Worms at Work

Kenn White, owner of Nighttrain Gardens & Worm Farm in Robertsville, shows a colony of worms in one of his three worm beds in his garage. White harvests the worm castings and sells it as an organic fertilizer.    Missourian Photo.

Organic gardener Kenn White grows tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, corn, lettuce, cabbage, asparagus and — worms.

The retired plumber from Robertsville raises a species of worm called Eisenia fetida, a tiny red worm about 3 inches long and about as big around as pencil lead.

“They’re easy to raise,” White said. “As long as they have food and water and a comfortable environment to live in, they will stay put.”

White doesn’t raise these worms for fish bait — they are way too small, he said — but raises them to collect their castings, or worm waste, which he said makes an awesome organic fertilizer.

“It’s a neutral pH, it’s odorless and it won’t burn your plants because it’s not hot,” he said. “It also won’t compact and it holds four times the moisture of regular soil.”

White got the idea of raising the diminutive worms while surfing the Internet one evening.

The little batch of worms he ordered has now grown to three 16-square-foot wooden boxes that he said theoretically holds about 16,000 worms each.

White said worms mate by lining up side-to-side and somehow, they “get under each other’s skin.”

Worms are hermaphrodites, he said, meaning each worm carries both eggs and sperm, and they fertilize each other’s eggs. He isn’t sure how often they reproduce.

“I guess that’s up to them,” he quipped.

About every six weeks White must separate the worms from their castings or he said they will re-eat their excrement, and while he said it makes for a stronger fertilizer, it will kill them.

The worms eat bacteria which comes from compost, and they eat their weight in food every day, White said. Feeding them requires an exact science.

“If you overfeed them, they will get too hot and leave, and if you underfeed them, they’ll take off,” he said.

Each worm yields about one pound of castings per week.

White has a large motor-driven separator to collect the castings. It’s a huge cylinder made of two sizes of mesh that spins worms and bedding.

“The castings fall through the smaller mesh, while bigger particles, including some of the worms, falls through the larger mesh,” he said. “The worms come out the end.”

Although White said the Eisenia fetida are easy to raise, they do require some special care to ensure they will stick around.

In the winter, White uses soil warmers, sort of like heat tape used to keep plumbing from freezing. In the summer, he simply freezes milk jugs and puts one in each bed.

“They last about a day,” he said.

White has been designing small “worm kits” to sell so people can start their own colonies.

“I thought it might make a nice science project for kids,” he said.

White sells both his homegrown organic produce and worm castings at Hillermanns’ farmers’ market, which is open Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For more information, people may contact White at 314-607-2802.