Tony Bertauski: Worms the gift that keeps on giving
If you’re Christmas shopping for a gardener, be original. Fill his stocking with worms this year. Sounds like punishment, but worms are vital to good gardening. A horticulturist will tell you to feed the soil, not the plant.
And worms are soil’s caretakers.
Worms burrow through the ground, aerating it with a complex network of tunnels. Some sources estimate worms increase soil porosity and water-holding capacity by as much as 400 percent. As worms feed on organic matter, they leave behind nutrient-rich castings, a polite word for worm poop. Nightcrawlers are vertical burrowers that deposit castings on the surface, to the dismay of golfers. But vertical tunneling accelerates the decomposition of thatch by increasing aeration and stimulating micro-organism activity. Now multiply that nonstop plowing and fertilizing times several million worms in an acre of soil. For an eyeless, legless, slimy organism, that’s a lot of productivity.
If Santa brings your lucky gardener a batch of red wigglers, they easily could turn into thousands of worms in a short period of time. Red wigglers are used in vermicomposting, the practice of adding worms to the compost pile.
Earthworms won’t help decompose compost like red wigglers (Lumbricus rubellus). Local vendors sell them at farmers markets, but you also can buy them online at www.findworms.com. Vermicomposting typically takes place in a dark plastic bin, ideally 2 by 3 feet and 1 foot deep. Shredded paper or cardboard is used as bedding and provides a source of carbon. Holes are drilled into the sides and bottom to allow air flow.
Red worms primarily consume decomposing fruit and vegetable scraps. Avoid adding dairy products, meat and citrus to reduce foul odors. As food waste breaks down, worms aerate the bedding and leave behind castings. Excess liquid drains out the holes on the bottom. Worm juice has been described as “liquid gold.” Worm juice, compost tea or worm tea are used to describe the micro-organism-rich liquid that can be used to water container plants.
If your Christmas gardener is on Santa’s good list, consider a Worm Factory (www.wormfactory.us). This five-tray system is designed to keep red wigglers in a tower of food scraps. Each tray can be individually removed when the bedding and food have been converted to compost. The collection tray at the bottom has a spigot for easy removal of worm tea.
Worms are hermaphroditic, possessing the organs of male and female. However, mating is required to produce offspring. And worms are prolific reproducers. They have to be because moles spend most of their lives eating them. A 5-ounce mole will eat 50 pounds of worms a year. Moles cause minor uprooting of turf that easily recovers. Still, most people hate the tunnels.
There are some unorthodox remedies to moles, such as putting pickle juice, human hair, hot sauce, Juicy Fruit gum or vibrating sticks in the tunnels. None of these methods have scientific merit. Another approach is to eliminate the mole’s food source. This means killing all the earthworms, and in most circumstances, I don’t advocate this method. Insecticides such as Sevin and Merit have noted earthworm toxicity.
Caster oil products, such as Mole-Med, can be applied to your yard to, once again, repel moles into your neighbor’s yard. The product efficacy varies based on conditions, but can be an easy and effective method and worth trying.
According to some, the most effective way to control moles is by trapping or baiting their tunnels. A spring-loaded trap must be set on an active tunnel, such as one along a sidewalk or driveway. To verify a main tunnel, step it down and come back 24 to 48 hours later to see if it has popped back up. If baiting, latex gloves are worn to avoid transferring human scent. The toxic gummy worms are stuck into an active tunnel. However, baits are risky with pets since it contains a food source.
Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.