The road to Sharon’s Worm World is in turn blacktop, gravel, then finally Ramona dirt. Sharon McLaughlan, the worm farm’s founder and namesake, is waiting at the crest of the dusty lane that ends at the dusty house she rents, a brick-and-board affair over a garage crammed with stuff. She has a round, smiling face. Her hair is layered and short. This is country given over to horses, solar-energy farms, and flies. Cumulus clouds stack up across the foothills but instead of shade or rain, they push the afternoon heat upwards into par-broiler levels.
Sharon’s husband John waits behind the wheel of a golf cart that has seen better days. He mumbles something about the brakes not always working too good. “If we get into trouble,” he says, “jump out when I tell you.” His laugh is loud as a thunderclap at close range. He bumps us downhill at four or five miles per hour, rounding one horse paddock after another. The afternoon pongs of sawdust and manure. “It’s only shit when it’s still in the horse.” Said as if in apology, followed again by that oversize laugh. “But when it comes out, it’s worm food.”
McLaughlan, nudging 70, is a sun-creased man with thinning gray hair tied back into an even thinner rat tail. He parks us alongside a tarped work shed from the darkened innards of which blasts Led Zeppelin.
The earthworms live under the shade of Brazilian pepper trees in orderly 20-foot soil rows, each topped with mounded greenish manure. Sharon heads off to town for Thai food with her friends. John forks a load of manure-soil aside to reveal hundreds of earthworms. Moist and reddish, the worms convulse as if trying to outrun the sudden blast of heat, light, and rock music.
My neighbor friend Janice and I, following directions found on a YouTube video about vermiculture, built a worm bin of our own. We procured our earthworms from the bait shop at Lake Murray. But after a couple of days, the news from under the cover of mulch was not good.
5540 Kiowa Drive, San Carlos
“How are they?” I asked.
“Sparse,” Janice said. Our earthworms had apparently made a break for freedom en masse, possibly through the drainage/ventilation holes we’d drilled into the sides per the video instructions. We wondered what was not to like about our worm bin.
We wondered where the hell our worms went.
Per definition, vermiculture is “the cultivation of annelid worms (such as earthworms or bloodworms) especially for use as bait or in composting.” All such worms live in everlasting dark. They make useful bio-mulch of fallen leaves and clay and rotted fruit and death. They have no use for eyes.
Ancient civilizations were known to have practiced vermicomposting; Aristotle called earthworms the intestines of the soil and a couple of thousand years later, Charles Darwin proved it. The English naturalist studied them for nearly four decades and concluded that every particle of soil on the planet had passed through the bodies of earthworms.
Vermiculturists are joined at the collective hip by a variety of social ties: philosophy, permaculture, politics, sustainability, lifestyle, recycling, and, an affection for red wiggler earthworms, the preferred species for such composting operations. “Their poop,” Diane Hazard says, “is amazing. It’s gorgeous.”
Hazard cautions that, “Without earthworms, we would not be able to grow things.” Hazard is a backyard vermiculturist and director of education at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation. Recycled food waste from various community events is often fed to their earthworms. “And we partner with the Del Mar Fairgrounds. In the infield farm, pre-consumer waste from on-site food service Premier Foods kitchens is composted or fed to the worms. Almost three cubic yards of food waste,” she says, “are processed by the worms every week.”
I try to get my head around what three cubic yards of food waste looks like.
“Without earthworms,” she says, “we would die.”
“Stop global warming,” exhorts a Philippine Daily Enquirer story posted five years ago. “Start global worming.” The piece spotlights ex–San Diegans Beth and Tony de Castro, who own Earthworm Sanctuary in Quezon City. Researchers have documented the science behind the apparent benefit that earthworms pass along to plants and the earth in general via their dirt diet, a digestive process that releases beneficial microbes in the worm’s wake. North Carolina State University hosts an annual conference on the subject.
Commercially, earthworms are sometimes used to compost things such as cardboard or feedlot manure. In Del Cerro, a suburb across Interstate 8 from San Diego State, Amy Kessler feeds her red wigglers kitchen scraps and baby diapers. “My worms,” she says, “ate 20 of them in three months.” Those diapers, she says, are now compost.
Kessler owns Beach Bums Diaper Service, started in 2009 in the home she and her husband and their daughter inhabit. The 41-year-old ex–New Jersey girl radiates earth mother in a white sleeveless top with a floral print wrap-around skirt, sandals, and a prayer-bead choker. The house is filled with the kinds of projects a school-aged child would generate.
