Worms

Earthworm Hospitality Guide

Richard posted a question yesterday about building up the worm population in his garden soil. Yes, there are plenty of things you can do to attract worms and encourage them to start a family in your flower beds. Once you get me started on this subject, I do tend to ramble, so I think I’ll split this topic up over several days. Here, then, is the first installment of my Earthworm Hospitality Guide:

Part One: Invitations
First of all, there is no need to buy worms to add to your soil. A good hostess does not have to pay her guests to attend her parties. And bringing in strangers can be awkward for everyone involved, as any gardener who has ever bought ladybugs at the nursery knows. The little red-and-black guests have a tendency to dash off as soon as they arrive. How to explain such rudeness? Well, they’re looking for home—some faraway canyon or mountain where they were collected. You’re much better off putting out the kinds of flowers that will endear you to the ladybugs in your own neighborhood. The same is true of worms. Well, worms won’t fly away or even slither away, but they probably won’t enjoy the party as much as the worms that already live in your soil. The trick is to make your local worm population feel welcome.

Having said that, if you really can’t find any worms at all in your soil and you are determined to add some, make sure you are inviting the right sorts of guests. Don’t buy worms at the bait stand or the nursery. Instead, find a pasture or field that is full of worms, cut out a neat chunk—about a cubic foot if possible—of (worm-filled) soil, and lay it carefully in your own garden. A good hostess always gives careful consideration to her seating charts, and you should do the same: Lay your worm-filled soil in prime spots around the garden, where the soil is rich, damp, and unlikely to be disturbed in the near future.

If you do invite worms to your garden party in this way, you’ll be part of a fine old country tradition: About a hundred years ago, farmers in New Zealand impregnated their fields with worms using this method, and the production of ryegrass increased substantially, which meant the ewes had more to eat and there was twice as much wool to clip in winter. The worms fed the grass, the grass fed the ewes, and the ewes fed the farmer, who in turn fed the worms. Now that’s a host who knows how to keep everyone happy.

Tune in tomorrow for Part Two: Party Favors

Worms and Oprah

Went to the movies last night. Reason: recreation. Saw: Cheaper by the Dozen. Why? Well, I read the book when I was a kid and it was brilliant. The film, on the other hand, is miserable. Home Alone on steroids. It has nothing to do with the book except that in both cases, there were twelve children. The main message of the film seems to be that if you focus on your career or chose not to have kids, you are selfish and bad. Interesting, since the book told the true story of Frank Gilbreth, a man who applied his finest career accomplishments (he was an expert in efficiency and invented the motion study) to the raising of his family.

Anyway. The only redeeming feature of the movie is the hilarious portrayal of the publishing process. I just love films about writers, and the less accurate, the better. In this movie, the mom wrote a book about her experience as the mother of twelve (yep, she polished that book off while raising 12 kids and typing on a computer in the hallway), printed it out, and mailed it to “a friend in the publishing industry.” About three weeks later, she gets a call. Her book’s going to be published. There was no agonizing search for an agent, no long and painful revisions, no rejections from publishing houses, no protracted contract negotiations, nothing. They get the book, they wanna publish it, and can she be in New York next week?

So she gets on a plane for NY and sets up camp in a swank hotel room, where her publicists brings her the final, printed version of her book. That’s right, this book was so good that it did not require editing, final proofing, galleys, or any other pre-publication niceties. They just pushed that baby into print within a few days of accepting it. And the book tour? Oh, it starts tomorrow, and she’ll be on Oprah and Regis.

Don’t believe everything you see on the silver screen, folks. Me and the worms will be driving a rented Taurus to a Holiday Inn outside Portland on our book tour. I’ll call the bookstore about five times to make sure they actually have copies of the book. I’ll scan the newspapers for some small mention of my event. And if I’m lucky—very lucky—twenty or thirty good-hearted souls will show up to listen to me talk and get a look at the worms. It’s not Oprah, but it’s good enough for me.

How Not to Eat a Worm

I made a point of not saying a word about eating worms in The Earth Moved. Yes, there are some cultures in which people eat worms, and yes, a couple of worm composting books out there include worm recipes, and there’s no denying the fact that worms are a pretty good source of protein, as any chicken will tell you. A shop here in Eureka sells crisp-fried worms (they are actually not earthworms but grubs), and yes, when I was a kid I thought How to Eat Fried Worms was a pretty cool book.

But…ewwwwww. I’m a vegetarian; I don’t even like the idea of eating a cow, much less a creature as noble as a worm.

So a guy in India has set a new record in the competitive sport of worm-eating. He had something to say about the whole experience—something I wish I’d never read and something I don’t want to repeat here, but I’ll provide a link for those of you with a prurient interest in such matters.

Lord of the Worms

Several people have contacted me already about the opening scene of “Return of the King,” which features an earthworm being impaled on a fishhook. Worms don’t get featured in movies much, so I guess my friends all knew what a big event this would be for me. But what about the larger symbolism behind that opening shot? Film critic Scott Foundas put it best when he wrote that the image of the worm was “definitive of the sustained interplay between things intimate and grand, organic and computer-generated.” Right on, Scott. I can tell that you totally get it about worms.

