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Darwin, Divas and Worms

November 11, 2007
Annie Spiegelman

“We are the worms . . . We are the children. We are the ones who make a brighter day . . . so let’s start giving.” Isn’t that a Lionel Richie hit from the eighties?

It’s time we started showing some respect and gratitude for the underappreciated earthworm, the night crawlers, and their boy back-up band, fungi and bacteria. They are the true heroes and workhorses who do all the necessary dirty work to keep our soil full of nutrients. It’s said that in the late 1800’s, British scientist and naturalist Charles Darwin spent nearly 40 years studying earthworms! Obviously this respected scholar and naturalist had way too much time on his hands. He SO would have benefited from Wikipedia. Maybe then he wouldn’t have bored his friends to tears for 40 years with his controversial theories of evolution, and signed copies of his painstakingly detailed but endearing tome, “The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, With Observations of their Habits.” I didn’t make it past the first chapter . . . but here is what I learned before I took a nice nap:
1. Worms help air and water enter and circulate through soil.
2. They break down organic matter, such as leaves, into nutrients plants can use.
3. Worms secrete slime, which contains nitrogen, one of the most important elements for healthy plants.
4. One pound of red wigglers in a compost pile can eat nearly 65 pounds of food scraps in 3 to 4 months!
5. They eat and dump, and leave behind those precious worm castings or pure fertilizer.
6. Recent studies by the Rodale Institute show that worm compost has growth benefits that exceed even those of plain compost!
(Are you wondering how Darwin knew about the recent Rodale study? C’mon, the guy was a genius!)
Red Wigglers or Eisenia foetida are all the rage. They are your garden superstars but luckily they’re not demanding divas. They don’t need a center-stage spotlight on them! They thrive in moisture and dark. They don’t insist on organic Evian water in their dressing room, but they do require some good ol’ fungi, bacteria, a banana peel or two and yesterday’s Sports page to create nature’s best fertilizer in their castings.
Their castings are rich in trace minerals, plant nutrients and growth enhancers. They have a NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) ratio of 3.2-1.1-1.5. The nutrients are readily available to the plants. If you’re anything like yours truly and sometimes overfeed your plants, as any good Jewish mother will, the good news is that the castings are incapable of burning your plants. Work a top layer into your perennial borders, vegetable garden or around trees, especially in the spring, and you won’t have to fertilize again for the season.
I have good news for those of you who don’t have the time, space or guts to build and maintain your own worm bin. Allow me to proudly introduce to you an organic gardener’s and diva’s best friend. Terracycle Worm Poop! Yup, you read that right. Worm poop in a recycled bottle. Now that’s American ingenuity!
It all began back in 2001, in a Princeton University dorm room, after former students and future CEO’s Tom Szaky and Jon Beyer witnessed a classmate feeding food scraps to a box of worms. They learned their classmate fed the worms in exchange for their castings, which were loaded with the abundant nutrients he required to support the special plants he was furtively growing in his basement. Szaky and Beyer’s idea was simple and brilliant: take waste, process it, and turn it into a useful product. The next summer Szaky and Beyer took all of the Princeton Dining Services waste and processed it in their prototype “Worm Gin.” By the end of the summer, they had perfected their processing and found their first investor. The company grew quickly and now Home Depot, Whole Foods, Target, Walmart and Wild Oats are carrying the TerraCycle line.
However, if you’ve got the time and energy to build your own worm bin, go for it!
We are the worms, we are the future . . . All together now!

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