“No one else in San Diego is composting diapers with earthworms.”
3110 Euclid Avenue, City Heights
Kessler uses a tri-level modular plastic earthworm bin called the Worm Factory; they retail at area garden centers for $129.99. She owns two of them. She purchased her worms from City Farmers nursery, where Home and Euclid Avenues meet a mile east of Interstate 805. She paid roughly $15 for 200 of them.
Three or four diapers lay on top of an earthworm bin. Kessler peels one open; it is most definitely used. She shreds it into smaller pieces, brown and all, and layers the mess into the worm beds. She reaches up and flicks a strand of hair from her forehead, explains that she is still in the beta-testing stages of this whole idea.
“My research led me to a brand of disposable diaper made with a corn-based plastic called Ingeo that is compostable.” She says she’d like to expand and to hire other moms and bring them into her business. Are there issues with her using composted diaper worm castings in her own gardens, or selling it for fertilizer, considering it began with human excrement?
“The compost,” she says, “must be tested before selling or giving it away.”
Lori Saldaña considers worm keeping and baking bread similar in one respect: “You get a good starter yeast colony going, and you can use it over and over. Well, it’s the same with worms.” She’s a veteran vermicomposter. “If people want to start a worm colony of their own, I give them a handful of mulch out of my composter. It’s just not that hard.”
Her large tumbling composter came from Costco. Made of black plastic, the 80-gallon capacity, fully enclosed bin measures 32˝ x 30˝ x 16˝ and stands on aluminum legs. Turning compost, according to homecompostingmadeeasy.com, infuses oxygen into the mix and creates more surface area for the vegetable material, which aids the pile in reheating itself. Heat, and air, help bacteria break it all down into garden-ready mulch.
What veggies Saldaña’s two pet desert tortoises don’t eat goes to feed her earthworms. Her own vegetable and fruit leftovers, too, for that matter. “It helps that I eat plant-based foods.” The former California State Assembly member takes a break from campaigning for county supervisor to talk by phone from her Clairemont Mesa home. I can hear her tossing items onto a pile as she speaks.
“Sorry — it’s recycling day.”
Later, Saldaña will email this: “Worms produce great nutrients for the soil, and in my experience are a wonderful addition to any type of garden. I encourage others to start their own system. Your plants and your great-grandchildren will thank you.”
George Hahn explains that earthworms and earthworm-based soil amendments replenish the nutrition cycle of soil naturally and in a way that most commercial fertilizers can destroy. His sprawling Cardiff earthworm farm, Worm Gold — “Fifteen miles,” he says, “of eight-foot-wide beds” — generates over 100,000 tons of castings a year. He sells primarily to farmers.
“I have Worm Gold in over 300 nurseries, too.” On his website, an eight-quart bag retails for $24.95.
Hahn speaks with the practiced ease of a salesman. “The result for farmers is higher yields and less water usage.” He thinks his may be among the largest such earthworm farms in the world.
“Who here has worms?” Hands shoot into the air at the Bancroft Center for Sustainability in Spring Valley. A very large smile breaks across Ron McCord’s face. “That’s real good.” He’s teaching a class in all things composting on a summer morning. “That’s real good.” McCord is wearing a brown plaid short-sleeve and dusty work pants. Unperturbed, affable, he has the relaxed demeanor of an unmade bed.
Africa, he will tell me later, is what led him to gardening, and gardening is what led him to vermiculture, and vermiculture is what led him to better soil health through composting. “We spent six weeks in Tanzania and Uganda. On a vacation. And almost every house had a papaya tree in the garden. I said, when I get back, I’m gonna grow me a papaya tree right outside my front door.” That was Claremont, in 2012, in a small apartment he shared with his now-wife Rachel.
“I had this little four-foot-by-four-foot flower bed,” Rachel says. “And stuff was dying. The backyard was tiny. Maybe 20 by 10 feet? Within a year, Ronnie had it bursting at the seams. He had maybe 150 plants growing back there.”
“I only planted maybe four cucumber plants before that,” Ron McCord admits. He built his first worm bin from an old crate. “I started playing with the worms. The soil felt really good,” he says. But there was something else, too. “There are factors in that soil that work like an anti-depressant. I didn’t have a job then. Rachel worked. She’d be inside, watching the TV, and I’d be out with the worms. I wondered, Why do they make me feel so good?”