His words remind me of an enormous earthworm anatomy poster from the fifties that hung above my desk while I wrote the book. It depicted the life cycle of a worm from cocoon to maturity and featured a cross-section of a nightcrawler that exposed its five pairs of hearts and intricate system of ducts and veins and nerves.

I feel a little silly quoting from my own book, but there’s a connection between what Scott Foundas had to say about worms and what I was trying to say about them. I described the poster in a chapter on worm anatomy and said that “when I lead people up to the attic room where I write, they stand transfixed in front of the poster, as if they are seeing for the first time a map of the stars, or a photograph of the ocean’s floor. There is wonder in something so vast, but there is wonder in something so small, too.”

Worms in the Heat

Erica asked in the comments if I had any advice about composting with worms during hot summers like the ones she has in Houston. As a native Texan myself, I can appreciate the problem. When I was in college, a non-profit I volunteered for held an annual “Anywhere But Austin in August” fundraiser, so named because truly, a humid Texas summer can be unbearable, for both worms and humans.

The worm most commonly used for composting is Eisenia fetida, sometimes called the red wiggler or the redworm. These critters prefer temperatures in the 60-70 degree range, and really can’t take heat much above 85 degrees. So in a place like Houston, you’ve got a couple of options:

First, consider setting up your bin indoors in a garage or basement. The trick is to make absolutely sure that this room stays cooler than the outdoor temperature. Sometimes a stuffy, non-air-conditioned space like this will actually get warmer than a shady area outdoors. Set up a thermometer in your garage/basement and another one in the coolest, shadiest area of your yard and compare.

If you do think your indoor location will be cool enough, go ahead and set it up there, but keep track of the temperature. On really hot days, think of the worms when you pour yourself a cold drink. Dropping a few ice cubes in the bin will cool things off and keep it from drying out. The contents of the bin should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge, so just add a few cubes at a time to avoid flooding the bin. And never, never run water through your bin—it will upset the carefully balanced ecosystem in the bin and turn the worms, castings, and compost into a nasty, waterlogged mess. During a really nasty heat wave, you might try leaving the lid off (to prevent the worms from escaping, keep a thick layer of damp shredded newspaper on top and leave a light on), or turning on a fan.

If you don’t have a good indoor location, I’d suggest picking the coolest, shadiest, and breeziest area in your yard. If you plan to build your own bin, consider a wooden bin that is sunk into the ground. On hot days, you might leave the lid off but cover the worms with a thick layer of shredded newspaper or rice straw so they won’t be tempted to go exploring. Worm farmers often use a mister to keep outdoor beds cool and damp in hot weather.

Finally, be careful about the amount of food you add, especially in a large outdoor bin. Fresh food scraps do create their own heat in large quantities. Add food a little at a time or “pre-compost” it in another pile and feed it to the worms once it’s cooled down.

OK, tomorrow we’ll get back to the challenges of air travel with earthworms.

Worms in the Snow

Sheila Lennon of the Providence Journal asks about keeping worms alive in the snow. If you are an ER fan, you might remember an episode several years ago (Episode 38, “It’s Not Easy Being Greene,” which aired on February 1, 1996, to be exact…I know this because of these crazy guys who are more obsessed with ER than I was in those days) in which a patient came into the ER with her Can-O-Worms and asked Carol to take care of it while she was in the hospital. The worm bin was mistaken for trash and thrown away; by the time Carol found it, a crust of ice had formed around it and she feared the worst. Fortunately, the worms had burrowed into the center of the bin and stayed alive. The patient gave Carol a box of worms so she could get her own colony started.

Sadly, the worms did not go on to have a regular role on ER after that. It’s a shame, really, that worms don’t figure into the plots of more popular TV shows…and I’m not talking about “Fear Factor,” which hardly portrays worms in the positive light they deserve.

So, the lesson to take away from this is that worms can tolerate some freezing temperatures, although their numbers will certainly dwindle when they’re not in their optimal 60-70 degree temperature range. Depending on the severity of the freeze in your area, you might:

Set the bin up in the basement or garage. Really, worms are quite self-contained and not likely to go exploring as long as you keep them happy.

Keep the bin on a sheltered porch and wrap it in an insulating blanket. They can go days or even a few weeks without additional food, so you won’t have to unwrap them very much.
If you have a larger worm operation in mind, build your bin so that it is sunk into the ground (some people use old refrigerators for this) and cover it well with straw, leaves, etc. Shredded newspaper inside the bin makes great insulation and the worms will munch on it, too. Just make sure there’s drainage (like holes covered with fine mesh screens) so the worms don’t get waterlogged.My worms sit on the kitchen porch where they are protected from rain. Here in Humboldt county, the temps reach freezing a couple dozen times over the winter, and once in a great while it’ll get down in the twenties.

