Vermiculture FAQs

Why Worms?

Well why not? There is no better fertilizer. Vermicast (worm poop) is ph neutral, can be put on your plants directly without burning them and is loaded with a diverse microbe flora that will make the soil nutrients available to your plants. You can feed many kinds of kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, shredded paper and cardboard to the worms and even keep them in the house. As long as you don’t over feed them, and as long as you keep that food covered with sheets of wet cardboard your worm bin will be odorless and will not attract flies. If you use a little vermicast to brew some “worm tea” overnight, in the morning the “tea” will be teeming with beneficial microbes which you can spray on your plants to repel hurtful insects and to inoculate the plants from various diseases, or you can apply it to the soil around the plants.

The Wormhole

#3 – Growing up with Dirt

My grandfather (ca. 1884-1956) was the youngest of eight sons born to a general in the German Reich’s army. He had fled Germany alone just before World War I. In his early 40’s he married my grandmother who was 18 and in 1933 my father, was born. In 1938 they purchased the farm I grew up on in northwest Oregon. My father lived on that farm all his life. When he was a child he would ride the draft horses that pulled a plow while his father walked behind.

My father did not like horses. When he was a teenager he bought a used Ford 9N tractor that we still have today. I grew up driving that tractor from before I was ten years old. My dad bought a single-bottom plow and some other implements for preparing the yearly gardens and my mother taught us how to plant seeds.

Our soil was a hard, lumpy and predominantly clay. Dad’s plow was a shiny curved steel blade that could lift the top 12 inches of soil and turn it upside down. This left massive chunks of shiny brown sheets of dirt that had to be broken up with a small walk-behind gasoline-powered rototiller. I hated tilling the garden with that rototiller. It was hard to control while it bucked and tipped from side to side. It always tried to climb up out of the furrow and run across the top of the ground without chewing anything up.

On the other side of town my mother’s cousin had a Troy-Bilt rototiller with rear tines. It was vastly more cooperative. His soil was a fine predominantly silty soil. He had a greenhouse and a green thumb. Everything he touched grew and flourished. Our chunky clay dirt clods managed to grow squash, carrots, corn, radishes, beans and other vegetables, but not like the gardens on the other side of town. I wanted dirt like they had. I was vaguely aware of descriptive soil vocabulary such as clay, silt and sand but mainly there was “good dirt” and “bad dirt.”

Each year we spread animal manure on the ground before tilling. We had sheep, goats, cows, rabbits and horses. My daily chores included feeding all the animals and milking the goats. Periodically I had to remove the manure from the various barns. It stank and I didn’t like work. The only animal I appreciated was my horse. He was mostly American Quarter Horse with some Morgan mix. Morgans are draft horses so he was a huge 1400 pounds, had a strong thick neck and stood 17 hands tall. He loved to buck me off but riding was all pleasure and my time in the 4-H Horse Club generated some of my best memories. More than 40 years later, in Tokyo, I am becoming keenly aware of how little I ever knew about the living “dirt” that supports our lives, and I hope readers here will join me on my journey of discovery.

The Wormhole

#2 – American Farm Boy Rides Herd in Tokyo

Worm herds, that is. I grew up on a farm in the 60’s. I enjoyed countless hours riding horseback in the surrounding mountains, but I dreamed of living in the city where the streets were paved. Skateboards just don’t roll on gravel roads. 50 years later I find myself living in Tokyo, but skateboards have changed.

My migration to the city has been convoluted. I spent four years attending an agricultural high school on a 360-acre farm in southern Utah followed by four more years on a 100-acre farm in the mountains of Okinawa where I became fluent in Japanese. My father was a machinist and automotive technician and I had always gravitated to the machinery aspects of agriculture. So back in the US I spent a decade in autobody repair, and then 15 years in IT (computer and network support). I started college at age 29 and spent the next 29 years earning a double-major B.A. in Applied Linguistics and Japanese. Some years before finishing my degree at Portland State University I made my way back to Japan, working as a linguist at a medical university. I have no intention of ever returning to agriculture, at least not as a farmer.

I love crowded streets and trains. I try to imagine where all those people come from and wish I could get to know more of them. I am fortunate to have two homes. Part of the time I live just 3 minutes’ walk from one of Tokyo’s busy train stations in high density jungle of concrete hi-rise apartment towers, but most of the time I choose to stay in my country home just a minute’s walk from rice paddies where frogs sing in loud choruses at night. In the city I wonder how all those people will find food if the economy collapses, and in the countryside I am surrounded by small-scale farms, mostly run by very old people. I feel more secure around farmers and feel more at ease surrounded by farms and gardens. This has driven me over the last several years to look for a way to contribute something directly to the farmers near me and to Japanese agriculture and food security in general. Then along came the new SARS-COV2 corona virus. The pandemic spurred me into action. When the local organic gardener complained that everyone should be growing their own vegetables, another voice told me there are many people like me who simply can’t or don’t want to grow vegetables, but who would be happy to contribute soil they’ve built using their kitchen scraps, composters and worm herds. Since then I have spent countless hours reading books and articles on vermiculture, searching the web, watching videos, planning, and generally attempting to accelerate my vermiculture learning process by coupling my acquisition of theoretical knowledge with hands-on experience. In May of 2020 I set up more than 10 herds of redworms in various types of environments and am practicing everything I already know about the husbandry of redworms while continuing to read. In this series I will keep you posted.

The Wormhole

#1 – Redworms

The unseen farm animals

I grew up in the 1960s on a farm with sheep, goats, horses, cows, a dog, and countless cats. In those days our family had a gender-based division of labor, where my three sisters did housework while my brother and I did outside chores. I wouldn’t be caught dead washing dishes because that was “girls’ work” but I was perfectly happy pitching tons of manure from the barn into piles outdoors where it was left to cook for a few months until it had cooled enough for the worms to move in. Tilling it into the gardens I never thought anything of the worms. My first contact with the idea of raising worms on purpose, was in Okinawa, Japan circa 1980. I was teaching at an agricultural high school when a friend invited me to his farm to see his worms. He lifted what looked like a haphazard pile of carboard to reveal countless worms living in and under it. I didn’t become active in vermiculture for another two decades, but that visual brain etching still guides me today.

Twenty years later, redworms took up residence in some soggy bales of straw I had left out in the rain for a couple years. To capture some of them I built a set of stackable of 7’x2’ rectangular frames using treated 2x4s with 1/4” wire mesh across the bottoms. Each tray was the depth of the broad side of a 2×4. I set the bottom tray on the ground with a sheet of plywood under it to discourage the worms from leaving, and filled it completely with 3.5” wide strips of cardboard packed in on edge vertically. I put the worms in the second tray with some dirt and began piling on our daily kitchen scraps. Those worms ate all the kitchen scraps my family of 4 could produce for the next 10 years. When the second tray filled, I added the third and sometimes fourth trays. Every few months I removed the bottom tray which was nothing but vermicast (worm poop) and dumped it in my little garden plot.

I was vaguely aware that three “marketable” products could be harvested, including worms, vermicast, and something called worm tea, but I didn’t know how to harvest any of those “products” and was too busy to find out. I kept the worms covered out of the direct sun in the summer, but let them almost freeze in the winter. I did nothing to keep their environment from becoming anaerobic, read no books on worm husbandry, and was perfectly happy that all my kitchen scraps sank down into the trays and disappeared. The nearby cherry tree stump that I had cut down sprouted and grew new trunks over 8 inches in diameter and taller than the neighbor’s house within 5 or 6 years and bore better cherries than ever before. Please stay tuned for more of this journey through the wormhole.