Worm Power

Organic/Natural Viewpoint

The dirt on building natural soil fertility

Editor’s Note: Building soil fertility the natural way may help you avoid/minimize your pesticide use. Or not. Just because something is built naturally (or organically) doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safer or better. The chemicals, whether synthetic or naturally occurring, are the same, they kill and nurture equally well. Some argue you have better control of the amount of chemicals applied when you use synthetics because you can measure exactly how much you put down and how long it remains in the soil. Some argue a naturally built system automatically keeps itself in balance.

In the end, it’s up to you, the user, to decide which works best in your particular situation. To give you more “food for thought,” here is the viewpoint of Erika Allen, Chicago Project Manager for Growing Power – a non-profit advocate of the benefits of building soil fertility naturally and building community food programs.

How can food waste (organic materials like vegetable and fruit scraps), moldy straw, coffee grounds and microbrewery waste make tea? Through the power of worms. Most specifically, surface dwelling red wrigglers (eisenia fetida) whose sole purpose for living is to decompose organic material.

These little workers (vertical dwellers with fast, squiggly, wriggly movements) are commonly known as manure worms. They’re the ones responsible for those little piles of ground up soil you may see in your garden or lawn. You can see them when you flip over a cow patty (for those of you with a rural farm background) or as the favorite bait of folks who really like to go fishing (much to our chagrin!).

This “closed-loop” ecological approach allows for the cleanup of contaminants in the soil, for the digestion and transformation of food waste, and for the production of fertilizer that, in my opinion, is far more effective than chemical treatments.

Here at Growing Power, we’ve developed a system which we believe helps fight off soil disease by quickly breaking down food waste and developing and end product that keeps plants/turf strong and healthy, eliminating the need for costly fertilizers, lawn treatments and other chemical products.

We believe there are negative environmental impacts to synthetic, commercial fertilizer applications, both on local water supplies and soil health. To that end, we’ve created Milwaukee Black Gold Foliar Tea – vermin -castings packaged for sale as foliar tea (a top-dressing spread-able fertilizer applied as an aerosol with a sprayer).

Building Foliar Tea

The first step in prepping your site for a return to natural nutrient cycling (bringing the system back in balance) is to treat the area with a foliar tea made of worm castings (worm poop/fertilizer).

We offer a potent foliar tea for sale here at Growing Power, but you can also make your own. Here’s how we make ours:

1. Each week our three-acre urban farm receives delivery of carbon and nitrogen organic waste (browns and greens). This waste is broken down using static pile (letting it sit and rot) and eventually hot composting (130 degrees) to break down weed seed and other pathogens.

2. This partially broken down food waste (after three months or so) is placed in large woodbins with worms to begin the vermin-composting process.

a. Vermi (worm) + Composing (organic waste) – Worm Castings (worm poop).

b. Essentially, the worms eat the compost and make fertilizer

3. The worm castings (worm poop) are separated from the worms. We use a low-tech, hand-sifting process in order to avoid damaging the worms.

4. These vermi-castings are then packaged for sale as foliar tea which is a top-dressed fertilizer (in aerosol format) that can be used on lawns, farms, houseplants and gardens

5. To use/apply the foliar tea, you need to “brew the tea” by placing the worm castings in a small or large mesh filter, steeping them for 12-24 hours in de-chlorinated water and pouring the “tea” into an aerosol sprayer, which you then use to apply to the plant material.

How It Works

For the first month, you will need to brew and apply the tea weekly. At the end of this month, you will see the plant material/turf turn a vibrant green as the root systems fan out and grow deeper due to the re-introduction of microorganisms. As these natural systems are revived, you will start backing off on the applications of your foliar tea eventually reaching a state where the soil systems work without outside help.

(This healthy root system is especially important for the care and upkeep of golf greens).

No one is exactly sure why this system works so well, but it is thought that the microbial life in the worm castings is the key element. When worm castings have been heat sterilized prior to application (to kill all microbes but retain the same nutritional value) the plants material did not respond as well as those treated with the regular castings.

At Growing Power, we believe the microbes help reintroduce natural nutrient cycling in the soil, helping make minerals and organic nutrients more available to the plants.

Here are some interesting facts about the power of our red wriggler friends:

1. Red wriggler worms are able to multiply microbial populations by up to 13 times in their gut! This means they have the natural ability to naturally increase the nutrient delivery systems for plant root systems.

2. Red wriggler worms break down pathogens in their gut, which means eliminating nasty pathogens like E. coli and the like.

3. Red wriggler worm castings can be used for bio-remediation, reducing contaminants by up to 98 percent. These amazing worms do not retain any contaminants in their bodies and the only by-products are carbon dioxide and water.

4. Of all the microbes in the world, we only know five percent. We can only cultivate 1 percent.

Red Wriggler Passion

We’ve been obsessed with developing vermin-compost systems and related products for over ten years now. Learning the science of why these little creatures produce such an effective fertility system and how to share this method with others has led to the development of our Living Biological Worm System – a high fertility, raised bed style of intensively growing agricultural products, using on-farm or readily available urban compost resources. (The Chicago Park District uses this system in its Grant Park Potager Gardens where they grow 150 varieties of heirloom and ethnic vegetables without the use of chemicals. For more information, see Totally Organic, page 12 of the May issue of Parks & Rec Business.)

It is our belief that compost teas and building fertility via biological farming is the future of organic farming and the greening industry. It may also be the answer to your sports turf problems. What could be better then chemical free, self-sustaining sports fields?

Erika Allen is the Chicago Projects Manager for Growing Power. She is responsible for assisting inspired limited resource community leaders to develop secure, sustainable community food system projects. She also emphases the need to work in partnerships to create healthy and diverse food options in inner city and rural communities. She can be reached at erika@growingpower.org

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