Worms wriggle their way into gardeners' good graces

My husband lit up when I brought home worms last week.

"I'm goin' fishing!" he said (sang!) as he plucked a squirming red wiggler from the big plastic foam soda cup.

"Not with these!" I told him. "They're for my worm farm. And they cost $19.95 a pound!"

Ben hadn't seemed to notice the big black Can-O-Worms vermicomposting bin I'd assembled a few days earlier and left sitting in the middle of our Florida room. He just walked around it. Until I told him that's where my cup o' worms, about 1,000 of them, was going.

"In that? There? You're putting it outside, right?"

Sort of. It's in the garage.

That's what my new friend, retired chemist Karen Johnson of Sun City Center, suggested.

"Don't put it outside," she said. "Flies will get into it, they'll lay their eggs in the castings and then you'll have maggots! Ugh!"

Karen adores her worms and she's super smart. I flunked college chemistry, and this worm-ranching thing has proved more challenging than I expected. I require hand-holding.

If you haven't heard of worm farming, vermicomposting, it's another way to turn your kitchen scraps into rich humus for your garden. The worms eat the bedding and scraps you provide, including vegetables, eggshells, coffee grounds, cereal, bread, pasta, even paper and cardboard, and turn it into worm poop, called castings.

Add them to your soil for a great fertilizer that also boosts water-holding capacity.

For an organic pesticide, Karen collects the "worm pee" that drains into the bottom tray of her Can-O-Worms (turns out Can-O-Worms is very popular!) She mixes half a cup with a gallon of non-chlorinated water and sprays it on troubled plants.

I found a lot of conflicting information online about that "pee," including whether it really is worm urine. So I called Bernie Moro, who with her husband, Carl, owns Our Vital Earth, an Apopka company that has specialized in worm composting since 2001.

"It is worm pee," Bernie said, adding that worms excrete urine through their skin. "It's great for your garden … very effective against pests, mold and fungus."

In the United States, she said, it's often confused with worm tea, which is brewed from the castings.

From the University of Florida's website: Put castings in a burlap bag or panty hose leg and tie it off, and put the bag in a bucket of water to steep overnight. Use it to water or spray your plants.

But never use tap water with your worms, whether it's to brew tea or moisten the bedding, Karen advised. The chemicals will kill the good microbes that are oh so good for your garden. She uses rainwater or buys deionized water.

Karen started her worm farm about three years ago, and her initial pound of worms has grown to 20 pounds. "I have to buy vegetables on sale to feed them because I don't have enough scraps!"

Pulverize your scraps in a blender and the worms will eat them much faster, she said. She occasionally adds cornmeal to fatten them up.

Hers also like oatmeal, melons and the occasional slice of bread. Ground eggshells provide the grit they need.

They don't like orange and other citrus peels.

"Don't add dairy products or meat, or your bin will stink," she said.

What can you do with their digested goodies?

Karen top dresses her soil with it. It's the only fertilizer she uses on her Don Juan and Gold Medal roses, and she swears it makes them more fragrant. A little pot of pure castings is great for starting cuttings, and she mixes one-third potting soil with a third perlite and a third castings for container plants.

And oh, by the way, not all worms work for composting. Red wigglers are said to be the best. I got mine at Shell's Feed & Garden in Tampa, at 9513 N Nebraska Ave. (order and prepay and they arrive in a couple of days).

You can also find them at bait shops, but don't expect to save money there. As I told my husband: Drown a fake one instead. Much cheaper.

Find lots more tips for worm farming at ourvitalearth.com and hillsborough.ifas.ufl.edu, or read Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof.

Penny Carnathan can be reached at pcarnathan49@gmail.com. Visit her blog, digginfladirt, or join the local chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt. Follow her on Twitter @DigginPenny.

>> if you go

2nd Super Dirty Plant Swap

Get propagating, fellow gardeners! The 2nd Super Dirty Plant Swap is from 1 to 3 p.m. Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 2. Two fun gardeners, Tanja and Jared Vidovic (tinyurl.com/tbt-tanja), have agreed to host. The swap is totally free, but please RSVP to pcarnathan49@gmail.com so we know how many to expect and because our hostess is expecting. (If her little one arrives early, we'll have to change plans.)

Never been to a swap? It's easy: Bring your seeds, cuttings and (best yet) rooted stuff, all labeled with identification. Give plants and get cool plants from fellow gardeners. Beginners with no plants to share can bring snacks or beverages instead.

Tanja will give a tour of her urban food forest at 2 p.m. You'll be amazed at the edibles you can grow!

Her address is 8503 N 28th St., Tampa, but park your car at Rowlett Park's entrance at Yukon and N 22nd Street (about 300 feet away). Two spots in the driveway are reserved for people unable to walk. (Don't park on the street; you may get ticketed!)

Tanja asks that you stick to the paths in her garden, and if you bring children, know that she lives on the Hillsborough River, so keep them close. The Vidovics' garden includes a great tree house. For safety reasons, it's open only to kids 8 and older.

Worms wriggle their way into gardeners' good graces 01/22/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 1:32pm]

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