Saturday, January 31, 2004

Earthworm 911

OK, we’ve got a serious issue to deal with this morning. Diane posted a comment yesterday about her worms, which have apparently failed to thrive in what sounds like a lovely new stacking worm bin system (maybe the terrific Wriggly Wranch bins that San Mateo county sells to residents for a bargain price of $29?)

Anyway, Diane, it sounds like you’re off to a good start. You ordered your worms from a worm farmer rather than digging them up out of your backyard, which means that you probably got the very best species for worm composting, Eisenia fetida, the redworm or red wiggler. You also got one of the best bins on the market. So what went wrong?

Diane says:

“It all started when I tried to get them to move to the upper layer of the bin, once they got near the top of the bottom layer. It was not a successful attempt and I gave up, removing the upper story of the mansion and going back to letting them exist in the bottom floor which seems to be what they prefer. Is it too cold here? Sometimes I wonder (we are in San Bruno on the edge of Pacifica.)”

Hmmm…well, first of all, you shouldn’t have to encourage the worms to move to the next tray in the bin. As they eat and their tray fills with castings, the contents of that tray will rise to meet the bottom of the next tray, and the worms will find the holes in the bottom of the tray and move up on their own. There’s really no need to move them around yourself.

I wonder how long you’ve had this bin. I tell people to give a stacking system like this a year. You’ll start out with just one tray and feed the worms slowly while they build up their population and get used to their environment. Keep a layer of shredded newspaper on top—that will soak up excess moisture in the bin , keep pests out, provide a food source, and help ensure that the contents of each tray are in contact with the tray above it.

It might take a few months or more for that first tray to fill up. Then you’ll put the second tray on top, start adding food there, and the worms will gradually move up into it. You’ll continue this process until all three trays are full of worms, castings, and food. Then, and only then, is it time to remove the bottom tray, use the castings, and put it on top to start over again. It can take several months or even a year to complete this cycle the first time. After that, it’ll go faster. I probably rotate the trays on my bin at least 4 times a year now.

Diane, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I think you should buy another pound of worms and try again. But before you do, let’s figure out what went wrong with the last batch.

Tell me a little more about what happened. Did you start them out in a bedding of coir (shredded coconut fiber), which usually comes with these bins? What have they had to eat? Where is the bin? I doubt it’s too cold where you are—worms usually do fine in our cool northern California winters. They’ll certainly slow down their rate of growth, and they prefer a temperature in the 60-70 degree range, but my worms tolerate temps in the 40s, with occasional dips into the 30s, with no problems.

And are you sure they’re dead? Did you find dead worm bodies, or just no worms?

Friday, January 30, 2004

Worm Farmers Go Legit

A little bit of worm news is all you get today. But it's good news, anyway: Worm growers in Georgia are going through a process to be designated as farmers by the legislature. The designation makes them eligible for crop insurance.

Makes perfect sense to me. Worms are a risky venture, as subject to the whims of nature as any field of corn or soybean, and twice as likely to pack up and move on under their own power if they're not happy with the conditions at home. A little crop insurance is a prudent investment when you're dealing with worms.

I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

These are encapsulated earthworm cocoons. Gardens Alive is selling them; they also sell Earthworm Food and I called today and ordered both. (Note: Gardeners Supply Company also sells the eggs in a slightly different form.)

The cocoons are Lumbricus rubellus, also sometimes called a red wiggler or a redworm. It is considered an epigeic worm, meaning that it lives in rotting organic matter, but it is often found in rich garden soil. I’m not sure what the cocoons are encapsulated in (probably a cornstarch-like coating to protect them) or what their hatch rate will be, but you can bet I’ll find out.

The earthworm food can be fed to composting worms or worms in the soil. It is, of course, not necessary to buy food for your worms. They eat garbage and dirt. But I can’t resist ordering a new earthworm product, so I’ve got three pounds of it on the way and I’ll let you know what I think of it.

This product, like most commercially sold worm foods (yes, there are a few—I have even heard a rumor that Purina makes a Worm Chow, but I’ve never seen it), contains corn meal, calcium, alfalfa, molasses, and a few other goodies that offer worms a rich source of beneficial bacteria and protein. Anything containing calcium is a special treat—it helps balance the pH of the soil (worms like a neutral or slightly alkaline soil), and when earthworms digest calcium, they help transform it into a form that is easier for plants to use.

If you’d like to make your own worm food, here’s a recipe based on the instructions that came with the first worm bin I ever bought:

Worm Fattener Recipe

1 part agricultural lime, bone meal, or powdered oyster shell (available at nurseries)
2 parts wheat or corn flour
2 parts bran or wheat meal
2 parts alfalfa meal or pellets (available at nurseries or feed stores)
2 parts chicken layer pellets

Now, I must say that I’ve never tried feeding chicken pellets to my worms. Some of them contain fish meal, and it’s a little strange to think of worms eating fish instead of the other way around. (Now that I consider it, it could be a rather satisfying feeling to give worms the final say.) But give it a try if you want—just feed them sparingly by sprinkling a thin layer on top of your worm bin or scratching it into the soil, and let me know how it goes.

Or you can skip it altogether and let them eat dirt.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Earthworm Dreams

Took a walk yesterday after a rainstorm and relocated about eight of these grey worms from the sidewalk to the grass. They flail around and struggle to get away from me; they have no idea that they’ve just met the best friend they’ll ever have. I would’ve liked to have brought them all home with me, but I didn’t have anything to carry them in and I had to stop at the market on the way home. As friendly and down-to-earth as they are at my neighborhood co-op, I didn’t think they’d want me walking in with eight worms cupped in my hands.

