Tricounty News

A new angle for worms - can you dig it?

There's not much that's pretty about worms. But, oh, how they help to make gardens lush and beautiful.  It's not the worms but their castings. Castings are, well, let's just say it, worm poop. And these castings work as a potent fertilizer like no chemical can. On a Monday evening, April 14, several members of the Kimball Garden Club had a date to see some worms. They wanted to learn more about John Dammann's worm business and, in particular, how effective the castings are. The group saw a dozen or so large, flat boxes on racks. Each box contains about 40-50 pounds of worms (that's about 40-50,000). The worms are fed and watered for two months, at which time the contents of the box are shoveled into a sorting drum. As the drum rotates, the worm castings fall into one bucket, the worms themselves fall into another, and everything else into a compost bucket. The worms are returned to their box, and the feeding and watering cycle begins again. Each box can yield about 500 pounds of castings. That's a lot of worm poop. John Dammann sort of fell into the worm business back in 2001. A co-worker had convinced him to buy into what turned out to be a scam. He had 200 pounds of worms (that's about 200,000 of the creepy-crawlers) but the distribution network that was supposed to be part of the business just wasn't there. Many of the other 30 growers in the area just cut their losses and sold off their worms. But John stuck with it. The average lifespan for these worms is seven years. And John has learned it's best to keep them happy. Happy worms will stay put and will eat and, well, poop all day and night. Make the worms unhappy and you'll find hundreds of thousands of them trying to escape   - crawling all over the walls and ceiling. So, just what makes a worm happy? Dark. The right amount of moisture. And lots of food. Regular amounts of horse manure and wood shavings are added to each box during the two months waiting for harvest of the castings. The worms eat the bacteria off the manure and shavings. They also eat vegetative garbage. Their absolute favorite: pumpkins. Another worm grower learned the hard way that the worst thing to feed worms is processed or fast food: feed them leftover burgers and fries, and you could have a mass-escape. So what does one do with about a ton of castings a month? Dammann sells them to gardeners. Luxemburg Feed sells five-gallon pails for about $30. It's also possible to purchase the castings in smaller quantities. A friend of Dammann's at the University of Minnesota has used 15 gallons of Dammann's worm castings to fertilize the lawn at the Governor's mansion, and it's working great. She has been doing research on exactly what makes the castings work, and trying to figure out the formula that works best. The optimal mix is about 25 percent castings with 75 percent soil. (Like any fertilizer, if you use too much it can be harmful.) The castings can be worked into a garden, spread over a lawn, or sprinkled onto houseplants. They can also be mixed into water to make a "tea" that, when sprayed onto tomatoes or other plants, acts as a natural insecticide. It may be best to work the castings into a garden at spring planting, but they can be added any time. Worm wrangler "Smiley" Mauer told the Garden Club about his grandmother's lemon tree. She'd had this tree, here in Minnesota, for more than 30 years and it never fruited. She sprinkled some castings onto it and "Boom! Fruit."