Mum & Her Worms

My Mum’s a gardener, just like her mother was. She starts each day in the yard, fiddling with the watering system in summer, giving the plants a drink before she heads off to work. In winter wrapped in her dressing gown with a cup of tea, taking note of the Crepe Myrtle that needs trimming, the pots that need moving to a sunnier spot. On weekends she spends long days turning soil, laying mulch, fixing leaky ponds, potting up new plants and chatting to neighbours about how their own gardens are doing.

Mum is obsessive by nature, and when it comes to her garden she’s been known to vacuum the lawn and spot clean her roses with a toothbrush. She believes that out in the yard, whilst getting your hands dirty, you can solve all the world’s problems. Gardening is cheaper than therapy, she says, plus you get tomatoes out of it. She’s always tinkering with something. She’s built ponds and bred succulents and put in veggie patches. At the moment she’s clearing out space to make room for some chickens and a spot to grow lemon trees. A few years ago she got stuck into worms. But what started out as a composting experiment has fast turned into a vermiculture empire. A couple of hundred worms have multiplied into tens of thousands, stacked up in the back corner of the yard in crates.

I think Mum’s regard for these creatures has something to do with the fact that in many ways worms are a lot like her – hardworking, resourceful and tough. She cares for them like you would a well-loved pet, microwaving the kitchen scraps so that they are sloppy and easier for them to digest, tucking them under a blanket of newspaper in winter. She’s quick to pick up any poor souls who have wriggled away from their compost home, returning them to the safety of their crate, hidden from hungry birds.

And for all her hard work she is rewarded. Worms make really good dirt. Or black gold, as Mum calls it. They eat almost any organic matter and turn it into vermicast – a type of manure that is the richest and most important part of any soil. It’s basically the superfood of the flora world, boosting a plant’s immune system, particularly important for disease prone plants like roses. I know it may seem odd that when this month’s theme was decided on, I thought to do a story on my Mum. And her worms. But whilst being far from sexy, worms do have a pretty interesting sex life.

I have a distinct childhood memory about doing a project on earthworms in primary school and being dumbstruck by the fact that they are hermaphrodites with both male and female reproductive organs and manage to lay a dozen eggs a week. Not too bad for a tiny thing that has no arms, legs or spine and is deaf and blind.

For a gardener like my Mum there is a certain poetry to worms – at some point during history, every speck of soil on earth has passed through the digestive system of this tiny critter.  They can consume their weight in food in a single day and leave behind eight times more microorganisms than they eat. They basically pioneered recycling and act as nature’s very own garbage disposal. In a world where half of household rubbish is organic, and it’s this waste decomposition that produces a fair majority of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change, this is not something to be taken lightly.

As many planthunters would know, gardening as a pastime is more about the process than the product. And with her worms, Mum experiences this process on a whole other level – the broccoli soup she cooked for us the other night was made with fresh produce from her garden. This produce came from plants growing in rich, healthy soil she had provided them with. The health of the soil is owing to the worm castings mixed into it, which was made possible by the worms who were fed a healthy diet of kitchen scraps. After the soup had been slurped up and we left the table with full, warm bellies, Mum took a bucket of broccoli stubs and leafy greens to feed to her worms. And so the process continues.

Mum in the garden