Worms are nature's little gardeners

April 7, 2013
photo - African Night Crawlers in the foreground as Ken Williams, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Worm Company uses a mesh screen to separate worms from their castings (worm poop) Friday, March 29, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE
African Night Crawlers in the foreground as Ken Williams, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Worm Company uses a mesh screen to separate worms from their castings (worm poop) Friday, March 29, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE 

“Worms are the intestines of the Earth.” — Aristotle

Dig a few inches under your Colorado lawn and odds are what’s underneath probably isn’t a very lively place.

“It’s dry or it’s hard clays or it’s low in organics. It’s wind-blown. There’s all kinds of problems with our soil,” said Ken Williams, who spent 30 years as a dirt contractor in Colorado Springs.

So we aerate. We spray chemicals. We drop fertilizer. We uproot the landscape with gas-powered rototillers in hopes something will sprout from the chaos.

Williams wants lawn owners and gardeners in the Pikes Peak region to know there is another way, a natural way.

The way of the worm.

The owner of Rocky Mountain Worm Co., who after two years of selling at farm shows opened a store in the area March 30, Williams is spreading awareness of the importance of worms for a healthy lawn or garden, be it a bundle of worms, a bucket of castings — worm manure — or a concoction known as worm tea.

Just don’t drink the tea.

“You really do want the worms. You want some of the bugs in your garden,” Williams’ son and business partner Jay Williams said. “You don’t want to spray your garden and kill all your lady bugs, praying mantis and beetles. Those things actually help your garden.

“It’s the same thing with the worms in your soil.”

‘Healthy plants grow

in healthy soils’

Ken Williams developed an appreciation for earthworms during his time as a dirt contractor. As he learned more about the effects of chemicals and pesticides on the environment, he found himself steering toward a holistic approach to gardening.

“Healthy plants grow in healthy soils,” he said. “You start understanding the soil environment, a living product, the microbes and worms and how they all work together.”

His son, unable to find work with a degree in nuclear medicine, came home to get on board with “this worm thing.” They received training in farming worms and began experimenting with the right cocktail of organic material, decayed plants, grains and rock dust in which to raise worms.

The worm farm is actually a warehouse full of stacked buckets and tubs, each packed with worms busily eating away. As they digest, what comes out the worms’ other end is pure plant food, loaded with microbes, minerals and nitrogen. And it doesn’t smell like manure and won’t make your pets sick.

The castings are then sifted, by hand or machine, into a soil-like form, which is then applied to the landscape.

But put away the rototiller. Because gardening with worms will require more effort.

‘Tillage kills worms’

When you commit to earthworms, you commit to an entire approach to your lawn or garden, one that eschews chemicals and tilling.

To start a garden, Ken Williams recommends

4-5 pounds of castings per 10 square feet. The castings sell for $3.50 a pound, $10 for four pounds, and $50 for a 22-pound bucket. Rather than tear up the soil, use a garden fork to pry open cracks in the soil and let the castings fall into the cracks.

“It takes much longer, a lot more elbow grease, but you don’t destroy nearly as much of the microorganism environment and you don’t destroy the worms that might be there,” he said.

If you buy a bundle of live worms, mostly African nightcrawlers and Red Wigglers, which sell for $35 a pound, water liberally and introduce them underground in the same way. Then gently rake over the cracks — birds will have a feast if you leave any worms above ground. Cover with garden soil, chemical-free organic mulch, compost, hay or alfalfa. You also can buy worm cocoons.

With any luck, the worms will survive the shock of a new environment and begin chewing and tunnelling their way to a healthy garden for you.

For lawns, new or established, Ken Williams suggests 10 pounds of castings per 100 square feet, applied as a top dressing for existing lawns or mixed with the seeds in new lawns.

To give existing plants and lawns a boost, the worm tea, brewed with castings, can be sprayed directly onto plants or grass. It sells for $6 a quart.

Ken Williams’ hope, along with selling a lot of worm manure, is that more people will recognize the value of nature’s gardener of fertilizers and chemicals.

“Chemicals are known to be bad for people’s consumption. They leach into the groundwater table. They make plants not as healthy as they might appear. They’re not resistant to bugs,” he said.

“The natural way produces better tasting vegetables. It produces healthy plants to begin with. It’s not like plants on a chemical fix.

“The serious gardeners, they highly recognize the value of worms. Other people are learning.”

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