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Vermiculture: Skagit County Worm Wrangler talks worm work

Mar 6th, 2015 | Category: Community

by Jessamyn Tuttle

A lifelong gardener, Kim Johnson had a large property that had been used for weddings and photo shoots, but needed to find something quieter. “I saw an article in the Herald about compost worms,” Johnson said. She had sold night crawlers on the side when she was younger, loves animals of all kinds and found the idea interesting. “I thought they’d be quiet, not bug the neighbors,” she said.

Kim Johnson shows a handful of red wrigglers. PHOTOS BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Kim Johnson shows a handful of red wrigglers. PHOTOS BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Johnson bought some starting worms and a copy of the worm composting bible, “Worms eat my garbage” by Mary Appelhof.

“I read it after I set up my bins, and did it all wrong,” she said. But by trial and error, she learned how best to grow Red Wigglers, the small red worms that live in decomposing vegetation (not the large white kind that live in garden soil). She became the Skagit County Worm Wrangler, selling both worms and finished compost from an honor stand at her property in Mount Vernon and through Craigslist. She also began offering classes in beginning vermiculture.

Why should you buy worms? If you keep an outdoor compost bin, you might not need to, but while many compost heaps will naturally gain a worm population, others don’t.

“I don’t know what the trick is,” Johnson said. But one of the big uses for her worms is for worm bins, a contained composting environment which can be used inside, such as in an apartment building or out on a deck or porch. A disguising structure, such as a bench, can also be built around a worm bin. The bins don’t need to be fancy, she said. “I make worm bins for five bucks.” When she sells worms to a client, it comes with advice. “They can call me any time,” she said. “There’s no question too stupid.”

Keeping a worm bin going is simple. “Put all your kitchen scraps in there, they eat all of it,” she said, adding that you want to avoid placing meat, dairy or citrus waste in the mix. The resulting compost is silky rich and solid.

A beginning population of several thousand worms – if well taken care of – will break down organic matter over just a few months, producing worm castings and compost tea that can be used in the garden, spread on a lawn or used for topping up potted plants. Johnson uses worm compost for all of her own soil and fertilizer needs, and has huge success in her vegetable garden, including five-pound kohlrabi and tomatillos several inches across.

“It’s real beneficial,” she said.

Since worms are hermaphroditic, they reproduce quickly. “It’s fun to see how many you get,” Johnson said. If a bin has too many worms, the population will stabilize on its own, or extra worms can be separated out.

To keep her own compost heaps active, Johnson gets vegetable waste from Skagit Gleaners, and occasionally manure from a local provider.Kim Johnson by Jessamyn Tuttle web

She gives presentations at farmer’s markets and garden clubs, and to grade schools, which she particularly enjoys. She teaches the kids to save worms that are drowning in puddles or stranded on sidewalks.

“A teacher called me to say, ‘We’ve saved 45 worms so far!’” she said. She finds that reactions to worms vary widely. “Some people are grossed out by them…other people get real excited to see them.”

Along with her home honor stand, Johnson has a booth at the Bow Little Market every week during the summer, selling, along with worms and compost, plants, cut flowers and produce. She calls herself a “haphazard Martha Stewart” stumbling around the yard.

“If I could just be home growing my flowers and growing my worms I’d be in bliss,” she said.

Kim Johnson/Skagit County Worm Wrangler can be reached at (360) 424-8006.

Published in the March 2015 issue of Grow Northwest

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