The first time they tried to make organic fertilizer, it was a disaster.
Hundreds of worms lay limp and smelly in buckets of coffee grounds, dirt and old veggies. Probable cause of death: asphyxiation.
Last week, the second batch also went awry, with worms roasting in the afternoon sun.
Undeterred, inmates in the horticulture program at the Falkenburg Road Jail plan to take a third try at harvesting worm manure — often known in gardening circles as "castings" — to add a little oomph to plants.
"It adds good stuff to the soil," said Allen Boatman, a horticulture instructor at the jail who teaches the inmates how to boost flower blooms.
Recycled water bottles filled with watery worm castings, the gardener's version of liquid gold, won't make an appearance at today's garden sale at the jail. But proceeds will go back into the horticulture program, earmarked this month for the purchase of new worms.
It's just what the garden needs. And it's just what the small group of inmates in the program need, Boatman said, to build some skills for life after lockup.
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The jail's horticulture program is a privilege granted to minimum-security inmates cleared to be outside, Boatman said. On a morning earlier this summer, inmates clad in navy and orange jail uniforms moved slowly in the sun. In the shade, a few of them separated chunks of horse manure — an initiation of sorts, Boatman said.
Feeding the worms is a job promotion.
"At first I was like, 'Worms, yuck,' " said Billy Norton, 34, of Palm Harbor, who was tasked this summer to care for the worms.
Jailed in March for violating probation, Norton admits to a former taste for opiates and cocaine. With two dozen arrests since 1998, state records show Norton has faced drug charges nearly every year.
He said he tried treatment but relapsed: "It's hard for me to say no."
This time around, Norton seeks a different kind of therapy.
"Working with the plants, I don't think about drugs," he said.
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Inside a classroom, Norton whips up lunch for the worms in a blender. Cabbage leaves and rainwater churn into a bright green smoothie.
"I don't know how good it tastes," he said. "But if you're a worm, I guess it's pretty good."
As he carries the blender through the yard to the worm buckets, his fellow gardeners holler at him.
"Give 'em a good lunch!" they shout. "Don't kill 'em!"
In a greenhouse, worm bins sit daisy-chained together with tubes. Norton lifts the lids and pulls out the damp newspapers that keep light out and moisture in.
Inside, a hungry worm species called red wigglers digests the compost mixture and leaves behind dense, earthy-smelling waste. Norton drenches the buckets with rainwater from an oversized watering can. The excess liquid drains through the tubes into a 5-gallon collection bucket. The rainwater rinse catches the nutrients from the castings to make a diluted fertilizer called leachate.
The jail's setup bubbles air through the liquid to prevent bad bacteria from settling in.
"It's kinda cool," said Norton, gloved hand stirring the pureed cabbage into the worm bins. "I'd never seen anything like that before."
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At a garden sale in June, Norton bustled between customers. He offered gardening advice. He loaded plants into waiting cars.
He's ready, he said, to make a fresh start.
"I want to say I'm done, but can I guarantee that?" he said about his drug addiction. "No, but I can say, 'Today, I won't get high.' "
A few weeks ago, Norton moved to a rehab center. He had heard there was a garden nursery nearby, and he had hoped to someday get a job there. The odds seem against him with his record as a felon, but maybe worms will save him.
"That's something to get my foot in the door," Norton said before he left the jail. "I can tell them we can make some worm fertilizer."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.