Gardeners around the country are increasingly aware of ‘Go Green’ as more than a slogan. As more and more homeowners are devoted to beautifying their yards, they seek ways to maximize their efforts. Most importantly, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is becoming less attractive to those who garden. They search for alternative ways to grow their plants, trees, and lawns without the use of toxic pollutants. They are becoming progressively more aware of the adverse environmental impact of these products. Yard runoff flows indirectly to our oceans or seeps into the underground water supply. Chemicals pollute. People are becoming more ‘green’ minded. Hence an increasing demand for organic products. Worm castings and ‘worm tea’ are two of those products.
Worm castings are nature’s miracle fertilizer. They are the end result of specialized worms eating and digesting an organic source such as manure compost. The finished product is worm castings, or more simply put, worm manure. These ‘castings’ are rich in multiple nutrients and minerals providing plants with a variety of essential elements found in nature that they need to grow. They are also an effective soil enhancer. And, most significantly, they are all – natural and toxic chemical free.
In order to see first hand how this process works – how castings develop from a compost pile to market – I visited Legacy Ranch for a first hand look. Legacy Ranch is secluded in the mountains of Campo, California about 50 miles east of San Diego owned and operated by long time rancher and horse aficionado, Lonnie Sole. Lonnie is a ‘cowboy’ in the old fashioned sense and looks every bit like one. Lean and wiry, Lonnie is a no nonsense guy when it comes to ranching. He loves the solitude and beauty of country living. He is at home with the coyotes and other wild creatures that roam his ranch by night and attending his horses and Corriente long horned cattle by day. Doesn’t really like city life at all. Now in his 60’s, he still rides horses regularly and his horses know him by sight.
More than four years ago, Lonnie conceived the idea of producing worm castings for commercial sale. I believe he did so out of curiosity, somewhat from the challenge, but mostly due to his growing concern over the use of polluting chemicals and their effect on the increasingly fragile soil and limited fresh water supply of our good earth. “My worm castings and ‘worm tea’ are nature’s miracle for growing beautiful flowers, plants, shrubs, trees, and lawns safely without toxic chemicals. Plants love it; insects hate it” says Lonnie.
It has not been an easy journey. He started from scratch and has built his operation into a major endeavor. He now estimates he has millions of worms ‘working’ for him. It is an intensely interesting operation and one full of details and watchful care.
Worms can be finicky little creatures. The wrong temperature in the beds, inappropriate food, or any little annoyance can send them scurrying away. And you don’t want to see your investment leaving home. Constant vigilance is required to feeding, moisture content of the compost, temperatures of the beds and the general well being of the worms themselves.
Presently, Lonnie and his workers have three old converted chicken barns that house his worms and the castings. He has installed sprinkler systems and various pieces of equipment to minimize labor. However, worms require an intense amount of attention. There are lots of hand tools around, too.
He begins by laying out windrows of moistened composted horse manure which he obtains as a recycled product from a nearby horse ranch. Each windrow is about four to six feet wide and the length of the barn, about 200 feet or so. To this he adds his specialized worms, India Blue. They begin work immediately eating and digesting their favorite food. More compost is added to the top of the row as required and as the worms consume what they had initially been fed working their way from the bottom to the top of the windrow. Within four to six weeks they have converted a row of compost to rich and valuable worm castings. It is now harvest time.
Harvesting castings is done largely by hand. A new windrow of composted horse manure is laid down adjacent to the first. Feeding and watering of the initial windrow is terminated and overhead lighting is turned on. The worms, seeking food and water and averse to light, migrate from the first windrow to the new one rather rapidly. What is left in the first windrow is the sought after results of the eager worms ‘work’, rich and beneficial worm castings along with the eggs left behind to hatch later and replenish the stock.
Once the castings are harvested, they are moved to the processing barn where they must be screened. This process removes the clumps that may contain eggs and any uneaten hay or the like from the castings. The final product is dark, rich, dirt – like material. That is the sought after nutrient rich plant food. It has no obvious odor except that of the forest floor or a rich humus soil.
Worm castings may be bagged for direct sale or mixed with a compost to use as a planting medium. They are an excellent natural fertilizer and soil enhancer, 100 % organic and becoming increasingly more popular in the organic gardening movement.
Last year Lonnie began a process of brewing a ‘tea’ with his castings. This is a liquid form of dry castings using natural spring water and other organic ingredients. He brews this concoction for about twenty-four hours in special tanks. He has developed a unique product and it is presently on the market under his own label, “Nature’s Big Bud Liquid Worm Castings, Premium 100% Organic Liquid Plant Food “. He also sells to other independent distributors, farmers, and commercial plant growers. His product is high in microbial content attributed, according to Lonnie, to his use of pure, high quality worm castings, natural mountain spring water and other organic ingredients he is reluctant to discuss. Trade secret. But I know that natural yucca extract is one of them.
His ‘tea’ is becoming a widely sought after garden product. “This cutting edge product will produce superior results for both the home gardener and the commercial grower,” says Lonnie. “We expect superb sales. The general public is becoming increasingly aware of natural, organic gardening without using toxic chemicals.”
Nature’s Big Bud Worm Castings, Inc. spokesmen proclaim their product as “Nature’s miracle for growing beautiful flowers, plants, shrubs, trees and lawns safely without toxic chemicals.” Yucca extract enhances the product immensely, they say, by acting as a wetting agent and it contains natural steroids beneficial to plants whereas the use of natural mountain spring water invigorates the microbes while conveying a multitude of valuable minerals to the soil and plant.
His use of natural unfiltered mountain spring water makes his product unique. He may be the only brewer doing so. This water, straight from a natural spring on the property, is pure and full of essential minerals unlike city water. It contains neither chemicals nor additives. That may be one of the keys to his product.
Lonnie swears by his ‘tea’; he is not alone. A brief surf on the Internet and one can view hundreds of sites pertaining to worm castings and worm ‘tea’. These informative and interesting sites all have one thing in common to the gardening buff: they are gleeful in their endorsement of worm castings and ‘worm tea’. Testing has shown these unique organic and natural products to be highly beneficial. Many noted soil experts are further studying the phenomena, but most agree that there is merit in the claims even though they don’t necessarily know exactly why. There is increasing evidence that worm castings and ‘worm tea’ assist in insect and disease control also. It is strongly believed further testing will prove that out. However, there is little dispute that worm castings and ‘tea’ work! And work well!
I spent many hours with Lonnie discussing his love of worm farming. Several aspects of his efforts were amply evident. Lonnie knows worms. He loves producing a product that is going to help people garden more efficiently and in a manner friendly to the environment. He is not an environmental fanatic, but he knows that chemical free gardening is preferable and somewhat inevitable. The transition to “green” gardening is here and it is real. Slogans are one thing; Lonnie is proactive in his endeavors.
Lonnie loves the land and by all accounts the land loves Lonnie. His worms are promoting a healthy, chemical free environment and that comforts him.