The Wonder of Worms in Today's Gardens
by Alex McRae, Newnan-Coweta Magazine
The best way to improve your garden is to improve your soil. But not by adding fertilizer.
Mike and Justin Cunningham of Newnan’s Country Gardens Farm say nothing does the job better than a load of worms. Yes, worms. The slimy, sloppy, yucky night-crawling critters best known as fish bait are the new BFFs of farmers and backyard gardeners looking to grow fabulous flowers and fresh veggies with a minimum of commercial fertilizer or supplements.
“People are looking to grow things more naturally and this is a great way to do it,” says Mike Cunningham. “You can’t get more natural than worms.”
As worms dig, they increase the amount of air and water in the soil. They also go through leaf litter and other organic materials like regulars at an all-you-can-eat buffet. The by-product of worm digestion—called castings—is a totally organic fertilizer that can’t be beat.
Adding 10 to 20 percent worm castings to potting soil or a well-prepared garden plot increases yields and produces showcase-quality flowers and vegetables.
“The first time we added worm castings to the soil, it made a big difference,” says 26-year-old Justin Cunningham, who runs the family worm farm when he’s not on duty with the Newnan Fire Department. “Just mix it in and watch it work.”
Speaking of work, when it comes to worms and chores, Mike says, “They never stop eating and producing castings. They’re the hardest working employees we’ve got.”
In the Cunningham family, that’s saying a mouthful. Mike has been working on his family’s farms since he was old enough to pull a weed. After he finished his schooling Mike started Southern Perennial Growers and 30 years ago, with his wife Judy, opened Country Gardens, which kept local green thumb types happy until Mike downsized two years ago.
Mike is still a farmer, but now specializes in supplying his locally grown produce, eggs, milk and grass fed beef to the members of his Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group.
“I don’t have a John Deere tractor and 100 acres of soybeans,” Mike says, “but I’m feeding 50 families every week and giving them the freshest, highest-quality food available. We’re all happy with it.” Mike also supplies food to farmers markets just down the road and as far away as Atlanta.
The family businesses now involve all of Mike and Judy’s four sons. Justin runs the worm farming operation, Joseph handles the organic dairy, James specializes in hogs and landscaping, and the family’s second firefighter, John, helps with everything when he’s not on duty.
“I call on them to do a lot of different things,” Mike says. “We’ve got lots going on here all the time.”
The Cunninghams are always looking for ways to improve their operation and learned the value and nutritional importance of worm castings while visiting a worm farm in Douglas, Ga. a couple of years ago. Since then, it’s been full speed ahead at what is admittedly a slow process.
It will take a few years to build up the worm supply needed to produce castings in large commercial quantities, and for now, the emphasis is on keeping the worms happy and healthy so their tribe can grow and prosper.
Worms are relatively low maintenance, but Justin says the biggest problem is keeping predators away. And he doesn’t mean fishermen looking for free bait.
“Worms are low on the food chain and lots of critters like to eat them,” Justin says. “Possums, birds, armadillos, it’s always lunch for somebody.”
When it’s time to harvest castings the soil is gently removed and worms, castings and organic material are all dumped into a worm harvester, a rotating apparatus which gently separates worms from the castings, allowing the worms to go back to chewing while the castings are bagged up and offered for sale.
Justin and his wife Jessica, a teacher at Odyssey Charter School, have a baby on the way and can’t wait to teach their child to appreciate the wonder of worms. Justin knows worms don’t have a glamorous reputation, but he believes that once gardeners discover the value of worm castings, the family will have a hard time filling the orders.
“We’re small, but we’re learning and in a few years, we’ll have a good-sized operation,” Justin says. “I think it’s really going to take off.”
So, the next time you hear a gardener talk about castings, don’t assume they’re headed to the fishing hole.
“The castings are the ultimate prize,” says Mike. “There is nothing better for your garden soil. And I mean nothing.”
For more stories from the May/June issue of Newnan-Coweta Magazine, please visit: http://newnancowetamag.com