Writing this blog makes it impossible to take my mind off worms for even a little while. I’ve been having recurring dreams about worms. They’re not unpleasant dreams, or (to me) at all gross, but they do involve an over-abundance of worms. Nightcrawlers all over the surface of the soil, red wigglers spilling out of my worm bins, just so many worms that I can’t keep up with them all. I’m sure that’s interpretable, as my friend Annette, the psychologist, would say. There’s so much happening with this book—reviews in newspapers, radio interviews, a couple dozen events lined up—that the book, and the worms themselves, are always on my mind, creeping into every corner of my life.

When I move onto the next book, and the worms are once again relegated to their status as rarely-seen composters and earthworkers, will I miss them? Will I stand over the worm bin and make small talk? Will I go outside and dig one up and take a photograph of it, just for old time’s sake?

Earthworm Sonnets

Here’s another earthworm poem for you—a sonnet, no less. This one came from David Howell, who wrote an academic paper about earthworms called “The Worm Turns: An Investigation of Experimentation on the Learning Abilities of Earthworms” in the early 1970’s.

Oligochaete! Thou taxonomic pain!
My mouth and mind and memory affirm,
‘Twould be much less a stress upon the brain
To designate you merely as a worm.
But then again, perhaps it is untrue
To brand you as too simple for your name.
For possibly, the tests we put you through
Just don’t quite fit your undulating frame.
Psychologists are on the highest ground
When studying the ways of mice and men,
But with invertebrates they’re often found
Quite ignorant of how they should begin.
The object of my study is to try
To help both man and worm see eye to eye.

Dr. Howell’s days as an earthworm researcher began and ended with the publication of this paper, which was really just a term paper for a college biological psychology class. He is now a kidney and transplant pathologist at Duke University. He hasn’t had much contact with earthworms since then and was more than a little startled to learn that I’d uncovered his poem some thirty years after its publication. He told me that he thinks of earthworms only in passing now, when an unmistakably earthworm-shaped specimen is sent to him for diagnosis. “Some of the larger, more generous renal needle biopsies are occasionally referred to colloquially as ‘nightcrawlers’ by the clinicians,” he told me, “but they are generally relatively sedentary by the time they reach my microscope stage.”

Monday, January 26, 2004

Back to School

Well, I survived my talk to 80 sixth-graders today. I wasn’t really afraid of the kids. Mostly I was just freaked out about being back in the sixth grade, as if walking into a middle school would somehow get me sucked back in time and I’d have to relive the whole thing all over again. Schools have that effect on me, and that’s not to say I hated school—I was a good student. It’s just that I like being a grown-up so much more than I liked being a kid. After I’ve been in a school, I always take new and unexpected pleasure in such mundane adult privileges as being able to drive, or eating whatever I want for lunch.

(I could not resist taking a picture of the sign—it’s a little Spinal Tap, isn’t it? Remember the scene where they show up for a gig and it turns out to be a puppet show?)

Anyway, they were a surprisingly orderly group, I thought, and much more knowledgeable about worms than I’d expected. One kid knew that they had tiny bristles—setae—that help them anchor their bodies in the soil, one knew that worms are both male and female, and, because there was a little confusion about the difference between a worm and a snake, I asked them to explain the differences and it turns out they knew quite a bit about snakes, too.

It was mostly boys who spoke up at first. I guess some things never change. But once I asked why the girls didn’t know anything about worms, they all started to raise their hands and I ignored the boys and called on them. One little blonde girl said that worms were disgusting and she didn’t want anything to do with them. But when I got them out—I’d brought one nightcrawler and four red wigglers—and asked for volunteers to hold them, she actually came up to me and put her hand out. In fact, by the time the worms had made their way around the library and it was time to return them to me, they were all in the hands of girls.

One kid asked if he could have a worm. It’s so funny, the way kids think that adults will just give them stuff. I told him, “No way, get your own worm!” He offered to buy one from me and I said, “All right, how much money have you got?” He backed down from the negotiations at that point. He must have realized that I was serious about taking his lunch money in exchange for something I dug out of the dirt in my backyard.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Worm Farming

Looks like I may end up in the worm farming business after all. I teach a fair number of worm composting workshops around town, and I always try to have someone there to sell worms and bins. You’d think Humboldt County would be crawling with worm farmers, but there’s really only a couple of people in the business, and they’re not always able to provide the worms I need when I need ’em. So yesterday I divided my worm herd in half and started a bigger worm box with the intent of having some extra worms I can sell in a pinch. This is going to be a much simpler setup than the stacking bins I prefer to use: the new worm bin is nothing more than a 25-gallon plastic storage tub with some holes drilled in it for air and drainage. I started the worms out in fresh bedding—coir, or shredded coconut fiber—and topped it with lots of shredded paper. Worms are actually quite content eating paper, and these critters will get a lot of it, along with their share of the kitchen scraps and coffee grounds. If I'm lucky, I'll have enough worms to sell later this year sometime.

Meanwhile, if you're looking for worms, I highly recommend Happy D Ranch in Visalia, CA. They ship worms all over the country, and they've been in the business for years. Tell Dorothy I sent you.

P.S. I'm going to talk to 80-100 sixth-graders tomorrow. I hope the worms are ready for this, because I don't know if I am!

