Of all the creatures whose existence are crucial to the growth of edible crops on this planet, the bee and the earthworm are prime contenders. Of the two, I suggest the worm is the more essential. The bee is, indeed, the most prodigious pollinator of flora, but it is not alone in this. Other insects also acquire pollen (perhaps by accident rather than the "be-all and end-all" design of the bee) and fertilise plants on their travels. But the worm alone excretes a waste product essential for the healthy development of plants. Without this lowly creature there would be no agriculture, no horticulture, no domestic vegetable garden.
The ‘worm farm’ comprises three tiered plastic trays, with perforated bottoms plus lid, resting on a base tray standing on four legs which acts a reservoir. (Only two tiered trays are needed at any one time - the third tray is used for rotation purposes.) A worm consumes organic matter that passes through its system and is converted into the most essential waste product on our planet. It is capable of eating the equivalent of its own body weight every three days, which is much to its productive effort.
Without the ‘casts’ that the worm expels from its body the Earth’s top soils would remain infertile. By digesting organic matter the worm accelerates the process of decomposition many hundred times, and the end-product is a sterile compound material rich in chemical nutrients essential for the growth of plants upon which human life depends. The worm cast also contains micro bacteria that continue to break down undecomposed organic material. It provides a continuous process of soil enrichment and water retention, which is a real and present problem in Western Australia.
I acquired my worm farm at a seminar given by a commercial worm breeder sponsored by our local city council. So eager was the council to encourage recycling and composting that a 50% subsidy was offered towards the purchase price. In addition to the tiered-tray structure, there came a kilo of worms (several thousand of the little creatures) and a supply of worm casts to fill a tray and to kick-start the process.
The principle of the system is to place the worms in the top tray, with the worm casts in the tray below resting on the base tray. Shredded paper and other fibrous material is placed in the top tray and sprinkled with water. This assists decomposition and maintains a damp, cool environment that the worms require to exist, eat and propagate. Blended vegetable peelings, tea leaves and coffee grinds, even dog hair, can be fed to the worms. They will consume this feed and the shredded paper. Their progress can be observed as the fibrous mixture becomes inundated with tiny black strings - the worm casts that gradually replace the original contents of the tray.
Together with the liquid I use to sprinkle over the top tray, I add cardboard egg cartons that have been soaked in a bucket of water. The cheap fibre quickly dissolves and the mixture turns into a grey, organic soup that is easily digested by the worms, thus not only watering the tray but adding to the worms’ diet.
This liquid drains through the perforations in the bottom to the tray below containing the worm casts. Organic material is dissolved in the liquid as it passes downward, together with micro bacteria, that drips down to the base tray where it collects in the reservoir. The base tray is so designed that the liquid flows towards one end where a tap can be opened to drain this ‘worm tea’ into a container and stored. It is an excellent feed for plants, and reduces the need for purchased fertiliser.
I referred in the heading to this Musing to a calamity involving the loss of worms. It was almost catastrophic and I came close to wiping out my whole stock of worms. I have mentioned that it is important to maintain a damp environment within which the worms are contained. This to ensure the worm’s mucous membrane is maintained in good condition, failing which it will dehydrate. The process of evaporation also helps to keep the trays cool. This is a part of my daily routine in looking after the worms to which I pay particular attention, especially during these hot summer days.
I have positioned the worm farm on the southerly side of the house, under the eaves, to minimise its exposure to direct sunlight. I discovered to my cost over one weekend that this was not sufficient to keep the temperature of the tray contents adequately cool if the daily watering did not take place.
This occurred when late one Saturday afternoon while gardening I dislocated my right hip. (I had had the hip replaced 12 months earlier due to osteoarthritis, and it was the prosthesis that popped out). I fell to the ground and was completely immobile. An ambulance arrived and whisked me to the emergency department of our nearby hospital. The prosthesis was relocated and I remained in hospital overnight for observation.
The following day proved to be the hottest of the summer, reaching 44 degrees C. Encapsulated in the tender care of Fremantle Hospital I was unaware of this. I expected to be discharged by midday. I asked my wife to water the vegetables and other plants which I reckoned would not survive until evening. I gave less thought to the worms. I anticipated they could survive a day without watering as their trays were invariably damp and reasonably cool upon my daily inspection.
It was not to be. When I did eventually arrive home that afternoon I found the top two trays devoid of worms. They had all dropped down to the base tray, some clinging to each other in a writhing mass; others had already drowned in the worm tea that filled the reservoir. I carried out emergency extraction of those worms still alive, sprinkled water on the top tray and piled on the surface mounds of ice cubes to reduce the ambient temperature.
I was lucky, I had lost no more than half of my worm stock. With lots of TLC over the days following the survivors recovered from their trauma and, as nature often responds to a disaster, they were more than usually fruitful thereafter and multiplied so that their numbers increased to normal within a couple of weeks.
I will shortly return to Fremantle Hospital to have a revision carried out to the hip prosthesis. I will probably remain an in-patient for about a week. As our summer temperatures still remain high I am giving my wife a thorough course in worm farm maintenance and preservation.
Mea culpa; lesson learnt.