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Norm Hirscheld and His Worms

Norm Hirscheld

Twenty-seven years ago Norm Hirscheld of Greenfield visited a permaculture farm where he met his first red wigglers (Eisenia foetida). “I was awestruck by how you could get rich black compost from vegetable scraps right in your house,” he said.

He decided right then to become a worm farmer himself and built a wooden box, providing holes for ventilation, and put in a sufficient amount of wet shredded newspaper for bedding. He sent away for his pound of worms, but said that first shipment didn’t do very well. He ordered and added more worms: after that they were fine.

Hirscheld faced two probems. First there were fruit flies that found the fruit peels that he put into the bin. He also found that he needed to keep stirring or fluffing up the bedding otherwise there would not be enough oxygen and the bin would begin to smell.

“Marsha was very patient with me and the worms,” Hirscheld said of his wife Marsha Stone. “At times there were so many fruit flies I would have to get out the vacuum and suck them up.”

Eventually he bought the Can-O-Worms system which has worked well for him, though he still has some trouble with fruit flies. To solve this problem he takes a little lemon grass oil and mixes it with water which he periodically sprays over the top of the worms and their bedding.

Can-O-Worms

With the Can-O-Worms system, the worms in the fresh food scraps (no meat or dairy of course) that are being eaten by the worms are separated from the worm manure, or vermicompost, which is the point of worm farming. Vermicompost is an excellent fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Worm castings (manure) also contain humic acids which condition the soil, has perfect pH balance and encourages plant growth the same way seaweed does.

The Can-O-Worms also collects the manure tea that is produced by the worms, the liquid residue. Hirscheld uses this liquid to fertilize his houseplants.

There are systems other than the Can-O-Worms, but they work on essentially the same principles. They are all made of food quality plastic which should be kept indoors, out of the sun. Hirscheld keeps his worm bin in his basement where summer temperatures are 65 degrees, and winter temperatures do not go below 55 degrees. Red wiggler worms need temperatures that do not go below 50 degrees.

He harvests the compost about once a year and uses it when he does his planting in the spring.

Recently Hirscheld has been making compost tea. He takes three or four gallons of chlorinated Greenfield water in a bucket and, using an aquarium aerator and an ‘air stone’ which disperses the pumped air, he aerates it for a full day at least to get rid of all the chlorine. Then he puts a cup or two of the vermicompost in an old nylon stocking and soaks it in the water for about 24 hours. He also adds about a quarter cup of molasses and some kelp concentrate or fish emulsion. Precision in measuring ingredients is not necessary. These extra ingredients help good bacteria grow over the next 24 hours. The mixture will need continual aeration.

After 24 hours the mixture needs to be used right away. Hirscheld strains the compost tea through another old stocking into a hand sprayer. Then he can spray his vegetable plants, or even the lawn. As a foliar spray, the nutrients are taken into the plant through their leaves. Hirscheld told me of experiments that showed that a foliar feeding of vermicompost tea encouraged grass roots, and presumably other plant roots, to grow two or three inches deeper into the soil which cuts down on the need for watering and makes the plant less troubled by dry spells.

Hirscheld uses this foliar feeding two or three times a season on his garden.

Hirscheld and I compared notes on our personal worm farms. At one point I was complaining to a friend about having fruit flies and she suggested I stop giving them fruit. That was an answer that worked well, but I did like giving the worms overripe bananas, one of their favorites, so it was not a total answer. I took to laying several wet sheets of newspaper over the worms and bedding. I think this has helped by covering the surface where fruit flies could lay their eggs.

Of course this raises the question of where the very first fruit flies come from, but I cannot answer that question. I’d love some one to explain that mystery to me.

Another mystery is the little white worms that appeared in my bin. I thought they were baby worms, but one of my Franklin Land Trust tour visitors, and Hirscheld, explained that these are entrachyadids. I have the same question – where did they come from?

Entachyadids will not harm the red wigglers, but they do indicate acid conditions. I’ll have to sprinkle and mix a little lime into my bin.

With the current trend towards using local agricultural produce and products, Hirscheld and I are taking this another step, and let the worms produce rich compost all year long. During the short summer season my bin lives outside in the shade: in the winter it sits in my kitchen. Fertilizer can’t get any more local than that.

Between the Rows   July 23, 2011

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