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Earthworm Poetry

There was a nice write-up about the book in the San Francisco Chronicle today. It was a terrific review with one small error: she called me an Easterner. We Texans are sensitive about that sort of thing. Well, I guess Texas is east of California.

The Rocky Mountain News did a fun story on worms and slugs today, also.
Got a call from one of the owners of my local bookstore, Northtown Books, this morning. They want to do a worm-themed window display and thought they’d include a poem about worms. I suggested an Anne Sexton poem, Earthworm, from her book 45 Mercy Street. Here's an excerpt:

Have you no beginning and end? Which heart is
the real one? Which eye the seer? Why
is it in the infinite plan that you would
be severed and rise from the dead like a gargoyle
with two heads?

More earthworm poetry coming soon.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Pub Date

Today is the official publication date for this book of mine. Pub dates don’t really mean much; the book has been printed for over a month, it’s already in stores, and many reviews have already been written. The pub date is just an arbitrary date that exists because—well, because there has to be a moment when your book has not yet been published, and a moment when it has. So this is that moment.

I’ll quote Anne Lamott, who had this to say about pub dates in her book Bird by Bird:
“There is something mythic about the date of publication, and you actually come to believe that on this one particular morning you will wake up to a phone ringing off the hook and your publisher will be so excited that they will have hired the Blue Angels precision flying team to buzz your squalid little hovel, which you will be moving out of as soon as sales of the book really take off.”

She goes on to describe a typical pub date around her house:

“Finally the big day arrived and I woke up, happy, embarrassed in advance for all the praise that would be forthcoming. I made coffee and practiced digging my toe in the dirt, and called Pammy and a few friends to let them congratulate me. Then I waited for the phone to ring. The phone did not know its part. It sat there silent as death with a head cold. By noon the noise of it not ringing began to wear badly on my nerves.”

That’s pretty much how it’s been around here so far today. Actually, Mary Appelhof called this morning—she’s one of the earthworm experts I interviewed for the book—to tell me how much she loves the book and how glad she is that I wrote it. She didn’t know that today was the pub date (until I told her), but it was a fitting way to begin the day. The phone is silent now, and I have work to do. Tonight I’m going to meet another author who is in town promoting her book, and then—did I mention I’m the theater critic in this small town where I live?—I’ve got a play to review. It’s an excuse to get dressed up, anyway. As for the worms…well, I’ll make sure they get an extra banana skin today. Other than that, it’ll be an ordinary day for them, too.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

More Worm Media

The Good Worm had another media appearance today: we went to the Eureka Sequoia Garden Club, where all the perfectly-dressed, grey-haired ladies extended their hands so it could slither onto their palms. At one point I lost track of The Good Worm completely: it was being passed from person to person and I couldn’t even see it in the crowd.

I brought the worm home and put it back in the plastic, dirt-filled holding pen I’ve set up for it. It pushed its way underground as soon as I let go of it, but I think it it’s beginning to enjoy the limelight.

Did an interview yesterday with Mike Carruthers, host of a radio show called "Something You Should Know." I expect it to air in the next couple of weeks. If you don’t get this show in your neck of the woods (there’s a station list on the website), you can also listen to it online once it’s posted there.Lots more worm news, and possibly some very interesting worm photos, coming in the next few days. Stay tuned…

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Scent of a Worm

Worm fact of the day: there is such a thing as earthworm-scented perfume. You can get it from Demeter Fragrance, a company that also sells perfume that smells like grass, tomatoes, laundromats, and gin, among other things.

I phoned the company as soon as I heard about it and ordered three bottles. “Can you ship them overnight?” I asked, frantic with excitement.

“Of course,” said the woman on the phone, calmly. I got the idea she was used to overwrought customers like me.

The bottles arrived shortly. I tore open the package and stood holding one of the plainly-labeled bottles in my hand, trying to summon up the scent of earthworms in my mind. I thought of the garlic smell my composting worms were supposed to give off, and of the legendary lily-scented worms that are quite possible extinct now in Oregon. I remembered the nightcrawlers I’d dug out of my garden and tried to imagine what they smelled like. Nothing came to me. I just couldn’t pull that scent out of my memory. It probably didn’t help that I’d kept them at such an arm’s length, refusing to put my nose right down to them and breathe.
Finally I pulled off the cap and sprayed it into the air. It hit me, instantly familiar. Worms. No doubt about it. It was the smell of dirt and rotten leaves and compost piles, and also the faint scent of skin, worm skin. I don’t know how else to describe it. It was just vaguely—invertebrate.

I wasted no time getting in touch with Christopher Brosius, co-founder of the company. He told me that he created the scent for customers who liked their “Dirt”fragrance but wanted a “Mud” scent. “We called it ‘Earthworm’ because it smelled very much like the dirt in my garden after a heavy rain when the earthworms tended to come to the surface,” he told me. I wanted to know whether he’d brought worms into the lab when he was developing the fragrance, but he was quick to assure me that “there are no actual earthworms in the scent nor were any smelled during the development of it.”

Brosius said he often draws on his memories of his Pennsylvania childhood in developing his earthy, garden scents. “When I was a child I did fish fairly often in the summer. My family spent a great deal of time on the river. My father and I did occasionally dig up our own earthworms to use as bait. Oddly enough, however, I don't associate the Earthworm scent with that particular experience - to me it smells much more like mud after the rain.” He wears the fragrance himself with floral scents like “Honeysuckle” or “Dandelion.”

