give it out. As a result, two separate things occur again and again.

First of all, I have never given a bag of soil to a person who didn't show up later, raving about the results they had witnessed after giving their plants a hardy feeding of vermicompost. Secondly, I have never had one of these people fail to notice that as well as their own plants were doing, mine still seemed to be doing better. They are always skeptical when I explain the reason.

Never bothering to sterilize the material I keep for use with my own plants, it is only inevitable that a number of worm cocoons, and baby worms (spawn) get mixed in with the soils I blend. Even without feeding them, these worms live long enough to make a difference to the plant. A big enough difference that people notice. Rather than ask you to take my word for it though, I thought I would simply provide you with two excerpts from my notes, one from the scientific community, the other from a fellow horticulturist. First, let's see what science has to say:

"Wolney (a research scientist) has shown by direct experimental cultures in boxes, with and without earthworms, surprising differences between the cultural results obtained, and this has been fully confirmed by the subsequent researches of Djemil. In Wolney's experiments, the ratio of higher production in the presence of worms varied all the way from 2.6% in the case of oats, 63.9% in that of rye, 135.9% in that of potatoes, and 300% in that of the field pea, to 733% in the case of canola."-("Harnessing the Earthworm", Thomas Barrett, 1976)-

And now the horticulturist:

"I have planted moss rose in experimental pots, same age and condition, one pot with worms, one without; invariably, the one with the worms will take on a new zest and life, and I have had them make such wonderful growth as 16 to 1. I have also grown petunias in boxes, in such size and profusion as to be unbelievable to one who never had a demonstration of the earthworm's fertilizing and cultivating ability. Petunias in soil of identical fertility, with the aid of hundreds of earthworms burrowing about their roots, produced leaves 1 1/4 to 1 3/4" wide by 3" long while those in the boxes without worms were yet 1/2" wide by 1 to 1 1/4" long. And the worm-fertilized plants were several times as tall as the others."-(Portion of a letter from Mr. R. A. Caldwell of Georgia to Thomas Barrett, 1976)

At any rate, whether you should decide to use straight earthworm castings, vermicompost, or live earthworms, I feel safe in saying, once you have seen the results for yourself, you may never buy another box of chemical fertilizer again. Oh, and remember, if you choose to use live worms, and you put them in with a hanging plant, either remember to keep the plant watered, or make sure your spouse or your friends aren't sitting beneath it when it drys out!

Copyright 1996 D. Brian Paley

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