“I’ve been getting a lot more into earthworms lately.”

Odds are very good that only a few short years ago, this was a phrase I would never have thought to utter.  Possibly I would have thought it a sign of impending mental illness. But these days, it is the truth. These are pretty remarkable little organisms, and I find that I am having some success rearing them.

Why would I do that, you ask? Well, for starters, they are great consumers of our kitchen wastes. They break down our waste, turn it into soil, and them are released with their castings into the vegetable or rose garden. Of course, many get snatched up by our ever vigilant flock of hens, meaning some made their way (indirectly of course) to my plate this morning. When prepared in this fashion, I can heartily recommend worms for breakfast.

The other reason I’m raising them is for my “vermidrainage” project. At our Saticoy ranch, we have a compacted clay soil in our Block A, familiar by now to my handful of regular readers. We have been maintaining a cover crop to help break up the soils, and in the next couple of weeks, when we replant, we will attempt to create some natural drains in the clay pan. Basic concept is simple: Use the PTO auger to bore through the pan, then refill it with a mixture of active vermicompost, mulch, and a little of the original soil. A cap of mustard cover on top should add some deep roots, and make it easy to spot the sites. The hope is that this column of active soil will  allow water to drain, and serve as a colony for earthworms to spread through the covercrop rootsystems that surround them. Three 30 gallon barrels are serving as my hatchery. Of course a little vermicompost will go into each new tree’s hole as well.

I’m not alone in this new found interest. Friend and pathfinder Rose H-S alerted me to a blog piece from a young farmer named Devin Foote. If I was concerned for my sanity, then I am now doubly worried for Devin, since his thoughtful and detailed article suggests that he has given this much more thought than I.

Read it here.

Summer Covercrops

In earlier pieces I have alluded to a soil problem in “Block A”, 5 acres of 15 year old lemon trees. These trees should be in the prime of their lives right now but this block has always struggled. In the past 2 years, nearly 160 (one fifth of the acreage) have crashed. Soil analysis has shown no pathogens.  Our prime suspect is a clay pan which has developed only about a foot down. For the past two winters we have used covercrops  to get more organic material into the soils. Barley and rye for biomass, crimson clover for nitrogen, and a blend of mustards for both their biomass and deep taproots.

The clover has been a disappointment. Hard to start, it has not shown signs of nitrogen fixing as we had hoped, and has been a minimal contributor to biomass, either above or below ground. On the otherhand, the mustard has performed quite well. Almost complete germination, resitant to brief heat, the blossoms  helped support a humongous bee population while our trees were in bloom. Where there are bees, I expect there are other beneficial insects as well, so this should be helping with our integrated pest management efforts. Root penetration isn’t quite what we expected, but with water trapped in or above the clay, they haven’t needed to.

This coming month we will take our first stab at summer covercrops. We will alternate between rows with buckwheat, red cowpeas, and black-eyed peas. Since we have some crimson clover left over, we will also try a little as a warm season cover. Buckwheat is pretty much solely a biomass generator, but the others, being legumes, should give us some N. We may even harvest some of the black-eyed peas. Not sure if we can find a market for them though… This corner of rural/suburban Southern California isn’t a big soul-food kind of place. Anybody looking for some locally grown comfort food?

This summer cover program will go hand in hand with a high density replant of Meyer Lemons in the effected areas. The soils will further get a boost from tilling in the winter’s cover crop, a little organic sulfur, and a few shovels of our homebrew vermicompost for each tree. My philosophy is to “exercise” the soil, instead of “working” it.

Wish me luck!