He wouldn’t tell me much about what goes into the formulation of a scent like “Earthworm, except to say that it, like “Dirt,” is a blend of mosses, leaves, grass, wood, and bark: “basically the things that would eventually decompose and form dirt.” One of the newest fragrances in his line is “Thunderstorm.” I think about the way that earthworms crawl to the surface during a storm and wonder if the two scents, when worn together, would smell like “Earthworms On the Sidewalk After a Rainstorm.” Suddenly I can see the entirety of the earthworm story told in these fragrances. “Earthworm” and “Rubber” might smell like my plastic worm composter; “Earthworm” and “Grass” like the nightcrawler castings on a golf course.

“It’s a surprisingly popular scent,” Brosius said. “It sells at smaller upscale shops with a very sophisticated clientele. One customer who sells earthworms at the Green Market in Union Square buys it for her customers. And if memory serves, there is also a bait and tackle shop somewhere in Alabama that stocks it.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Worms as Food

As much as I dislike the whole topic of worms as food, I feel it is my responsibility as perhaps the sole worm blogger in the blogosphere to pass on earthworm news when I get it. This latest story out of southwest Iowa reports on a website offering recipes that are easy to prepare in the outdoors.

Yep, you guessed it. In the Emergency Survival Food category, once you get past some pleasant and innocuous recipes for berry pudding and honeysuckle nectar, there it is, between the creamed grasshopper and the bee soup: Earthworm spaghetti. Prep time is just two minutes (the time it takes to boil 10-15 worms to death), plus however long it takes to dig the worms.
“Tastes good,” the recipe’s author Kevin writes. “Kind of like fish.” Kevin, I'm going to take your word on that. Now, didn't somebody remember to pack a Cliff Bar?

Monday, January 19, 2004

More Worm Photos

Another photo of what is probably a young Aporrectodea caliginosa. In this picture you can really see the dirt moving through its body. It’s funny that I can still be so amazed by earthworms after all this time. The other night I enlarged this picture on my computer so that the worm filled the entire monitor, and I sat transfixed in front of it for twenty minutes.

Sunday, January 18, 2004


I was planning on posting another worm photo today, but I've been distracted by some Big News: The Boston Globe published a terrific review of The Earth Moved in their book section. The reviewer is Anthony Doerr, whose short story collection The Shell Collector is imbued with a love of the landscape and a fascination with the natural world. He writes interesting and conversational reviews of books on natural science for the Globe, and you can imagine my excitement when I got to this line:

"[Rachel] Carson's legacy is proof that science books matter, that good prose can change the world. On its own scale, Stewart's book paddles along in Carson's wake."
I printed the review off the Internet and ran outside with it in my hands this morning, half-planning to read it to the worms. But they are deaf, and besides, they don't know the Boston Globe from the Eureka Times-Standard. So I shredded a copy and fed it to them, along with their customary Sunday breakfast of coffee grounds and eggshells. They're unimpressed with literary success, happy in their dark, damp obscurity. That's as it should be. I expect nothing more, or nothing less, from them

Saturday, January 17, 2004

More Worm Portraiture

It's not easy to identify worms by sight, but I think this one is Aporrectodea caliginosa, also called a field worm or a grey worm. It's an endogeic worm, which means that it does not come to the surface of the soil but does not build a permanent burrow, either. It lives its life entwined in the roots of plants, helping to feed the plant through its constant plowing of the soil. It's fascinating to watch this worm move because you can actually see the soil in its gut moving underneath its translucent skin.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Talking to Worms

In response to questions posted lately on the blog:

Yes, I do talk to the worms if I have something to say. Worms appreciate being addressed directly about matters concerning them and they are not immune to occasional words of affection and praise. However, they do not tolerate small talk any better than I do, so there is not much idle chatter between us.

As for the drainage holes in the nightcrawler bin, they’re quite a bit smaller than the worms themselves so I don’t think they’ll escape. And if they want out bad enough to try to squeeze through a hole, or roam around the lip of the lid in search of a little crack, I say let them go.

If you’re going to try this yourself at home, another good strategy is to use a large planter with bigger, pre-drilled drainage holes, which you can cover with a fine mesh screen.

In other news, there has been a great deal of excitement around our house over the discovery that Powell’s Books in Portland has chosen The Earth Moved as one of their 14 Favorites for Winter 2004. David Sedaris, Hunter S. Thompson, and the amazing poet Joy Harjo are also on the list. I am in lofty company indeed.

If you’ve never been to Powell’s, let me tell you that it is a book lover’s paradise. Their main store (they have several in the Portland area) fills an entire city block. I wish I could say more about it, but when I try to describe it, I am actually at a loss for words. You’ll just have to experience it for yourself, or check out their website, which is a great place to order new or used books.

Good news like this will keep me buzzing all weekend. I fear I'm getting to be impossible to live with. Fortunately, the worms keep me humble.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

The Fate of the Good Worm

Thank you all for your concern about The Good Worm. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how once you get to know a worm as an individual you start to be concerned about its fate? (I know, you’re thinking, “Wow, she doesn’t even realize we were just humoring her.”)

Anyway, The Good Worm spent the day in somewhat larger but still cramped accommodations—one of those disposable Glad containers like you’d take your lunch in—and tonight I ran out to the drugstore and bought a big Rubbermaid tote, drilled some holes in it for drainage, dug a big hole in the middle of a vegetable bed that is not in use right now, and sunk the tub about halfway in the ground. I filled it with dirt, dropped The Good Worm (who seemed no worse for wear despite its adventures with the garden club ladies) into the tub, and sat the lid loosely on top.

