Home & Garden

The good stuff: Plants just can't get enough of worm castings

BENTON CITY -- Worms crawl in. Worms crawl out. Worms crawl through and through. And what they leave behind gardeners can't get enough of.

The castings are a rich, all-natural source of organic matter -- a fertilizer full of nutrients that plants easily turn into lush growth.

Until recently home gardeners had to have their own worms or buy the worm castings from a nursery or garden supply store.

But now worm farmers Dan and Ellie Dutt of Benton City are offering their rich fertilizer direct to local gardeners as well as selling it to nurseries.

The couple started Dan & Ellie's Wiggly Worms about eight months ago to supply worms for composting bins.

They sold the castings to growers and nurseries and now are making it available to home gardeners for $1.75 a pound.

Even if your garden is limited to house plants or containers on the patio, using worm castings as fertilizer is well worth it.

"Most potting soils have a nutrient life of two to five days while compost made from worm castings will last up to six times longer," said Gail Everett, the city of Richland's Environmental Education Coordinator.

Earthworms can swallow more than their body weight in organic matter in one day. And what's left over is like gold to gardeners because it's infinitely richer in nitrogen, phosphate, calcium, exchangeable magnesium and potash than the finest top soil.

"It's all natural and using things from nature, that are naturally made is the best type of fertilizer," Everett said.

Everett, has been worm composting for years. She uses the castings they produce to make a fertilizer "tea" to water her office plants with.

Once, when a co-worker went on vacation, Everett included his plant in her watering rounds. When he came back, he headed right for her office and asked if she'd watered his plant with "that worm stuff."

"I said 'Yes, how did you know?' And he told me it was because of all the new growth. It was that noticeable," Everett said.

Another time she gave a bag of worm castings to a co-worker who worked them in around a rose bush that had been struggling for two years.

"She told me this was the last step, that if this didn't work it was time to remove it," Everett said.

Within two weeks, the woman, a member of the Tri-City Rose Society, reported the bush was thriving and had sprouted new buds.

Castings are like a time-release fertilizer. They have an oily coating over them so they don't release all their nutrition to the soil and roots all at once when watered. They break down slowly, Dan Dutt explained.

"Castings are ideal because you really can't use too much and burn the roots like you can with fertilizer," he said.

Here are some ways to use worm castings around the home and in the garden:

-- For germinating seeds mix the worm castings with sand.

"Use about 20-30 percent of castings to the amount of sand. That'll be enough to ensure continuous growth for about three months," said Dutt.

-- To use worm castings as a soil conditioner place equal layers of soil and castings in a container or flower bed, then water and plant it. It'll take about three months for the castings to break down and as they do they'll loosen and improve the soil.

For heavy clay soils, increase the amount of castings, he said.

-- To use worm castings as a fertilizer just sprinkle a good amount around the base of your plants, dig it in and water.

Worm castings can also be used as a liquid fertilizer -- Dutt calls it Worm Tea -- that can be sprayed on a plant's leaves or added to the soil.

Make your own or buy it from Dutt in gallon containers. To make your own just pile a couple of big handfuls of worm castings into the center of a piece of burlap, tie it closed and dunk it into a bucket of water. Let it sit overnight, pull it out, drain and use the water to fertilize your plants.

Dutt also offers gallon containers of premade worm tea and castings already packaged into oversize tea bags. To use the bags simply dunk one or more into a bucket, let it sit a while and then water your plants.

Castings leftover from making the worm tea can be worked into flower or vegetable beds. Most of the nutrients will have leached out into the water but the castings will still help amend the soil.

The Dutts don't keep regular retail hours so it's best to call ahead, 509-366-3770, if you plan to drive out. Or send an e-mail to cuddlyworms@aol.com.

* Loretto J. Hulse: 509-582-1513; lhulse@tricityherald.com