Part of a new category on how to farm – methods, advice, experiences, opinions..
The Sex Life of Earthworms
(or secret delights of the urban gardener)
I was introduced to earthworms in biology class a long time ago.
I enjoyed biology but I was not overly impressed with earthworms and I was especially not interested in how they procreated. That has changed; the sex life of earthworms has become an obsession in my life.
It all started when I was invited by a friend to an Earthworm Evening I was not madly keen.
‘You enjoy gardening!’ my friend said brightly.
‘Well I am an Urban Gardener.’ I replied ‘A patch at the front, a patch at the back and some pots.’
‘Ideal for vermi-composting.’
I must have looked blank for she continued in a know-it-all way ‘Using earthworms to turn organic waste into compost!’
‘I don’t really know…’ I hesitated
‘It is a very funny presentation with poetry. And there will be supper.’
It was to be held in the cellar of a wholefood store which had an eatery attached, so I thought: nice supper with friends, plus entertainment? What’s to lose?
Well it was fun and funny. And at the end of the evening I got handed a cream cheese container of earthworms. At home I placed it on the counter and made some tea. While the water boiled I lifted the lid and peeked inside. Just some dark crumbly stuff, a wet strip of newsprint and a little speck of carrot. I replaced the lid and had my tea, poring over the information sheet.
I read that no less a figure than Darwin considered earthworms as one of our planet’s most important caretakers. He spent many years of his life studying them and concluded “I doubt whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.”
Of course I knew that earthworms were a sign of healthy soil. I was always happy to see them in the copious amounts of expensive compost I added to my horrible sandy soil but I did not think much about their fate thereafter. But now I had the lives of these creatures in my hands and I had to be responsible.
I decided to have another peek inside my container. I thought of the speaker at the presentation digging his hands into a trough of black crumbly mixture interspersed with hundreds of worms. Not for me. I got a gardening tool and carefully lifted a mound of the black stuff. Right enough. Red wrigglers. One or two large and one or two small. They hurried back down deep, not happy with the light. That is what they do in soil, go deep and endlessly toil, eating everything organic (and soil) and producing ready-to-go plant soluble nutrients. Afficionados call it ‘black gold’.
‘Black gold’ is firstly vermi-castings (vermus being worm in Latin) crumbly, black stuff; then vermi-tea a liquid. Both are odourless and brilliant for adding to soil. Plants absolutely thrive and if you grow vegetables, your increase will be 40 percent for broccoli, 80 percent for tomatoes and as much as 259 percent for carrots, according to The Ecologist, and you will be the healthy beneficiary of all that reworked goodness.
The following morning, about to toss egg shells and tomato ends into the bin, I remembered why I had been converted into a potential vermi-farmer. Organic waste. Seventeen percent of our waste is kitchen waste. It costs a fortune to transport to landfill sites (which are getting scarcer by the day) and every time I put it in the bin, I felt guilty. But with some minor exceptions (citrus, onion and fat) earthworms love anything organic.
So feeling virtuous I searched for a proper container. At this point I did not feel up to spending about £90 on the very clever Can-O-Worms system, so I found two rectangular ice cream containers. I put some egg size stones in the bottom container which would eventually contain the vermi-tea and I punched holes in the main container for the tea to drain through. The pamphlet suggested tearing strips of newspaper, wetting it and adding a handful of soil. Worms like damp conditions and not too hot or too cold. I then emptied my worms onto this bedding. I added some carrot, half an egg shell, some coffee grounds and the tomato ends. Worms process about their own weight every day, so to start with not too much waste goes into the bin. I then popped the punched lid on the top. Earthworms do not like ultraviolet light.
Over the next few days like a mother, I worried about what to feed them, picking over the waste to give them a varied diet, hoping for the day when I could give them everything. Hence the preoccupation with their habits of procreation. Much of the evenings
Since they multiply according to the space available, I needed to check that I was giving them just enough. So, I did the thing
Do you know what I love most about this: the feeling of being part of the cycle of life; earth to earth and all that. Living in a city, away from my country roots I have a daily rush of satisfaction and virtuousness; not only doing my bit for the earth, but adding to the cycle of life.