It’s almost impossible to raise nightcrawlers in captivity. They just don’t take to it. That’s why there are still people out there who make a living picking nightcrawlers for bait. So I don’t expect this worm to settle down a raise a family in this bin, but I’m hoping it will be comfortable there for a month or two so I can use it again at one of my talks. If I find any more good worms, I’m going to toss them in the tub, too. There’s nothing worse than not being able to find a good worm a couple of hours before my talk’s scheduled to start.

(Feels strange to call the critter “it,” but to assign it a gender would be to overlook its versatility as a hermaphrodite.)

I often think about those bait pickers in Canada who spend the night outdoors, pulling nightcrawlers from their burrows to sell as bait. Some pickers can collect as many as 10,000 nightcrawlers on a cool, damp night, earning up to $300 by selling the worms to a wholesaler. That’s only three cents a worm, no great fortune. But to someone who enjoys working alone, in the solitude of the still night air; to someone who would rather make their living in the dark dewy pastures than in a cramped fluorescent-lit office, those worms are a livelihood. To bait pickers, an abundance of worms in a grassy pasture means one thing: a paycheck.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Worm Desserts

Gave a talk today at the Fortuna Garden Club and look what they had for refreshments! Worm parfait. I may have to have a contest for the best worm-themed dessert on the book tour. This one was delicious--crumbled Oreo, chocolate mouse, and, of course, a gummy worm.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

A Good Worm

Sometimes you just know a good worm, the way you know about a good melon. I went digging for nightcrawlers today for my talk at the Ferndale Garden Club, and the first shovelful of dirt turned up a supersized nightcrawler—fat and long and surprisingly strong. (I’ll post a picture tomorrow) It whipped away from me and clung tenaciously to its clump of dirt, but I managed to get ahold of it and drop it into a Rubbermaid container with holes punched in the lid.

At lunch before the garden club talk, I said to Scott, “I got a really fine nightcrawler today. I’d like to keep this one. They don’t do well in captivity, but what if I sunk a big bin in the ground and dropped all the good worms I found in it? I just hate to lose a worm like this.”

Scott humored me, but I’m sure he was thinking, “One worm’s as good as another, and do we have to talk about this at lunch?”

Then we got to City Hall, where the garden club was meeting, and I pulled the worm out to check on it. “Wow,” Scott said. “That is a good worm.” There was just something about it. It was robust, almost muscular. You could see every anatomical feature perfectly. (Yes, worms do have anatomical features. I’m sure we’ll get into them at length over the coming weeks and months.)

The nightcrawler performed admirably for the ladies at the garden club, stretching out luxuriously on my palm to nearly three times its length, and even rubbing its setae (tiny nubby bristles on its underside) against my hand. Pretty soon everybody wanted the worm in their hand so they could feel the setae. One after another, these grey-haired women came up to me and said, “Now that’s a good worm.”

See? Sometimes you just know. I can’t explain it better than that.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Worm Scams

There have been warnings in the news again lately about worm farm scams. In general, the way this works is that you pay a company, say, a thousand bucks or ten thousand bucks or some amount to get set up in the worm business. They provide instruction, worms, maybe a worm bin, and then promise to buy the worms back from you for a fixed price per pound. The worms, they claim, will reproduce rapidly, get fat and happy, and you’ll make a fortune selling them back to the company at the contract price. Some of these companies claim to have buyers for the worms, like bait companies, municipal composting programs, and the like, but often their only customer is the next sucker buying into the scam. The money to pay their contracts comes mostly from new incoming contracts. It’s a classic Ponzi scheme.

Now, I’m not saying that every worm growing arrangement works like this, but I’ve heard enough sad stories about people who lost their money and got stuck with worms they couldn’t sell, to be wary of the whole thing. If you want to learn more, check out the Oklahoma Department of Securities, which prosecuted a worm contract operation recently.

There’s a personal connection here, too. My husband Scott’s grandparents bought into one of these contracts in the early seventies. They planned on raising worms to sell as fishing bait. Scott’s grandfather built several large boxes in the backyard to house the worms, but they ran into trouble when it was time to get the worms out of their bins and into little cartons for the bait shop. “I can’t tell you how many hours I spent picking worms out of that dirt,” Scott’s grandmother told me. “I’ll never forget that. We never made a dime off those worms.”

It’s not so unusual for people to find themselves with a backyard full of worm boxes and no market for the worms. Some people give up and stop feeding them, let them make their own way out of the boxes, let the colony of earthworms simply die off, or leave the boxes open as food for the birds. After all, it is no easy feat to find a good home for a hundred thousand worms.

In my family’s case, the worms found a good home with Scott’s uncle Peter, who had space for a large composting operation in the backyard of the Oakland commune where he lived at the time. The worms thrived there. “Five gallons of kitchen slop would disappear in about 24 hours,” he told me. “Eventually there were so many worms that trying to dig in that pile was like digging in hamburger. Ghastly, really. I was afraid my baby Nick would be eaten if he crawled in there.”

Sunday, January 11, 2004

I'm starting to get invitations to speak to school groups. A 6th-grade science teacher has invited me and the worms to talk to three science classes in the school library one morning at 8:30 a.m. (He’s promised me a double nonfat latte in exchange for showing up, showered and dressed, at this unreasonable hour). Why do I find the idea of talking to 80-100 6th graders so intimidating, when I don't think twice about radio and newspaper interviews, or addressing 40 booksellers at a trade show?

