What do you feed worms? Worm Chow, of course, made by Purina just like Puppy Chow and Dog Chow and Cat Chow.

You can also feed them organic material.

And what do you get?

Wonderful stuff to enrich your garden.

“Everything they produce is used in organic gardening,” worm entrepreneur John Lask said last week, standing in the worm-breeding area in his Alamogordo home.

He and his wife Penny have a room-full of hybrid red worms in two incubators. There are thousands of red worms, the adults around 2 inches long.

It’s s hobby, Lask said. They’re really good pets, you just have to feed them. They don’t make any noise and you don’t have to house-break them or walk them.”

As a matter of fact, the worm droppings are valuable for fertilizer and compost.

When the Lasks are not raising worms, John runs the Alamo Tire service department and Penny is a certified patient account technician for gastroenterologist Dr. Juergen Muller.

Lask, 63, heard about the worm potential from a friend in Texas who was raising them. He decided it would be a good sideline as well as a hedge against the day he retires.

“It’s a business adventure and a hobby,” he said.

Worms are good things. They improve the soil. Our alkaline rock- and caliche-ridden soil does not provide a good environment for worms. If put directly into the soil, they would die.

However, a gardener can add worms into compost after it has heated and cooled, and add the worm-enriched compost to the soil, which will then improve the soil. The worms can continue to live and continue improving the soil.

Worms should be handled with plastic gloves, Lask said.

“They tell you to do that because the acids and oils on human skin could eventually render them sterile, and that would not be good for breeding worms,” he explained.

Worms are hermaphrodites; each is both male and female, but they require another worm to mate.

According to the literature, mature breeding worms mate, then release a ring, which sheds off and has both sperm and eggs inside. Both ends of the ring seal and form a cocoon. Two or more baby worms will hatch from one end of the cocoon in around three weeks.

“Every day I learn something I don’t want to know. I’m not really a worm person,” Penny said.

Maybe that’s because the worm operation took over what was going to be the family room.

“Now I live with John and the incubators of worms,” she said.

There are two 3-feet by 6-feet incubators, made of fiberglass and computer-controlled to keep the temperature between 72 and 80 degrees.

“If everything is just right, if they have food and water and the right temperature, they keep breeding all the time,” John Lask said. “I just come in every day and say, ‘Get to work, guys.'”

Lask has been in the worm business for about a year. “It takes about seven months to build up to the point you can harvest them. When you start with 30 pounds of worms, it doesn’t take long.”

Penny agreed: “They’re as bad as rabbits.”

To harvest the larger worms, Lask first lets them get a little hungry by not feeding them for a week. (Don’t worry about cruelty to worms; they can safely go a month without being fed, he said.) The larger worms come to the top of the damp paper and peat moss bedding, looking for food.

Then he places a filter of sorts made of 1/8-inch netting on top of the incubator, and puts Worm Chow or organic material on it. The adult worms go to the top to feed, and the babies drop through the mesh back into the incubator.

Lask dumps the worms into a plastic kid-sized pool, and feeds them. “Just like anything else, cows or pigs, you fatten them up before you send them to market,” he said.

He packages them for delivery, usually sending them in 60-pound packages, 20 pounds to a bag.

For every pound of worms, he puts in a pound of dirt and uses peat moss wet to the consistency of a damp sponge to keep them alive en route. “They ship well,” he said.

For example, he said he is sending worms to Kansas City and Iowa in the next two weeks. One batch goes to a company called Ecology Technology.

“They use the worms, thousands of pounds of them, from different suppliers all over the United States, to clean up organic waste and matter in old dumps, and the worms are real good at that,” Lask said.

He sifts the castings out of the bedding, and harvests the urine through a spout on a lower chamber on the incubator.

“It’s one of the best fertilizers, their castings worm manure and their urine,” he said. “The more you break down what you feed them, the faster they work on it and the more they breed, And the smaller the pieces are, the less smell there will be.”

Lask said the worm products are then tilled into the soil.

“You can’t put your compost pile in direct sunlight, it will be too hot,” he said. “Put it under a tree or in the shade, or build a lean-to over it.”

Lask said he “doesn’t make a habit” of selling his worms other than in bulk commercially, but he will make an exception for fishermen and local gardeners.

