If you were to dig a few inches underneath your Colorado lawn, chances are that you wouldn’t be happening upon a very lively place. “It’s dry or it’s hard clays or it’s low in organics. It’s wind-blown. There’s all kinds of problems with our soil,” said Ken Williams, a man who has spent 30 years in Colorado Springs as a dirt contractor.
Typically our solution to this problem is to aerate. We’ve been known to spray chemicals and drop fertilizer, uprooting the landscape with gas-powered rototillers holding out hope that something will sprout from the surface. Williams feels that it’s important to inform lawn owners and gardeners in the Pikes Peak region to know that there is another more natural way to go about this. The way of the worm.
Williams is the owner of Rocky Mountain Worm Co., and after two years of selling at farm shows he opened a store in the area on March 30. He is trying to spread the awareness of what worms can do in terms of keeping your lawn or garden as healthy as it can be, be it a bundle of worms, bucket of worm manure or a concoction known as worm tea.
“You really do want the worms. You want some of the bugs in your garden,” Williams’ son and business partner Jay Williams said. “You don’t want to spray your garden and kill all your lady bugs, praying mantis and beetles. Those things actually help your garden. It’s the same thing with the worms in your soil, healthy plants grow in healthy soils.”
During his time as a dirt contractor, Ken Williams developed an appreciation for earthworms. After learning of the effects that chemicals and pesticides have on the environment, he found himself leaning towards a holistic approach to gardening.
“Healthy plants grow in healthy soils,” he said. “You start understanding the soil environment, a living product, the microbes and worms and how they all work together.”
Having a hard time finding work with a degree in nuclear medicine, Williams’ son decided to come home and get on board with “this worm thing.” After receiving some training in farming worms they began to experiment with the right mixtures of decayed plants, organic material, rock dust and grains in which to raise worms.
The worm farm is really a warehouse filled with tubs and stacked buckets, each of them loaded with worms munching away. When the worms digest their food, what comes out their other end is considered plant food. It’s loaded with minerals, microbes and nitrogen. It also smells nothing like manure and won’t get your pets sick.
Next, the castings are sifted by machine or hand into a soil-like form and applied to the landscape. Something about gardening with worms, though, is that it tends to require more effort. You’ll have to put away the rototiller, as tillage kills worms. Using earthworms in your garden is committing to an alternate approach, one that is devoid of chemicals and tilling.
When starting a garden, Williams recommends 4-5 pounds of casting per 10 square feet. The castings generally sell for $3.50 a pound, and about $50 for a 22-pound bucket. Use a garden fork to pry open cracks in the soil and let the castings fall into the cracks, rather than tearing up the soil.
“It takes much longer, a lot more elbow grease, but you don’t destroy nearly as much of the microorganism environment and you don’t destroy the worms that might be there,” according to Williams.
The method is to buy a bundle of live worms consisting mostly of African nightcrawlers and Red Wigglers (they sell for $35 a pound), water liberally and introduce them underground in the same way. Next you will want to rake over the cracks as gently as possible- birds will have a heyday if you leave any worms above the surface. Cover the area with garden soil, chemical-free organic mulch, compost, hay or alfalfa. It is also plausible to purchase worm cocoons.
If everything goes according to plan, the worms will survive the shock of being placed in a new environment and soon they’ll begin tunneling and chewing their way to a healthy garden for you.
For lawns both new and established, Ken Williams recommends 10 pounds of castings per every 100 square feet. It’s to be applied as a top dressing for existing lawns or mixed in with the seeds in new lawns.
For an added boost to give existing plants and lawns, the worm tea brewed with castings can be directly sprayed onto grass and plants. It’s been known to sell for around $6 a quart.
In addition to selling a lot of worm manure, Ken’s hope is that more and more people will recognize the value of worms in maintaining lawns and gardens.
“Chemicals are known to be bad for people’s consumption. They leach into the groundwater table. They make plants not as healthy as they might appear. They’re not resistant to bugs,” he said.
“The natural way produces better tasting vegetables. It produces healthy plants to begin with. It’s not like plants on a chemical fix. The serious gardeners, they highly recognize the value of worms. Other people are learning.”
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