Anita Roberson is trying to worm her way into the hearts of gardeners and small farmers.
In addition to producing fruits, vegetables and beautiful flower baskets on family land off Massaponax Church Road in Spotsylvania County, Roberson is into vermicomposting.
That’s a fancy term for worm farming, and she and her husband, Thomas “Rob” Roberson, recently demonstrated some of the environmental benefits of the practice at their business, Botanical Bites & Provisions.
While she described the process that involves tiny, squiggling worms of the red-wiggler variety, he used the opportunity to tell ridiculously corny dad jokes.
“How can you tell which end of the worm is the mouth?” he asked the group of about 10 people and got no answer. “You tickle the middle to see which end laughs.”
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Minority and Veteran Farmers of the Piedmont helped sponsor the event and a USDA grant, administered through Virginia Tech, allowed every participant to go home with a bucket of bedding and soil containing about 250 worms.
Anita Roberson said she was eager to share information about worm farming with others, and not only because people helped them out when they retired from other careers and started farming in 2015.
She believes the tiny worms she holds in her hand, while wearing gloves, can make a difference to the planet. Not only can they reduce what ends up in the landfill by consuming cardboard, paper and rotten vegetables, but they also can turn that waste into rich, nutrient-filled soil.
“Basically, you’re taking your waste products, feeding it to the worms and then they poop it out for lack of a scientific word,” she said.
Call it worm poop, worm compost or worm castings, the byproduct gets mixed with Mother Earth and helps yield healthier plants that are stronger and more disease-resistant, she said.
And, it has a broader impact.
“Every little bit of what we do to make the earth more inhabitable is a plus for this climate crisis that we’re facing,” she said.
And that’s no joke, not even to Rob Roberson, who spent 24 years in the Army and says the only thing worse than biting into an apple and seeing a worm — is seeing half a worm.
His wife went through a slide show, set up in the carport of their home, and pointed toward a fancy composter in the corner with different levels and a spigot from which will drain liquid that can be made into a worm tea. That’s not for human consumption, but a few teaspoons can be added to a couple gallons of water to make a plant fertilizer.
But as she stressed, “you don’t need all that fancy stuff to do worm farming, unless you want it.”
She showed a few tote bins that work equally well, and she filled black buckets with some of the contents to get other growers started. Basic requirements include a container; bedding, such as shredded newspaper; soil; 250 to 500 worms; good airflow through the container; and food for the worms.
“The other key is limited moisture, you want the environment to be damp like a wrung-out sponge,” Anita Roberson said. “Worms breathe through their skin so if it’s really wet, it will drown your worms and that’s a really stinky mess.”
She feeds the worms newspaper that she’s shredded, cardboard, such as paper towel tubes torn into small pieces, rotten vegetables and dead leaves she’s picked from her hanging baskets. Any kind of fruit and vegetable scraps, including apple cores, banana peels or carrot tops, is good.
Onions, garlic, spicy foods, plastic, metal and meat products are not. Worms are vegetarians, the Robersons said, and don’t like anything oily, salty, fatty or citrusy.
Like chickens, worms have gizzards, Rob Roberson said, and need something hard to help grind up their food. His wife, who admits she pampers “these lowly creatures,” rolls a can over eggshells to crush them into small pieces before adding them to the mix. Fine sand and limited amounts of coffee grounds work well also.
Anita Roberson keeps her worm containers in the basement or garage. Rob Roberson runs weatherstripping around the container lid to seal it.
“Then you become the warden of the worms,” he said, and don’t end up with worms escaping into other areas of the home.
The worms can survive temperatures ranging from the mid-30s to mid-80s, but prefer a range around 64–77 degrees. They eat their weight every day, and expel similar amounts, but that’s not the only activity that keeps them busy.
The worms reproduce every three months so the bucket of 250 will be 500 worms by mid-August.
“If the population reaches more than what the container’s able to hold, they’ll stop reproducing,” said Derrick Hart of Stafford County, who used to grow worms to feed his aquarium fish but plans to feed raised beds with worm compost. “So if you want them to continue to grow, you have to put them in a bigger container.”
“Or put some in a second container,” Anita Roberson said.
After about three months, worm farmers can sort through the material to separate the worms from their byproduct. A rule of thumb is to mix one part worm poop to four parts soil. Too much won’t harm the plants in any way, but Rob Roberson said it’s best to use the precious material sparingly to get the most use from it.
Susan Midland of Spotsylvania County appreciated the lecture, and the free worms. She bought a layered compost container a few months ago, along with about a pound of red wigglers she ordered online for $50. She was afraid she’d added way too much water and drowned the worms so she wanted to try vermicomposting again.
She likes the way her efforts to recycle work well with the worms, which can eat much of what she keeps out of the dump.
“I’m definitely going to continue,” she said.
The Robersons also urged other would-be worm farmers to research vermicomposting online, watch YouTube videos, ask questions on Instagram or check out books from the library and start reaping the benefits.
“That’s the thing we’re trying to hammer in,” Anita Roberson said, “that we want you to think about the environment.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425