He usually sells worms in 3-pound packages, for $15 a pound.

Call him at 434-2251 for a price quote.

Better compost with worms

First, don’t use night crawlers.

“They are nomads, they will leave,” Dr. Curtis Smith said in a telephone interview. He is the New Mexico State University Extension horticultural expert.

Red wigglers, like those Lask sells, will stay in the compost.

Smith said worms will compost kitchen waste as well as yard waste. For an in-depth discussion, he refers gardeners to the NMSU Extension composting with worms guide, “Vermicomposting Guide H-164,” which is available at the Otero County Extension office at the fairgrounds, or online at www.cahe.nmsu.edu under Resources, Gardeners.

Vermicomposting says, in part, “Red worms and brandling worms prefer the compost or manure environment. Passing through the gut of the earthworm, recycled organic wastes are excreted as castings, or worm manure, an organic material rich in nutrients that looks like fine-textured soil.

“… Earthworm castings in the home garden often contain five to 11 times more nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium as the surrounding soil. Secretions in the intestinal tracts of earthworms, along with soil passing through the earthworms, make nutrients more concentrated and available for plant uptake, including micronutrients.”

Here’s the method Smith said he would use in his own garden.

Build a worm bed. Take a 3-foot by 10-foot (or larger) piece of black plastic, and lay it on the ground. Start in a corner and put kitchen waste, like coffee grounds, carrot tops, lettuce trimmings, tea bags and corn cobs, and yard waste, under a corner of the plastic.

“Once you have a good population of worms you can use ‘forbidden compost,’ like macaroni and cheese, meat, bread, almost anything you could eat and didn’t,” Smith said.

Add worms. If you start with a quarter of a pound (In this small area), you should be OK. Cover the plastic with something like burlap bags of leaves and dry grass for insulation.

“When you see them begin to decompose the material, continue adding the kitchen waste in a zigzag pattern under the plastic, touching what’s already there,” Smith explained. “When you are ready to harvest your worms, when they have reached the end of the plastic where you started, pick up the worm castings with the worms in it, and build a pile in a sunny location. The worms will retreat to the center of the pile because they prefer darkness.

“Scrape off the outer edges of the castings pile and put them in the garden or use in potting soil. When you get to the center of the pile, you’ll find your worms have congregated there and you can collect those worms to start a new worm bed.

“The old worm bed can be roto-tilled and become an excellent garden.”

Lask said gardeners can use the castings for roses, tomatoes, whatever. “You are recycling kitchen waste, turning it into better soil, and providing yourself with fishing worms.”

Gardeners’ mailbag

Q. The leaves on my tomato plants near the ground get yellow spots then turn yellow and drop off. What do you suggest?

A. The easiest thing to do, according to “vegetable guy” Master Gardener Jim Money, is to simply snap off the spotted leaves before they drop. You should be feeding tomatoes at least at least once a week, with a good diluted soluble fertilizer, he said.

I note that the hot wind, in addition to the general heat and low humidity are taking a toll and putting your tomatoes, as well as most other plants, in stress.

Watering and a dose of fertilizer should help. Due to our water restrictions, I water three times a week. Try deep watering; if water doesn’t get to the roots it doesn’t do any good. One way to do this is punch holes in a piece of PVC pipe and sink it to root level. Another is to stick the hose nozzle into the dirt at the drip line (NOT the stem) and turn the hose on, medium-fine, for around 20 minutes. Bigger woody perennials like my apple trees I do 30 minutes.

Again, try using a Moisture Meter, which can be purchased in garden supply departments. Stick the metal probe into the soil at root-depth, and read the meter.

You cannot tell from looking at the soil, or sticking a finger into it, whether the roots are moist or dry.

Plan ahead

The next Master Gardener class sponsored by the Otero County Master Gardener Association through the New Mexico State University Extension will be held in the fall of 2008.

“In this area, we are way too busy in the spring,” said Connie Klofonda, president of the OCMGA.

Previously, the 14-week class has been held in the spring. It brings in expert NMSU speakers on a variety of topics.

Bev Eckman-Onyskow is an Alamogordo-based freelance writer and vice president of the Otero County Master Gardener Association.