Anne LatreilleA can of worms

My sister – who is a very good gardener, much better than I am – peered into my compost bin. It was full of rotting vegetable peelings and dried leaves and a bit of newspaper and sawdust & all that other stuff that you are meant to put in compost. But the four black inside walls were slimy and dripping and they were encrusted with wriggling pink worms of all shapes and sizes. Some of them separate, some all knotted together.

‘Your compost is too wet!’ she said. ‘It looks DISGUSTING! Look, the worms are trying to escape!’

I apologised to her, and to the worms, and promised to try and do better.

Then after she had left, I got to thinking.

I remembered something I had just read while doing research into the ideas of Karl Langer, a fine Austrian architect and landscape architect (and town planner as well) who left Vienna in 1939 and lived in Brisbane – where he left quite a substantial mark.

He was a good gardener and in one of his writings I found an interesting snippet about worms. He wrote that if your soil was dry and infertile, you should buy a can of worms, dig some holes and pop them in, cover them up with a thick, thick layer of mulch – fallen leaves and twigs and so on – and they will improve the soil so much that your plants will thrive and you’ll never need to do anything about it again. (He also said a friend had told him Canadian worms were better than Australian ones, and had given him some).

I had liked the idea, looked up worms on the web and found a couple of local sources – they had to be mailed – but hadn’t got around to buying any yet. Wasn’t that lucky! because I had an excess of them in my very own compost bin.

So I found a coffee mug with steep sides, and an old knife with a soft, rounded, bendy end. I took the lid off the bin and went to work. I must have gently scraped 20 or so into the mug before the worms got the message and began disappearing into the cracks in the bin, or dropping back into their smelly composting swimming pool.

I went off with my mug, found a place in the garden where the soil had always been particularly bad, and did what Dr Langer said. Dug some holes, popped them in, covered them up with rotting bark and gum leaves, told them to be good kids and to eat everything I had given them, and moved off.

Banksia petiolaris

In this spot I am growing a ground-cover banksia, Banksia petiolaris. It has beautiful narrow vertical leaves with fluted edges, which emerge from a thick snaky stalk that runs along the ground, a little bit pink in colour where it is new. It doesn’t put down roots, it just sends up leaves. In season, there are lovely fat banksia heads peeking out from between the leaves like groups of little people – some tall, some short, some fat, some skinny. The old ones stay on too, dark brown and dessicated, a kind of furry sculpture.

This particular plant grows quite well in my horrid soil, but doesn’t like it much. Its leaves are usually a rather nasty yellow-green with burnt brown bits in them, instead of the soft furry pale silvery grey-green that is their normal colour.

Now I had given the plant a feed of iron chelates a few weeks back but it wasn’t looking that flash. So I put in the worms – and hoped. And I began to work with my worms every day, depositing them in different spots around the garden, especially the vegie patch. How many I get rather depends on what I have put into the compost the night before. A layer of dry leaves and there are none, or very few. A bag of vegetable peelings and there are squillions.

It’s getting to be quite a habit. Some of the worms must be getting used to it also. I’ve been at it for about three weeks, and now, when I take the lid off the bin first thing in the morning, the bigger ones immediately start to writhe and dodge and drop away. But I am developing quite a good technique with my knife and my mug. Usually I can get most of them.

The really good news is that suddenly, the banksia is looking great. The leaves are positively beautiful – compared to what they were – and there are shoots heading off in every direction.

Maybe this is the feed of iron. Maybe it is the rain that has fallen recently in Melbourne. But the plant is five years old and it’s well used to injections of water and, particularly, of iron. It has never been given free worms before, however. I think I’ll keep it up – and I’ll keep you posted!

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Anne Latreille

About Anne Latreille

Writer, editor and journalist. Author of 'Garden Voices' (about Australian garden designers past and present, September 2013), 'Garden of a Lifetime' (Dame Elisabeth Murdoch at Cruden Farm), 'Kindred Spirits' and 'The Natural Garden'. Melbourne, Victoria.

3 thoughts on “A can of worms

  1. I would kill for that worm population in my compost! I have just added a pile of ash taken from the paddock fireplace where we burn old garden cuttings, dead trees etc …. do know it adds much needed carbon to the mix, but hope it is not too much.

    Love your blog.
    Cheers,
    JUlie

    • anne latreille on said:

      just picked this up Julie. Why not get on line and buy some worms?
      cheers, Anne

      • Yes, I will.
        Thanks for the prompt.
        Julie