I suppose the answer is obvious to any of you who have 6th graders at home. These kids are smart as a whip and they'll say whatever is on their mind.

Gulp. I'll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, the Dallas Morning News ran a great review of the book--this is all the more exciting because I was born & raised in Dallas/Fort Worth. Home girl makes good. The review includes an enchanting illustration, and this poem, which appears to have been written by the reviewer, Alfred Bortz:

The reader just sits there and squirms
Uneasily coming to terms
Having suddenly faced
A developing taste
For wriggling and night-crawling worms.

Right on, Fred.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Get a load of this bad boy. I found him thanks to a terrific Washington Post story about the benefits of leaf litter. Scientists participating in the Global Litter Invertebrate Decomposition Project (GLIDE) filled mesh bags with just one type of grass hay and left the bags in 33 sites around the world. They found—are you ready for this?—over 31,000 different creatures involved in the breakdown of the organic matter in those bags. Junior here is one of the microscopic nematodes that was feasting on the grass. (Their image gallery is a must-see.)

Welcome to the worms’ world. A handful of soil can contain millions, even billions, of microscopic creatures, and what do earthworms call them?


There you have it—soil ecology in one easy lesson.

Did I mention that a study once found over 90,000 nematodes in a single rotten apple? Nathan Cobb, a pioneer in the science of nematodes, once wrote, “If all the matter in the universe except nematodes were swept away, our world would still be dimly recognizable, and if, as disembodied spirits, we could then investigate it, we should find its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes, and oceans represented by a film of nematodes.”

In other words, critters like the ones in this photo are everywhere, not just in the guts of earthworms.

Sleep well, folks.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Worms on Tour

The book tour officially kicks off next week with two talks to garden clubs here in Humboldt county. Usually my publisher schedules author events, but in a small town like this it just makes more sense for me to handle it myself. I’ll start traveling in March; until then, I’ll stick closer to home and speak to local groups.

I haven’t said much about the publicity part of this book, mostly because it feels a little self-indulgent. But I will say this: the response so far has just been amazing. I sent out a press release about the Humboldt County events and heard back from three or four reporters the same day. A story ran in the Eureka Times Standard yesterday; that morning three people called and asked if I could come speak to their group. I’m talking to garden clubs and 4-H groups, doing author fairs at the library, teaching a worm composting workshop at a nursery, and signing books at a garden gift store during Arts Arcata, a once-a-month event where shops stay open late, exhibit local art, and pour wine.

It’s your basic grassroots tour. I guess that’s appropriate for a book on worms. Later, when I go on the road, I’ll do more regular bookstore events. But even when I'm traveling, I’m hoping to stop at some nurseries and botanical gardens. And if there’s a 4-H group out there raising worms, I hope they’ll ask me to drop by and check it out.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Yellow-Bellied Worms

From time to time I write for Organic Gardening magazine. The great thing about them is that they are so diligent about fact-checking. There is no possibility that an error or even a rumor about, say, the benefits of cow manure, or the best way to stake your tomatoes, will slip by them. When I send an article to them, I have to footnote every fact in the story and attach a photocopy of my source—a reputable book, article, or interview transcript. I write for a lot of gardening magazines and newspapers, and this is the only publication I’ve ever written for that does this.

So a couple months ago I sent them a story about earthworms, and included a stack of academic sources to back up my assertions. But apparently I wasn’t careful enough—a statement I made about the yellow bellies of red wigglers caught the attention of the fact-checker. She wrote to me and said, “I didn't see this in the backup or anywhere else. Is it from personal experience? Can you send backup?”

Hee hee. Yes, I suppose you could say I know this from personal experience. Eisenia fetida, the red wiggler, has a yellowish belly. It just does. I have ten thousand or more of them in the composter outside the kitchen door, so I know a thing or two about their bellies. I ran downstairs with the camera, snapped a picture of an upturned E. fetida, and e-mailed it to OG as proof.

Here it is, then. Submitted for your consideration: the yellow belly of the red wiggler.

Sex and the South Beach Diet

Answers to the two most commonly-asked questions about earthworms:

1. Most worms are hermaphrodites—they are both male and female. Their sexual organs consist of tiny pores on their bellies that are usually not visible to the naked eye. (Train a hand lens on a good-sized nightcrawler and you might get a glimpse of them.) To mate, worms slither alongside each other, head-to-tail, belly-to-belly, and one of them releases sperm, which travels to a female pore on the other worm.

I have often wondered if the—ahem—event—ever happened simultaneously for both worms, but as far as I can tell little research has been done on this subject. I have visions of bleary-eyed graduate students sitting up all night in the lab, waiting and watching. (There’s another dissertation topic for you PhD candidates, free of charge. Now all we need is a title…how about “Was It Good For You, Too? Simultaneous Orgasm Among Hermaphroditic Oligochaete.”)

To continue: after receiving the sperm, the worm excretes a sticky fluid that forms a kind of mucus shell around its clitellum, that thick band of flesh about a third of the way down its body. Eventually the worm will scoot backwards and slide out of this shell, and the ends will seal, leaving behind a cocoon. Imagine a tiny lemon-shaped object that is murky yellow or brown and about as big around as the worm that created it. Fertilization takes place in the cocoon and the baby worms emerge as fully-formed, miniature replicas of their parents.

