Worming Our Way Into Farming

What do you call it when worms take over the world? 
Global Worming

Over the course of our research, we realized that good soil is one of the key, yet often overlooked, ingredient for healthy plants. Too often, farmers focus on feeding their plants with fertilizers, in a bid to encourage high yields. Or they drench their plants with pesticides and fungicides to ward off pests and diseases. As it turns out, we should really be focusing on growing good soil before we can grow healthy plants. Just like humans with a vitamin deficiency, plants grown in deficient soil suffer from nutrient deficiency, and are more susceptible to pests and diseases.

So what is good? Simply put, it all boils down to the basics: air, water and nutrients. Good soil soaks up water without being waterlogged, contains enough air gaps to allow good circulation of air without causing water runoff, and is rich in nutrients to provide plants with the food it needs to grow and fruit.

Trying to obtain good, organic soil — free from any previous chemical use, in addition to being pathogen and weed free — was almost impossible (read: too expensive) within Mauritius. While we did find an organic soilless blend that had great potential, it was lacking in minerals necessary for fruiting plants. So we set out growing ourselves some good soil.

Specifically, we decided vermicomposting was the way to go. Vermicompost, or compost made mostly by earthworms, is seven times richer in plant nutrients compared to compost created mostly by fungi and bacteria, and recent studies suggest that small amounts mixed into soil suppress diseases, slugs and insects. Our favourite resources— Google and YouTube — made vermicomposting seem easy enough. Some plastic buckets, a hand drill, some worms …. piece of cake, right? NOT.

Half a day roaming the chaotic streets of Port Louis and a migraine later, we finally found the right buckets at a reasonable price. But we were still missing our key ingredient — earthworms! The only worms the aquariums stocked either came in a tin, or were glowing silicon worms in every fluorescent shade you could imagine. We asked around and were told fishermen dug for them at the beach, but we figured those were probably lugworms and not the right kind of worms we needed. We checked with the farmers near us, and the general consensus ,with varying degrees of wistfulness, was that earthworms used to be found in abundance, but not anymore. A consequence of the overzealous use of pesticides perhaps? Fortunately, we bumped into a kind planter who tasked her son with the responsibility of digging up 500 grams of earthworms from her backyard. Later that day, we met her son, Y, who grinned at us from his front door, plastic bag in hand, “they are still alive”. We were now the proud owners of our first batch of worms.

Clockwise from bottom left: 500gm of worms; Wes drilling ventilation holes in our worm bin; Drainage holes so worms don’t drown; dry bedding at the top

In the first week we experienced The Great Escape of Worms. Each morning, we awoke to some adventurous worms, who had made their way down the sides in search of paradise, and found death instead. Trying to pick dried up worms, swarmed by ants, off the tiles is a gross affair. After some tweaking around, including the ingenious method of wrapping a nylon stocking around the mouth of the bucket, we were finally able to keep our worm bin moist, the worms in and our floors clean. Total worm casualty: 10.

20 Days Later: Well-fed, juicy worms

Our worms are fed a steady diet of green kitchen scraps, including egg shells. The food is buried in different parts of the bin to encourage tunneling in their bed, and they are fed about once a week for now. I’m really cautious about overfeeding, as I do not want rotting food to sit in the bin for too long. Currently, the bin’s aroma is a strange mix of earthy and sweet tones, a smell I am finding new appreciation for. It tells me that the worms are healthy and that anaerobic bacteria isn’t colonising the bin.

I suppose the vermicompost should be ready for harvesting in about 2 months, and they will be added to our growing medium. If all goes according to plan, vermicompost would be a much appreciated soil amendment for our plants to thrive in. Here’s hoping I keep them worms alive till then!

If you are interested in setting up your own worm bin, Red Worm Composting is a pretty great resource for beginners.

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