Inching to Grow

Casting earthworms for soil restoration.

November 16, 2015

GleaningsIssue 15: November/December 2015

Michael Morse, co-owner of Inch by Inch, tends to the gardener’s gold that forms the base of their business.

A Tucson couple has discovered how they can both pay it back—and pay it forward—in the most unlikely form, that of earthworms and their castings.

“It came out of a vision of restoration. Our soils are depleted and worm castings are a quick way to restore them,” said Sandra Morse, co-owner of Tucson’s Inch by Inch, which produces large sacks of earthworm castings as organic and natural fertilizer for both indoor pots and outdoor garden use. “Worm castings have a way of sort of rebalancing the natural world,” she said.

This fledgling firm is housed in a 5,000-square-foot warehouse on 19th Street called The Worm Hole. “We started in November of 2014 with 20,000 pounds of worms and have been growing them ever since. Every room is filled, wall-to-wall, with worm bins and we currently have about 60,000 pounds of castings,” she said.

As word begins to spread of these 10-pound bags of gardening gold, Sandra and her husband, Michael, expect demand to grow, tasking the red wiggler worms to increase their castings production. “That would be a good problem to have,” Michael said. “Our partners who introduced us to this concept have a 100,000-square-foot operation in Tennessee and they can’t keep up with customer requests.”

For the Morses, the cultivation of organic fertilizer with high levels of minerals allows them to make a contribution to the community in the form of waste management. “To us, it looked like the perfect storm—right place, right time, right philosophy, right product,” Michael said.

Under ideal conditions, worms can eat at least their own weight in organic matter in a day. “Our containers are 150 gallons and if you put a thousand pounds of worms in a bin, in two months there will be 2,000 pounds of wigglers,” Michael said.

Worm castings are perfect for gardeners—they’re rich in humic acids, maintain an even pH balance, and contain more nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium than ordinary soil. Worm castings can be mixed into the soil of existing house plants or top-dressed on household and inside plants. Vegetable seedlings and transplants stand a better chance of success with a little nutritional boost—mix one part worm casting to three parts soil. In outdoor raised beds, use two to four inches of castings to start, then add a side dressing during the growing season of half a cup per plant every two months.

“We were surprised to learn that not everyone knows the benefits of worm castings,” said Michael. “We’ll start small at farmers’ markets, educating the public, and extolling the fact that castings are a great way to enhance our soil.”

Word of mouth marketing is already starting a buzz. One farm, an organic orchard in southern Arizona, has already placed a thousand-pound order. But it’s the inch-by-inch, bag-by-bag growth curve that’s in their business plan. “We’ve been polluting our planet for a long time and we need to change the way we do things,” Sandra said.

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