2. There’s no need to worry about putting your worms on a low-carb diet. The worms in my compost bin cannot digest meat, dairy, or fat of any kind, so Atkins is right out, and they crave fruit, especially tropical summer fruits like mango. They also eat plenty of newspaper, surely a high-carb food, and they love plain rice, pasta, or bread. So if you made a New Year’s resolution to go on the South Beach Diet, think of it this way: you can eat all the lean meat and beneficial fats you want, and give those unwanted fruits and starches to the worms. ( From your hips to the worms’ lips.) More good news: they can't eat the South Beach Mocha Ricotta Creme dessert, so you’ll have that one all to yourself.

Monday, January 05, 2004


If you spend much time looking up books online, you may have noticed that has a new “Search Inside” feature that allows you to search for particular words inside the text of books, as opposed to just searching by title, author, keyword, etc. What that means is that when you go to Amazon and do a search for the word “earthworm,” the following titles appear in the top 20 results:

Life of Pi, a magical work of fiction by Yann Martel in which the protagonist baits his hook with a shoelace, hoping fish will mistake it for an earthworm.

Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, in which the author describes a woman’s big butt as “speaking of many things, including “fertile fields,” “kitchens with banged-up pots,” “canvas shopping bags bursting at the seams,” and, you guessed it, earthworms.

The Universe in a Nutshell, in which author Stephen Hawking asserts that “our present computers are less complex than the brain of an earthworm, a species not noted for its intellectual powers.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,
which mentions a “telepathic, world-conquering earthworm, Mr. Mind.”

A novel by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, called Survivor: A Novel, which makes reference to eating live worms.

Memoirs of a Geisha, which mentions a little boy that is frightened of worms.

Drop City, by T. Coraghessan Boyle. It’s not clear why this book is included on the list, but I’m a big T. Boyle fan, so as far as I’m concerned, he should be included on any list of books, regardless of the purpose of the list.

In some ways, this new feature of Amazon’s is a little irritating in that it supplies irrelevant and off-the-wall results. If I’m looking for a book on earthworms, Life of Pi and Memoirs of a Geisha are not going to do me any good. I imagine that sooner or later Amazon will have the good sense to remove this feature from their default search box and make it an Advanced Search option instead. Meanwhile, it does make for an interesting cultural study. Just for kicks, do a search for “invertebrate,” “larvae,” and “spineless.” Some novels show up time and again, with several worm-related words woven into the narrative, as if the author had a deep metaphorical connection with worms that manifested itself over and over in the work.

I see the makings of a doctoral dissertation here. I’ll even suggest a title: “As the Worm Turns: The Earthworm as Metaphor in Contemporary Literature.”

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Worm Castings in the Garden

There was a break in the weather today, so I dashed outside to plant a row of bareroot berries I’d bought on impulse at the nursery. I planted 2 each of Willamette raspberries, tayberries (a blackberry/raspberry cross), nectarberries (similar to a boysenberry), and dewberries, which are, as far as I can tell, a kind of blackberry. Scott’s the baker in our house—as long as I keep him supplied with berries, we’ll eat tarts and pies and fruit-filled crepes all summer. (By the way, check out Raintree Nursery if you’re in the market for some berries, and for further enlightenment, get Stella Otto's The Backyard Berry Book)

Now all I needed were some worm castings to get the berries off to a good start. It was time to rotate the stacking trays that make up my worm bin anyway, so I lifted each tray off, put the middle one on the bottom, set the top one in the middle, and made the old bottom tray the new top tray. There were only a few worms left in that tray—mostly it just contained rich moist castings and crushed eggshells (worms can’t eat the eggshells but I add them anyway because it helps reduce the acidity in the bin.) I fluffed up the castings with a garden fork, which made the few remaining worms dive into a lower tray to get away from the light. Those castings went into the bed I’d prepared for the berries, along with a fertilizer from Gardens Alive I like called Fruit Trees Alive. The fertilizer addresses the particular nutritional needs of fruit trees and berry vines: low nitrogen to encourage fruiting over foliage, sulfur and copper to produce sweet-tasting fruit, and boron to help resist diseases. The worm castings are brimming with beneficial bacteria and other microscopic creatures that will help the roots access the nutrients in the fertilizer.

That’s one way to think of worm castings—as a digestive aid for plants. I feed the worms, the worms feed the berries, and sometime next summer, the berries will feed us. I’ve always maintained that worms make the best pets: they’re quiet and loyal and surprisingly clean. What I mean by this is that the worms are reward enough by themselves; the berries are a bonus, a kind of vermicultural windfall.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Worms in the Office

People call me with all kinds of worm problems; I guess that’s just how it’s going to be from now on. Over the holidays my mother phoned from work to tell me that earthworms were crawling out of the flower beds in her office’s courtyard and slithering under the door, where they perished on the nubby grey carpet.

“My co-worker Colette keeps picking them up off the carpet and trying to revive them,” she said. “I hear her over there saying, ‘Oh, it broke in half. That’s OK, it’ll regrow. Oh, it broke into three pieces.’ I try to tell her these worms are dead, but she won’t listen.”

“Let me talk to Colette,” I said.

Colette got on the phone and explained the situation. It had been raining all day and the worms were rising out of the ground, massing on the sidewalk, and squeezing under the door. They only made it a couple feet inside the office before meeting certain death through desiccation.

“Ewwww,” I said. “Dead worms on the carpet.”

“I’m glad something still grosses you out,” Colette said. I guess I have a reputation for being immune to gross-out now that I’ve written a book on worms.

“Well, the real solution is to improve the soil in that courtyard and pile on the mulch, so the ground will drain better and they won’t leave in the first place,” I told her. “Failing that, you just need some way to keep them out of the office. Maybe a piece of weather stripping along the bottom of the door would work.”

