Green Barbarians–Ellen Sandbeck
A Buddha A Day–Ellen Sandbeck
This Minnesota couple uses
worms to do their composting.
Ellen and Walter Sandbeck are picky about their worms. "Not just any worms work for composting", says Ellen. "The ones that are
hearty outside are not good with compost, and the ones good with compost are not much good outside."
Vermicompost, or worm castings, is produced when garbage passes through feeding worms.
The castings are added to soil where they accelerate the rate of decomposition and increase the amount of nitrogen available to plants.
Walter and Ellen, self-professed worm wranglers,
run a business called Laverme’s Worms from their rural home outside Duluth, Minnesota. It all started when they moved to Minnesota from California in the winter. They couldn’t compost outside because of the extreme cold.
They tried, but varmints would scavenge through
the compost, scattering it all over the yard. Ellen bought a half-cup of red wriggler worms and set up a compost bin in the basement in an old
shower stall. She was hooked. Within a year she was giving away worms. Eventually she started
charging for them and the business was launched."I’m not in this to make a lot of money, I just
want my worms to get out in the world and do
their thing," she says.
Multiply fast "If you started a bin of worms today, with their
exponential growth, you’d have worms to sell
in six to nine months," says Ellen. Worms mate
twice a week and produce one worm per egg case. Those two new worms will lay an egg case several days later. "After a couple of months, there’s your
population explosion," says Ellen.
The worms self-regulate their population in a bin, so you never get too many, she says. If you remove a bunch of worms to start a new bin, the worms will repopulate.
Midwest, but they have sold worms from Colorado to California. "The worms need to be delivered in one day in a gallon container of medium
or they are not happy!" says Ellen.
They sell worms to households, schools, prisons, and to people on acreages with big gardens.
Some of the schools use stock tanks covered with
tarps. Big bins full of worms can handle a lot of
compost material, says Ellen. Worm castings are concentrated. "You can’t
put worm compost on legumes," says Ellen. "It’s
too rich for them; they will make leaves and no
peas or beans. It should be used only on plants
that like to be fertilized, such as corn, squash,
basil, tomatoes, or roses." On their acreage, the Sandbecks use 150-gallon
plastic stock tubs. Their tanks are so large they can throw in 5-gallon buckets of compost
with no problem. They keep bags of composting
leaves on hand to feed the worm bins. "Cemeteries
are great places to get good, clean leaves," says
Ellen. "There are no dog droppings, no trash, and
the leaves are always very clean."
Worm juice, another byproduct of raising a bin
of worms, is the liquid excreted out the bottom
of a bin’s spigot, and is a concentrated fertilizer
similar to manure tea. It’s a potent product that
needs to be cut with water about 20-1 to give
plants a feeding boost. Ellen and Walter’s bins
have a special membrane that keeps the worm
medium up off the bottom of the bin, allowing
for air flow and drainage of the worm juice. "You can make a worm-raising bin out of just about anything," says Walter. "Old coolers are
pretty good. You can make your bottom filter out out of the liquid, such as landscape fabric."
Ellen tells the story of a friend who was bringing home a 5-gallon bucket of worm juice to use on her garden. "She
needed the bucket badly for another purpose right away, so
she poured the whole works out in the gravel driveway. The
next spring, a big patch of clover grew in that over-fertilized
spot in the middle of the driveway," she says. "You could
probably grow things in concrete with this stuff!"
The Sandbecks sell bins (27-gallon bin is $175), worms
(starter kit with 1/2 pound of red wriggler worms is $38)
worm juice (32 ounces for $10), and more. Ellen has used
her experiences, both good and bad, to write books on
worming and composting. including Laverme’s Handbook
of Indoor Worm Composting ($6 on lavermesworms.com),
Organic Housekeeping ($19.80 on mazon.com), Eat More
Dirt ($11.25 on Amazon), and SlugBread and Beheaded
Thistles ($11.04 on Amazon).
If the books don’t keep you entertained, the worms will,
says Ellen. "Worms are at the most active at night. Night is
the best time to stand quietly by the side of your worm bin,
listening to the tiny popping noises made by the opening
and closing of myriad little worm mouths. It’s very romantic,
and makes a great cheap date."