Eighteen years ago, Maggie and Lamar Pitkins, newly retired from the United States Air Force, bought a home on Cape Cod and went farming.
Not cranberry farming; not zucchini. Worms!
Now on any given day they may be running (or perhaps, wriggling) a million or so head of stock on their quarter-acre spread.
To be accurate, they're earthworm farmers. They raise red wrigglers, or manure worms as they're known. Or as ranch-owner Maggie Pitkins calls them, the "kings of the compost pile."
The Pitkins's Cape Cod Earth Worm Farm has been supplying these composting aids for the past 18 years to every state in the US, to Canada, and even Australia.
The idea for the farm took shape in Korea when Sgt. Pitkins was concluding his duty with the US Air Force. At the same time, Maggie was hoping to start a small business she could run from her home.
Of the thousands of earthworm species scattered around the globe, those you are most likely to see in your garden are the lumbricids, imports from Europe.
They include long night crawlers, gray and reddish-gray field worms and smaller red, or manure worms.
While the first two are soil dwellers that come to the surface to feed on decaying organic matter, the red worm prefers to live in manure piles, compost heaps, or beneath the litter that collects on the soil surface. And it's these little creatures that the vast majority of worm farmers, like Maggie Pitkins, raise. That's because red worms are such prolific breeders.
So who buys red worms and why?
According to Maggie, people are increasingly interested in having a bin full of worms in the backyard or basement to process food waste, while science teachers value worm bins as classroom projects. Still others raise worms as fishing bait.
Virtually any moderate-sized container half-filled with bedding of shredded paper, leaves, or straw, to which food waste is added on a regular basis, can be turned into a comfortable home for worms.
Some books (see list below) contain plans for worm bins. Commercially made bins are also offered in garden catalogs. One advanced design worm bin out of Australia is being offered by Ecology Action of Palto Alto, Calif.
But don't buy red worms purely for soil improvement. While they can be added to heavily mulched gardens where there is plenty of organic matter to convert into rich plant food, the all-round champions of soil improvement are field worms and night crawlers, because they are constantly turning, mixing, and aerating the soil.
The active earthworm eats its own weight in soil and organic matter every 24 hours. As this material passes through the worm's digestive tract, acids and alkalies are neutralized, and soil minerals are converted into a form readily absorbed by plants.
Actinomycetes (microorganisms that give rich soil its "earthy" smell) also multiply seven times in their journey through the worm.
In fact, earthworm castings are rich in essential minerals including nitrates, phosphorous, magnesium, potash, and calcium.
Little wonder worm castings are sometimes referred to as "black magic" and fetch up to $1.50 a pound on the retail market. But with a little effort you can encourage the worms to do their magic in your own garden soil.
They will also keep your garden beds in mint condition by aerating and tilling the soil with their constant tunneling actions.
The ancient Egyptians held the lowly earthworm in very high esteem. Cleopatra even declared it a "sacred animal."
Charles Darwin, who made a lifelong study of earthworms, concluded: "It may be doubted whether there are any other animals to have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly creatures."
When an earthworm dies, its body adds additional nitrogen to the soil.
To keep earthworms from wandering into your neighbors vegetable patch or lawn, they need to be fed at home. To do this, see that they have plenty of raw organic matter to feast on. Compost and manures dug into the soil before planting are an effective way.
An easier way is to do as I have done for the past 15 years: Spread an inch-thick layer of compost over the surface of the soil each spring. Shredded leaves up to 3 inches deep go on top of that once the soil has warmed up.
Another way to feed your plants, soil, and earthworms throughout the season is to puree kitchen waste in a blender. I make a furrow in the mulch between the plants and pour in the slurry. Under the onslaught of the worms it disappears within a day or two. By season's end the mulch has been consumed, with only the thinnest covering remaining on the surface of the soil.
Most soils (except the most chemically abused) have a remnant of earthworm populations, and a consistent mulching and compost program will draw them to your garden. But don't expect overnight success. It takes three to five years for large earthworm populations to build up. However, you will see improvements in soil quality within a year.
To speed up the process you can add earthworms from elsewhere. Simply sprinkle a little cornmeal (a favorite earthworm food) over the soil where you see some castings and cover this with a sheet of corrugated cardboard, weighted down with stones. Wait a few days; remove the cardboard in the early morning, and gather the worms that have collected there.
In my garden earthworms have made the soil so soft that there's no place I can't plant a seedling simply by digging a planting hole with my fingers.
Bear in mind that strong, chemical, nonorganic fertilizers, whether on you lawn or in your garden, can discourage worms from taking up residence in your garden or lawn. It's best to check with your local nursery to make sure any fertilizers you may purchase are "worm friendly."
To learn more:
Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Applehof (Flower Press, Kalamazoo, MI, 1982).
Worm Digest, P.O. Box 544, Eugene, OR 97440-0544
Ecology Action, 225 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94306