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A novel wiggling with gardening tips

“Today is a very exciting day because we are going to enlist the help of Mother Nature’s wonder workers … I am talking about worms.”

– Abbie Waxman, “The Garden of Small Beginnings” (2017)

Edward, the handsome Australian gardening instructor in Abbie Waxman’s debut novel, goes on to enlighten his skeptical students on the ways that worms benefit garden soil and plants. “Earthworms are one of the most important allies of the gardener,” Edward explains. “Not only do they aerate the soil simply by moving about, but as they digest organic matter, such as old plant material or kitchen scraps, they produce worm tea, which is one of the most potent fertilizers available to us.”

The excitement Edward had planned for the class that day did not involve Mother Nature’s everyday wonder worker, the common garden earthworm. Instead, Waxman’s protagonist, Lilian Girvan, her two daughters, Annabel and Clare, her sister Rachel, and the rest of the gardening class were learning how to use red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) for worm composting.

Also known as vermiculture, worm composting is an effective way to close the waste gap by utilizing kitchen scraps and plant debris to add nutrients and microbes to garden soil.

After Edward introduces the class project of building vermiculture bins, Lilian’s precocious kindergartner, Clare, points out, “I don’t know why they call it (worm) tea. It’s just pee.”

Actually, worm castings can be used in solid and liquid form as a foliar spray or a top dressing for plants, a soil amendment or soil inoculant, and as an additive to compost piles to speed up decomposition. Red wiggler worms and their excrement really are one of nature’s ultimate wonder workers.

I enjoy reading fiction that includes information about gardens and gardening, so I added “The Garden of Small Beginnings” to my reading list for this year (see Jan. 3 column for the complete book list). After working my way through the first six nonfiction books on the list, I was ready for a less rigorous read this month. Waxman’s book delivered with a story about Lilian’s struggle to regain equilibrium after her husband dies in a car accident.

Lili’s employer asks her to take a gardening class at the L.A. Botanical Garden for a book illustration project, and Lili recruits her sister and daughters to take the class with her. The time spent with her family and the friends she makes in the class, as well as the gardening work itself, helps Lili move past her grief and anger. (I already mentioned the handsome Australian gardening teacher who also plays a big part in Lili’s recovery.)

At times while reading the book, I felt like a disapproving old auntie, tsk-tsking Lilian’s f-bombs and inappropriate sarcastic humor (Lili explains that she and Rachel developed sarcasm as a self-defense mechanism to deal with their highly critical mother). Yet, I found the story about Lili’s relationship with her children and her sister endearing, and did I mention the book also includes lots of gardening tidbits?

Lili shares what she’s learning in the gardening class throughout the book. She includes instructions on: Preparing Your Garden, Essential Equipment, Chemistry of Soil, Making Peace with Insects, and Companion Planting. Lili’s class is creating a potager garden full of vegetables and herbs, so she also includes advice on how to grow: beets, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, green beans, garlic, pumpkin, lettuce, zucchini, celery, strawberries, peas, cabbage, turnips, corn and radishes.

Lili inserts her sarcastic humor into each recommendation. After describing how to grow cabbage, for example, she explains: “If you think (cooked) cabbage is smelly, it’s because you’ve been overcooking it. Cook it for too long and it produces hydrogen sulfide, presumably as a comment on your cooking skills. Sorry, that’s how they roll.”

As for turnips, Lili believes they “are the unsung heroes of the root crop universe. They don’t have the ad budget potatoes have, or the glamorous appearance of carrots, but they shouldn’t be underestimated.” Point well taken.

By the end of the gardening class, Lili is starting to see herself as a real gardener. She’s still sarcastic, but she’s a lot less angry. The whole class toasts Edward “who taught us to look more closely at what we’re stepping in, and to have more respect for the humble worm.”

Of course, 5-year-old Clare has the last word. After the toast, she pipes up, “I don’t know that I could have any more respect for worms than I already did. They’re awesome.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

Awesome red wiggler worms

Red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) are the best worms to use for vermicomposting because they can eat as much as their own body weight in decaying organic matter every day. According to the OSU Extension Service, in natural environments red wigglers live in the surface layer of the soil, so they are uniquely adaptable to the conditions of vermicomposting bins. They compost food scraps and plant debris most efficiently when the temperature in the bin is between 71 and 89 degrees, although they will tolerate temperature ranges between 55 and 90 degrees.

Red wrigglers breathe through their skin, which is hypersensitive to sunlight. Each segment of the worm’s body has its own set of kidneys, which processes waste into liquid (“worm pee”) that is then excreted through the worm’s skin. A red wiggler’s intestinal tract contains 1,000 times more microbial life than the food it consumes. It’s actually after the bacteria, fungi, protozoa and other microorganisms in decaying organic matter, rather than the scraps themselves.

For more information about using awesome red wiggler worms for vermicomposting, check out OSU’s helpful guide “Composting with Worms” (2011) at https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/sites/catalog/files/project/pdf/em9034.pdf.

My gardening to-do list for this week

• Use shade cloth to protect veggies from late afternoon sun when temps soar in triple digits.

• Complete garden chores before noon; wear sunscreen and a hat and have a water bottle handy always.

• Monitor garden soil moisture level and adjust irrigation as needed. Keep in mind that the Medford Water Commission has requested a voluntary reduction in water use to address a shortage in their supply of chlorine to disinfect municipal water. Visit their webpage for ways to reduce water for landscaping and irrigation at www.medfordwater.org.

• Make a vermicomposting bin with awesome red wiggler worms. (I learned that another benefit of “worm pee” is that it helps soil retain moisture when applied as a drench.)