He says it was his first earthworm colony that got his head around the idea that he could change professions. McCord is ex–Air Force. He turned civilian subcontractor after his enlistment was up and went back to Central Command in the Middle East where he worked a few more years. “I lost track of time when I was working on my worm bins,” he says. He calls the worms his happy place. Eventually, the couple bought land in Vista.
McCord’s front yard is like the cluttered desk of a very smart person, all chaos and disorder, until he takes a visitor on a tour and names the astonishing variety of plants that sprout around the property. He owns a company now called Feed the Soil.
“A lot of people kill their worms. They leave them in the sun, or they overfeed them, use the wrong kind of worm bins. They’re captives,” he cautions. “You’ve got to take care of them. A pound of worms,” McCord says in unhurried tones, “can eat three-and-a-half pounds of food a day.”
I try to get my head around what a pound of worms looks like.
“For the first two weeks, they want to leave any new environment,” Jamie Gerbowski says when Janice and I tell him about our AWOL earthworms. Gerbowski, 51, is the food-and-beverage director at Casa de las Campanas, a 600-resident senior living facility in Rancho Bernardo. He is tall, relaxed, and has a long, unhurried stride. “The solution is to put a light on inside the worm bin and leave it on.”
Gerbowski’s regard for earthworms extends back to childhood; his grandfather raised them in bins in the Gerbowski family home in Missouri. “I was always happiest when I could go into the basement and see the worms.” Five years ago, he and the late Loren Nancarrow (a local news anchor turned garden specialist) started a worm composting unit right outside the kitchen back door. It looks like a dumpster. The inside is packed solid with black mire. But beneath the damp surface, there’s a feeding frenzy going on. At least 20 pounds of kitchen trimmings are consumed by the worms, Gerbowski says, and this is every other day.
The residential facility paid $8000 for the big worm bin. The money was donated by a resident. The bin was made by a company based in Cottage Grove, Oregon, called Sustainable Agricultural Technologies Inc. “And then we bought 60 pounds of worms. And they cost more than beef tenderloin.” Gerbowski admits they really aren’t keeping enough waste out of the landfill to even begin to calculate a meaningful return on investment, but that Casa de las Campanas is invested in worm composting more for environmental reasons than anything else.
John McLaughlan hands me a gob of soil the color of wet coffee grounds: worm castings, he says. Led Zeppelin fades into Van Halen. The money crop for an earthworm farmer is worm castings.
“You wanna ask how they smell?” He grins. “Worm joke! Come on!”
He holds a longish purplish worm up for scrutiny. “You see that yellow band here? It’s old enough to breed.” He digs worm eggs the size of half a grain of rice out of the manure soil. “I think these things have two lungs, five hearts. Better check me on that. I’m just an old hippie.” His laugh booms; the horses seem used to it. “You wanna catch a fish, you hook it one time through the head. That way, you don’t hit any vital organs. He’ll live a half hour under water. You a fisherman?”
No. Does Sharon’s market to anglers?
“Select.” He leaves it at that.
Mostly, Sharon’s supplies area nurseries. “City Farmers. Walter Andersen’s.” A retired plumber, McLaughlan explains that in years past he spent nights and weekends working the beds and delivering worms to most of San Diego’s garden centers. Now, he moves about 250 pounds per week.
For home gardeners willing to make the drive, McLaughlan will load a five gallon bucket with worms and castings for $25. “One time, we had 13 more worm rows beyond that fence.” He points to a field that is weed-choked and overgrown with tree sprouts and Spanish tobacco, dull silver-green with yellowish buds. A giant staghorn fern grips a shade-tree trunk near the work shed; it belonged to his mother.
“I grew up in east San Diego. Went to Crawford High School. Class of ’68. Grew up on Wynona and University.”
Green Day swarms out of the hidden radio in competition with the ever-buzzing locusts. “How’d Sharon get started in worms? She read something, a book or something, I think.” McLaughlan summons the title from memory. Worms Eat My Garbage.
Mary Appelhof, born in Detroit in 1936, wrote that book. A biologist and an educator, she became known as Worm Woman. By the early 1970s, she was preaching the glory of earthworms to anyone who would listen: “Tons of worms,” she wrote, “could be eating tons of garbage.”
McLaughlan tools us back up toward the house, his knotted and stained hands steady on the miniature steering wheel. A hawk reels overhead and shrieks at everything and nothing. David Bowie follows us up from the toolshed. Everywhere is that stink of horse. “God’s little gardener,” he says, as if reading my mind. For a minute, his laugh drowns out the horses, the hawk overhead, and the pack of coyotes that are yipping their heads off somewhere out in the foothills.