My experience has been that worms are, overall, content with their lot in life. They are peaceful, docile, focused on the task at hand (so to speak), and not given to complaining about the cold.

Thanksgiving

The holidays have been good to the worms. They are still working on Thanksgiving dinner: Brussels sprout trimmings, potato peels, squash rind, and coffee, coffee, coffee. We had eight people in the house for two days and I think we went through an entire pound of coffee. The caffeine doesn’t seem to affect the worms, although I wonder if the acidity of the grounds is starting to throw off the pH in the bin. They can’t tolerate an acid environment, and it seems that as the pH drops, the ants move in. Although the ants don’t seem to bother the worms, it just gets to be a bit of a circus in the bins. I’ve already got sowbugs and a miniature white cousin to the earthworm called a potworm inhabiting the bin. And there are millions of microscopic creatures teeming around in the rotting mass of food, too: bacteria, nematodes, fungi, protozoa—all eating the food and becoming food for the worms. It’s a real miniature zoo on the back porch.

So I throw in some eggshells to help combat the acidity. The worms can’t eat the shells, but they crumble up nicely and eventually they’ll go into the soil along with the castings.
Speaking of worms and coffee, an AP story this morning reports on the effects of intoxication on worms. They’re speaking in this case about a nematode—a microscopic roundworm named C. elegans. When you read about worms in the news, they’re almost always talking about C. elegans. It’s the lab rat of the worm world. Those worms on the space shuttle were C. elegans, too. I tell you, the humble nightcrawler and the red wiggler almost never get their due.

Why Worms?

I suppose I should explain how I got into worms in the first place. I planted my first garden in Santa Cruz, California about eight years ago (and wrote a book about it called From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden), and it wasn’t long before I was buying every garden accessory and toy I could get my hands on. I had a serious Saturday-morning nursery habit. Most of my paycheck went to plants, rakes, shovels, and bags of compost. I was in deep.

One morning the nursery had a display of worm bins for sale. The bins, which are called Can-O-Worms, consist of three round stacking trays with small holes in the bottom. You stack the trays on a sturdy plastic base, introduce worms into the bottom level, and eventually they work their way through each level, eating kitchen scraps as they go. Once they’ve massed in the top tray, the bottom tray is usually full of castings—worm manure—that is ready to go into the garden. You empty the bottom tray, make it the new top tray, and keep going. The worms never leave the bin; they just move through each tray in an endless cycle of eating, reproducing, and—well, shitting.

It’s hard to say why the worms appealed to me so much, exactly. Part of it is that I wanted that worm shit, which is the finest cuisine you could feed a plant and extraordinarily expensive if you buy it retail. Part of it was that I liked the gear. A worm bin is hip, in an organic, northern California way. And part of it is just that a colony of anything is fascinating to watch. Ants, bees, worms—they all have curious customs, unfamiliar ways of life, and I thought I’d find them entertaining.

Now I have thousands of worms living in two bins on my back porch, and they’ve kept me entertained for years. They are good pets, loyal and hardworking, and they earn their keep. I wrote this book—the new one, The Earth Moved—for a lot of reasons, but one of them was that I wanted to pay tribute to the inveterate invertebrates that live their lives outside my kitchen door, devouring my coffee grounds and my morning paper, leaving their rich black castings behind.

Crazy Worm

It rained all night, and that can only mean one thing: worms on the sidewalk. Oddly, no one knows exactly why worms wriggle onto the pavement, a place of near-certain death, on rainy mornings. The best guess is that they can sense a change in barometric pressure or humidity and, fearing a flood, they stage a walkout. Earthworms breathe through specialized cells in their skin that exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. They like dampness, but they won’t live long underwater.

Worm farmers live in fear of a walkout, a kind of group-think behavior in which thousands of worms rise from their bedding at once and mass on the pavement, or even the walls of a shed, which makes it impossible to round them up and herd them back to their home. On a rainy night, a worm farmer will leave floodlights shining on the worms all night, hoping that their dread of light will overcome their fear of floods.

After a rain like the one we had last night, I make sure that my morning walk takes me past a house down the street that has a fine colony of Amynthas corticis, an Asian worm that’s sometimes called a snake worm or a crazy worm. These worms are about six inches long and so excitable that they will lash around and try to jump right out of your hand. I like to collect these worms and add them to my own garden, just to increase the overall diversity of the subterranean population. I used to deposit them all in a rich patch of earth near my back door, where I hoped they would find each other and mate. Then I realized that these worms are parthenogenetic—they reproduce without sex—so now I scatter them all over the garden and hope they’ll clone themselves. Another strange fact about this worm: it will shed its tail to escape a predator, much the way a lizard would. I’ve never seen it do this myself.

So I always find one or two snake worms on the sidewalk near this particular house after a rain, and sure enough, there was one there today. It’s a dark worm, more brownish-black than pink or red. I picked it up and cupped it between my palms. It whipped against my skin in protest, but I carried it home, and when I reached my garden, I opened my hands and it leapt to the earth.