Warm worms in winter

While this winter has (so far) proved something of a bust for the Western North Carolina snow-sport set, interminable warm weather isn’t guaranteed. That means gardeners’ efforts also must remain confined to the ski lodge, aka The Windowsill.

As I have reported in these pages, I am a vermiculturist, or worm farmer, (“The Worm’s Turn,” Sept. 1, 2004, Xpress), and my wormy ways have not abated. At the time of that report, I had recently introduced earthworms from my basement worm farm to many of my indoor plant pots, reasoning that the same benefits that grace gardens with active worm populations would accrue to my windowsill efforts.

I was right.

Whereas the soil in most potted plants becomes increasingly compact over time, requiring the engaged horticulturist to repot long before a plant outgrows its space, my worm-ridden pots have retained their tilth for two years. In the larger pots, worm populations are increasing. When I rake my fingers through the surface soil, numerous wigglers come to light.

The strategy has proven so successful that I wholeheartedly endorse its adoption by anyone tending indoor plants. It’s not necessary to engage in my version of basement-container composting/vermiculture to glean benefit. You can either dig into your outdoor compost pile to collect some free-range worms or visit a bait shop and purchase a container of red wigglers. Then simply introduce the worms to your windowsill pots.

Remember that adding earthworms is part of a larger picture of organic plant care under the heading of “feeding the soil instead of feeding the plants.” In this case, you will feed the worms whose castings (worm poop) become fertilizer for your greenery.

My method includes the occasional addition of a little cornmeal or whole-wheat flour to the soil — I just scratch a tablespoonful into each pot from time to time. I bury apple cores and other vegetable trimmings just below the surface as well. Then, when I am dead-heading flowers or picking off faded leaves, I tuck the vegetable matter into the soil. Mindful that potted plants are the ultimate mono-crop, I pluck dead leaves off the begonias and add them to the geranium pots, dead-head the calendula and stick the faded blossoms in the ivy pot, and add ivy leaves to the geraniums. My notion is to mix it up the way nutrients are blended in nature.

At the same time, I’ve cut back on the liquid fertilizer I used for indoor plants. Although the nutrients added by cornmeal and plant parts may not constitute a balanced diet for plants confined in clay pots, concentrated organic or chemical fertilizers will kill earthworms outright. Moderation, by using liquid nutrition at one-quarter strength, has worked well. This winter I have earthwormy geraniums, begonias and calendulas blooming in profusion. I also just harvested my first windowsill tomato, and my foliage plants are flourishing.

So far, the only apparent failure of this approach has involved my cactus collection. Perhaps the sandy soil mixture they require just doesn’t appeal to worms from the Eastern woods. I haven’t seen evidence of long-term survival in those containers. (A little research has yielded no useful information on the availability of desert species of worms.)

At least I can console myself that the wigglers sacrificed in my cactus-pot introductions did not suffer a fate I would reject myself. As must we all, gardeners and nongardeners, whales, wombats and wigglers, the worms have returned to the earth to nourish other life.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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2 thoughts on “Warm worms in winter

  1. Jacob John

    I am in India. I a quite a big garden.
    I have may potted plants. After the rain some of my planr shows signs of dying. When I repot these plnta I find the rootballs full of earhtworm and the the cast stick to the root ball and is killing my plants. How do I getr rid of these earth without killing my plants. Help Thanks

  2. Marjean Larson

    I’m wondering if there is a way to keep the worms from eating my geranium plants? I live in the Southern California desert. So far this winter they have bloomed beautifully, but now I’m seeing evidence of holes in the leaves which I believe to be from worms. Thank you

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