Packed in quart-sized Baggies, the stuff looks rich, crumbly and decidedly illegal. But the label states otherwise: It’s nutrient-rich humus, a.k.a. Premium Quality Worm Castings — the end product, literally, of thousands of red worms, also known as red wigglers, tiger worms, manure worms, stink worms, fish worms, dung worms, fecal worms and striped worms.
“Old farmers call them manure worms and old fishermen call them trout worms,” says Carol Schminke, who operates the Down to Earth Worm Farm of Vermont in Greensboro Bend with her sister Lynette Courtney. The two women, who refer to themselves as the Wacky Worm Sisters, have a habit of interrupting each other and finishing one another’s sentences. But they agree on one thing: the wonders of worm waste. Eisenia fetida — as the wigglers are called in Latin — has a hearty appetite and will eat just about anything. What comes out the other end is primo organic fertilizer. The sisters sell it by the bag — $8 for a quart-sized bag — to serious gardeners.
In fact, the proper name for what Courtney, 58, and Schminke, 55, do is “vermi composting.” Their 5-year-old operation, a division of New Leaf Designs Professional Gardening Services & Eclectic Nursery, is located in the basement of a barn that also houses Courtney’s husband’s furniture, jewelry and electric guitar studio. Here, among grow lights and racks of seedlings and cuttings, is a wall of wooden worm bins on drawer slides. For the benefit of a visiting reporter, Courtney opens the lid of one wooden box and removes a flattened, recycled plastic bag that keeps in the moisture. Out comes the aroma of a forest floor — sweet, damp, living earth. The sudden light drives the hundreds of worms that had been grazing near the surface down into their bed of damp maple leaves.
“Springtails,” she says, pointing to the tens of thousands of tiny white insects that are busy breaking down organic matter. A lone roly-poly bug heads underground.
“Springtails are the mark of excellence in composting,” says Courtney. This is obviously a healthy bin, and she’s proud of its progress.
With both hands, she digs down into the mixture to where the bulk of the worms are busy turning kitchen scraps — eggshells, carrot and potato peelings, onion skins, coffee grinds and their paper filters — into nutrient-rich “castings,” a fancy word for worm poop. The dark-brown castings, which have the super-fine consistency of ground espresso coffee beans, settle to the bottom of the bin.
She holds in her hands a clump of perhaps a thousand squiggling, wiggling worms that have attached themselves to a piece of watermelon rind. Melon is a good lure when it comes time to remove the worms from the bins in order to harvest their castings. (The sisters also sell worms as bait. “You get about 20 worms for five bucks,” Schminke says.)
She figures that a pound of worms is roughly 2000 individual wigglers; with about 60 to 75 pounds of worms on hand, that means Down to Earth Farm hosts roughly 150,000 or so individual worms.
One pound of worms, she continues, will eat a half-pound of food a day. “Some raw foods they can’t eat right away. So we cook for them to soften it up,” reveals Schminke. Unlike worms raised in huge commercial farms, which are fed mostly manure, “We have happier worms,” she declares. “Their castings are more nutritious than [on] commercial worm farms.”
In order to harvest the nutrient-rich castings at the bottom of the bin, the worms must first be removed. Picking them out one at a time would take hours; that’s where the melon comes in. When it’s buried just under the top layer of maple leaves, the worms will migrate en masse to the melon. The writhing blob can then be lifted out of the bin and placed inside a temporary container while the castings get scooped out and moved to the sifting table.
Everything is done by hand at this “boutique” worm farm, and the sisters’ hands are coated with an earthy film.
“We’ve been known to eat sandwiches with our hands like this,” says Courtney, laughing, as she begins sifting the castings through a wire-mesh frame.
Harvesting worm castings requires a lot of sifting. Runaway worms and errant egg cases are handpicked from the soon-to-be packaged castings. “Oh, look, there’s a bone,” exclaims Courtney, who’s come across a chickadee wishbone. That and a chipmunk skull — cat-kill, she explains — have been picked clean by the worms. The bones go into a box marked “Remains of mortality composting.” It’s part of the workshop they present in area schools. “Girls are way into the worms, almost more than the boys,” she says. “The boys like the remains.”
The siblings continue sifting and rescuing stowaways and egg cases as they answer the big question: Why worms?
Worms are easy to raise and are self-perpetuating,” says Schminke. “In a year you can double or triple your worm poundage; you multiply that by 2000 and you get a nice, wowing number of worms.”
But as gardeners themselves, the sisters say it’s the castings that sold them.
“This is a disease-suppressing, antifungal material with all the trace elements,” Schminke continues. “This is the highest concentrated nutrition, the highest echelon.” From a horticultural standpoint, in other words, this is some really good shit.