“We can try that,” she said, “but we’re about to close for the holidays, and I’m worried about coming back after New Year’s and finding dead worms all over the carpet. How about sealing up the gap with some foil and maybe weighing it down with rocks?”

“Could work,” I told her. “Those worms can really flatten themselves if they’re determined to get under something. Try to make a tight seal.”

I can only hope she won’t return on Monday to a carpet covered in earthworm carnage. It’s not a sight for the faint of heart. But Colette seemed genuinely concerned about the plight of the worms, who are so unhappy with their living environment that they lost their lives in search of something better. Maybe that’s a lesson for the new year: sometimes, the next best thing is not just around the corner. Sometimes it’s right here at home, if you can only slog through the wind and the rain and hold out for spring.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Making Your Guests Feel At Home

Welcome back to the fourth and final installment of the Earthworm Hospitality Guide. I’ll wrap this up with a few common-sense suggestions for keeping earthworms happy and making them feel at home:

First, don’t till. Don’t double-dig. This may seem counter-intuitive, but trust me, that happy underground community of worms, mites, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and other tiny critters does not want to be disturbed by the tines of your spading fork. I have a friend who tills his vegetable garden twice a year; he once told me that there are practically no worms left in his soil. He learned a tough lesson: nothing will send your new friends running for the door faster. If you have heavy clay soil, you may need to dig new beds once, but only once. After that, just pile mulch on top and leave it at that. If you want to learn more about no-till, no-dig gardening methods, check out the Lasagna Gardening books.

Second, when you mow the lawn, set the blade a little higher and leave the grass clippings on the grass to decompose. Don’t serve your worm guests chemical lawn fertilizers, some of which are touted for their ability to remove pesky worms from nice clean golf courses. Ask your nursery to recommend an organic lawn food or try one of the lawn products from Gardens Alive. If you have access to a good source of weed-free compost or manure, rake it lightly into your lawn twice a year as a special treat, once in spring and again in fall. (This is a great use for worm castings if you keep a worm bin, by the way. You can even mix castings with water and douse your lawn with them.)

And finally, avoid chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, all of which work against the kind of healthy, organic ambiance you’re trying to create. Worms thrive in a balanced ecosystem that includes a wide range of insects and soil microbes. In other words, they won’t be happy unless you let them invite all their friends. If you’re not sure how to kick the chemical habit, give the nice folks at Gardens Alive a call and they’ll suggest some healthy alternatives.

Richard, all my best to you and your worms, and thanks for asking. May you have a long and happy life together.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

More Worm Hospitality: The Buffet

2004 is blowing into Eureka on the tail end of a windstorm that rattled the windows and threw still more rain against the roof. The lid to the worm bin turned up yesterday, so they are once again snug in their quarters and no worse for wear after whatever New Year’s Eve celebration they might have had last night. Back in Texas, it was considered good luck to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day; although Scott can’t stand them, he takes one every January 1 like medicine. Today I’m going to make black-eyed pea and lentil soup; maybe I’ll feed a spoonful to the worms.

Speaking of food, here is the third installment of my Earthworm Hospitality Guide: The Buffet.

You might not think that earthworms are finicky eaters. After all, they eat dirt. But a hostess has a responsibility to make sure her guests are well-fed and that their dietary preferences are, within reason, taken into account. The layer of mulch we talked about yesterday is an important first step, but there are a couple more suggestions for feeding your worms.

First, check the pH level of your soil. You can do this with a pH meter or a test kit from a nursery, or you can check with your county agricultural agent about having your soil tested at a laboratory. You might already know whether the soil in your neighborhood tends to be acid or alkaline. If everyone on your street grows rhododendrons, azaleas, and camellias, for example, acid soil is probably widespread. Worms like sweet (not acidic) soil, so you may need to add bone meal or lime to reduce the acidity. However, keep in mind that acid-loving plants like the ones I mentioned above need an acid soil to access nutrients and stay healthy. So you might consider sweetening the soil in your vegetable beds or wherever you plan annual flowers and bulbs, but leaving the larger landscape plants alone. If you do add bone meal or lime, scratch it gently into the soil and/or cover it with a layer of mulch. The worms will carry it deep underground where it will offer the maximum benefits to your plants. Follow instructions on the package for quantities.

Another delicious dish you can serve your earthworm guests comes in the form of particular plant roots that are considered a delicacy in the worm world. Clover, vetch, ryegrass, and fava will loosen the soil, suppress weeds, prevent erosion, and attract worms like crazy. These seeds are often sold as cover crop mixes and are intended to be planted in an unused areas of the garden, like a vegetable bed that’s getting a rest for the winter, or a new section of the garden that you want to fill with flowers next year. Typically cover crops are planted in the fall, but you can buy spring and summer mixes. Let the cover crops grow for one season and then cut them down with a string trimmer before they bloom, and either leave the vegetation on the ground or toss it onto the compost pile. The roots will decompose underground, leaving plenty of organic matter for worms to devour. Some gardeners plant permanent cover crops that don’t get cut down or tilled under—for example, clover works great in orchards, where the flowers attract bees, the dense vegetation suppresses weeds and holds in moisture, the roots fix nitrogen, and the worms set up camp for good.

There is an old saying among hostesses that guests, like fish, start to stink after three days, but this is certainly not the case with earthworms. Once you’ve invited them over, you’ll never want them to leave. Tune in tomorrow for Part Four: Making Your Guests Feel at Home.