Spring into gardening

Worm farms help growers get a head start on the season

EW, SLIMY<br> Red worms are popularly used in compost bins and gardens.

Red worms are popularly used in compost bins and gardens.

Photo By Matt Siracusa

Compost class and worm stash: Brett Kinney is organizing a composting workshop at Kinney Nursery on May 7. The cost is $10. To register, call 839-2196. For more info about The Worm Farm, visit www.thewormfarm.net.

Arlita Purser hasn’t had much time to enjoy the area’s beautiful spring sunshine.

Recent fair weather has given local gardeners dreams of bumper crops this summer, and to improve the quality of their soil, many are heading to The Worm Farm, Purser’s family operation in Durham, for advice, compost and a whole lot of worms.

“People come here with questions about worms, and we have the answers,” said the busy Purser, a smiling silver-haired woman who has learned just about everything there is to know about raising healthy, (probably) happy worms.

Spring is a popular time to incorporate castings into the garden—either straight into the ground or in raised beds during planting—as evidenced by the farm’s hectic schedule. The small business ships up to 650 pounds of worms around the country each week via priority mail, and provides about 1,800 cubic feet of worm castings and soil amendments each year to home gardeners and farmers.

Worm castings contain a biological mixture of beneficial bacteria and are packed with minerals that are essential for plant growth. Purser explained how each tiny granule has a calcium coating—“like an M&M”—that is released to plants when they need it most.

Purser and her husband, Mark, have been managing the worm nursery, which was formally a chicken ranch, for the past 17 years with the help of their son and three other staff members. They have two acres of land specifically dedicated to worm production.

The Durham nursery is easy to find at the end of a long gravel driveway on Esquon Road, where visitors are greeted by two large top-hat and monocle-wearing worms made of cast iron that adorn a grand black gate.

The worms live in orderly outdoor rows of cow manure that are harvested once a year for their castings. Worm castings, also known as vermicompost, are the waste materials left over after food passes though the worms’ digestive systems. The product is extremely high in nitrogen and beneficial microbes.

Organic matter found in castings replenishes soil with the nutrients that are used up during each growing season. It amends the soil structure to aid in water retention and feeds helpful micro-organisms.

Red worms (eisenia fetida), which are commonly used in home compost bins, are the most popular product featured on the farm’s extensive Web site. Purser also raises a smaller quantity of big, fast-moving European night crawlers, which are better suited to aerating orchard land.

During a recent tour of the farm, Purser amiably put on a pair of blue latex gloves before digging through the first three inches of soil to find the worms at work. One worm eats about half of its weight in organic matter a day, and one pound of worms can collectively produce about half a pound of castings daily, she said.

GOT WORMS? <br />Arlita Purser gives a glimpse of her own planter boxes, which she’s amended with a worm-castings mixture from her Durham-based business.

Photo By Matt Siracusa

A study conducted by Ohio State University found that the size of carrots and beets more than doubled when gardeners used a compost mix containing 20 percent worm castings. Interestingly, anything higher than that decreased the plant’s productivity.

“Basically, castings are like vitamins for the soil,” Purser said, “but you wouldn’t sit down and eat a whole bottle of vitamins for dinner, would you?”

The farm creates custom mixes of soil amendments that can include castings, cow manure, rice hulls, perlite, glacial rock and bat guano. Purser also sells certified Omri organic compost, although the castings are not considered organic due to the cow manure that they are raised in.

“But how much more organic can you get than a worm?” she asked.

By using amendments high in organic matter, gardeners can help ensure that the soil has everything that their plants need to enable them to grow.

Purser said that after buying soil amendments, many customers choose to bring home a pound of worms to add to their garden or to use in their personal compost bin. She has noticed that people new to composting sometimes make the mistake of giving their worms either too much water and food, or not enough.

Worms breathe through their skin, so it is critical that they get enough moisture without drowning. Even Purser remembers being shocked when, all those years ago, her first batch of worms didn’t survive their first week.

About 30 miles away in Vina, Brett Kinney of Kinney Nursery & Topsoil is hoping to take some of the fear of the unknown out of home composting by organizing a how-to workshop.

Kinney, who started the nursery in 1994 as an FFA project while attending Los Molinos High School, says making compost is easy and an excellent way for home gardeners to save money.

“It’s a good way to fertilize and help plants resist disease,” he said.

April is a great time to amend the soil with humus, prune flowering shrubs, and begin planting tomatoes, peppers and strawberries, Kinney said. He advised that most soils around Chico are clay-based and organic matter allows plant roots to breathe by breaking up the soil particles. Kinney cited heaviness, poor drainage, and cracking as common soil problems in the area.

His nursery also sells a variety of composts, including a popular garden soil mix combining soil, humus, worm castings and poultry manure. Kinney has seen an increase in the popularity of organic gardening and highly recommends chemical-free products to his customers.

“I have been steering them toward organic growing,” he said, adding that gardeners can use their homemade compost to create natural fertilizer.

“Most every soil can benefit from having more organic matter added,” he said.