Worm Compost - The best of the best in garden fertilizers.
I have a bit of a "tic" or "quirk" if you will. If you didn't know what I did for a living you might find me a bit strange, maybe a little off. You see I have a bit of an obsession, put me in a room with someone who has livestock and you can guarantee that at some point in time the words "What do you do with your manure?" will flow from my lips. It's not that I have an intense desire to play with "poo" if you will, it's more a matter of sustaining my business naturally and feeding my plants the way nature intended. To say the least, I spend quite a bit of time digging around in my neighbors cow barns and then helping ferry it around the farm with the aid of their manure spreader, not to mention that this black gold only costs me a bit of back labor (better than the $300-400 a ton P. N. P. and lime stuff and is safer for the environment and consumer). But sometimes that's just not enough, so we supplement some things with well composted, high nitrogen Chicken Manure which is great for leafy crops like lettuce, cabbage, greens, and ex specially corn. But sometime about a year ago, I thought, "It's time to produce my own high quality farm poo" and thus my journey began.
About a year and three months ago I was playing around with my greenhouse tomato crop and decided that it might not be a half bad idea to throw some red worms into the mix for aeration and extra ongoing fertilization, little did I know what this would lead to. You see, my fiance Kim is almost as utilitarian as I am and when she saw the bill for 20 plus cups of red worms, via the gas station vendor we purchased them from, she made the mistake of saying "Couldn't you raise those yourself?". Definitely not something to say to someone who is obsessive compulsive and may just take you up on the offer, ex specially if it's something I think is doable despite not having the means to do so. My logic is to buy the worms first, worry about the home later.
In October 2006 we ordered a couple of lbs of E. Foetida (red wigglers) and about five lbs of European Night crawlers (can't think of the scientific name at the moment, E. Horensis? Hortensis?) in some big 30 gallon totes in my room. Not the best idea in the world to say the least, it wasn't long until I was desperate to get them out of the room due to the mess I would create when flipping the bins, so I moved them outdoors for the winter into a 12 x 25 cold frame. I took the crash course "There must be info on the Internet about raising worms" learn at home class (lol). Little did I know how varied and sometimes incorrect the info I would find could be.
Fast forward to summer and I pretty much had a good idea of what to do and what not to do. Some things seemed obvious, such as keeping the composting aerobic and letting in some oxygen, this means no over watering, you want the bin moist (like a sponge) but not wet, as well as turning the bins with a potato fork every couple of weeks, keeping the bins aerobic also cuts down on bad smells. I also knew that outside it wasn't going to be uncommon to see a number of other "critters" in those bins and that with but a few exceptions none of them are particularly harmful (mice and red mites are the only problems I've ever had, cut back on the water and the mites die back, in spring black snakes take care of the mice).Anyhow, the general idea was to create a living compost organism, that feeds off of farm waste and works off of "Echo-Ecology", reverberating wasted energy back into the system and wasting nothing. The way I saw it, I'd have free fertilizer and a little bit more diversity in the way of fishing bait and composting worms for my business. Boy was I right, I had plenty of waste food material in the summer to feed the worms, augmented a bit by chicken egg-maker feed (to give the worms some size and speed up breeding) and lime to keep down acidity in the bins, to boot I had a nice bit of worm compost to use for experiments in the spring and summer and then the vehicles started rolling down the driveway, slowly at first and increasing as the warm weather kept encroaching, at the height of fishing season we were selling close to 50 or 60 cups of worms each week, not bad for a business that is at the end of a half mile, gravel driveway.
Anyhow, separating worms from compost was one of my big challenges so I found some instructions for making one on the Internet. Essentially my harvester is a five gallon bucket cut in two, with the bottom cut out of the lower end, a piece of 1/4" hardware cloth fastened in between the two halves by way of plastic lock ties and holes drilled through the buckets. It's not the best or fastest set up in the world, but since I had all I needed laying around, it was economically feasible and easy to replace if need be.We use our worm compost in our seedling mixes, our greenhouse potting mixes, when planting tomatoes (a handful in the hole with the plant) as a top dressing for lettuces and greens, and a bit of an energizer for root crops like carrots, radishes, and turnips.
Recently we added some new bins to further refine our methods of re-using the sphagnum from the greenhouse to feed and bed the worms and in the spring we will be doing some experiments with other crops like corn, peppers, eggplants, yacone and others.Worm compost is a terrific all around fertilizer and of a quality that you are not likely to come by at the local garden center. Each casting is a micro-shot of micro-nutrients as well as phosphorus, potassium, and a bit of Nitrogen (you can actually increase the Nitrogen rating by giving the worms very little water and allowing the bin to become a bit more anaerobic, the nitrogen number will jump dramatically using this method due to the chemicals the worms are exuding through their skin), the castings are also pretty well PH neutral and since they are encased in a bit of a cocoon they are also slow release fertilizers which are great for long season crops.One of our favorite applications of worm compost is brewing tea. Basically we use a burlap or cheesecloth sack, a trash can full of water, and a fish tank aerator pump to brew a nice dark colored, nutrient rich tea which we use as a foliar spray on our winter tomato crops and seedlings, I can attest to it at least slowing down the progression of several tomato foliage diseases in the greenhouse this year if not halting their progression completely.
All in all our in house (on the farm) vermicomposting program has been pretty efficient and is still growing, if it weren't for not having a front end loader I'd have huge 500 ft winrows outside full of worms and not have to spend so much time tracking down cow barns to clean out, not to mention the extra cash flow coming in from the fishing worm sales in fishing season. I am already entertaining the idea of purchasing a new cold frame, possibly a 20 x 50, for nothing but vermicomposting procedures. I can tell a definite difference in the quality of plants, their growth, fruit set and disease tolerance when we use the compost the worms produce and in time plan to do a lot more of our fertilizing using our worm heard.