Home & Design July 29, 2008

Worm Dirt

Organic Fertilizer

Everyone who decides to go green travels there on a different road. For Merri and Gunnar Whitehead, who own a landscape business leading the way to replace chemicals with organic treatments in the Valley, their epiphany was in their own backyard.

“It was three years ago when our son was five, and he came in after playing on our lawn with a rash all over his legs,” Merri Whitehead recalls. “We had sprayed a chemical fertilizer that day. This is what sort of made us both think about offering an organic way to fertilize.”

The Whitehead family, owners of Whitehead’s Landscaping and Snow Removal, Inc., embarked on a search. As it turned out, they were approached almost at the same time by a company promoting an organic process to make fertilizer. Whitehead’s is now leading the drive to organic and harmless treatments to make this high desert country green and, in the process, to eliminate chemical fertilizers and the energy it takes to transport them to the Valley.

The ultimate goal is to replace the petroleum-based products now used to green up lawns and kill weeds, and which can result in serious runoff problems affecting waters, Gunnar Whitehead says. Fertilizers made of nitrogen and salt compact the ground—“nitrogen allows you to grow grass on asphalt,” he says. What the Whiteheads came up with as their first big thrust into green landscaping is a compost tea brewed of key ingredients and sprayed on lawns and plants. Over time, the compost tea softens the ground, even as it reduces the amount of fertilizers being washed into the river.
And the keyest of key ingredients? Worm manure.

It’s called vermiculture, the product is vermicompost and only the name is complicated. It’s a process that can be done on an industrial-sized scale (as at Whitehead’s) or very small scale (as in your own garage.) Essentially, on a small scale, you construct a worm hotel with perpetual room service, and you let the worms take it from there.

It was more complex for the Whitehead company. There was equipment to buy, a bin to be built, thousands of worms to be ordered from California and space to be made for it in the company’s headquarters in Woodside Industrial Center. And somebody had to manage the project and sell it.
There is a lovely symmetry in the fact that the man hired by Whitehead to run his large-scale worm bin is a man named Josh Green.

Green’s part? He’s the chief worm wrangler. He manages a herd of thousands of red wigglers that live and dine in a large composting bin. Twice a week, Green picks up hundreds of pounds of fading fruits and vegetables donated by Atkinsons’ Market in Hailey. He runs the produce through a food processor and spreads the bits and pieces over the worm bin. Then the worms take over, recycling the green stuff into a rich worm manure, also called castings, that is processed again to make a fertilizer “tea” with no dangerous chemicals.

The worm manure is sifted out of the bin and is then mixed with mulch from Cascade Lumber Company and chicken manure from an egg farm in Eagle. The company turns the mix every other day and flushes it through a machine that extracts microorganisms, creating a liquid spray.
To thrive, the worms require no more than a college kid—bedding and food. Bedding is made of sliced newspaper or toilet paper rolls. “It’s just a place for them to hang out when they’re not eating,” Green says of the paper products. There are some restrictions on the food. “We can’t use citrus or peppers,” Green says, “and only a minimum amount of potatoes, because they have so much starch. No meat or dairy.” The worms are occasionally treated to coffee grounds from Zaney’s, which Green says is a favorite treat.

The worms are otherwise pretty self-sustaining and not notably in need of protection, except in winter, when mice come sneaking in and help themselves to the produce and the worms. That given, he says the company has made an effort to plug all possible points of entry. >>>


Green estimates his worm work takes more than 10 hours a week, but the beauty of vermicomposting, he says, is that people can do it themselves at home on a smaller scale, thus adding to the effort to make sustainable and safe fertilizers spread faster.

Sherry Thorson, for example, is a serious local gardener who raises vegetables and flowers. She’s had a worm bin for four years. An avid gardener who maintains a compost pile on her property, she bought into vermiculture as “a place to put my garbage in the wintertime, since my compost is under the snowbanks.” She read a book called Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof, then ordered equipment from a gardener’s supply house.

She put in her fruit and vegetable peelings and the worms ate them. She disposed of the castings, without much of a plan, she said. But this year she wants to experiment, using the castings on potted plants to see if the difference is worth the effort. For the summer, her vermicompost bin was moved to the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, as part of an insect seminar for children. “When I get them back I will try them on my geraniums,” she says.

The only problem she has had was when the box drew gnats, which she solved by moving it to a cooler environment. She’s never had a problem from odors or any varmints attracted to the box. She gave the worms coffee grounds for a bit but found the smell too potent in the house. Now that she’s learned the wigglers love bunny droppings, “I’m about to get a bunny for myself,” she says, “for me and my composts.” 

And the grandchildren will love that, too, no doubt. “My grandchildren love to come over and find the little red worms and their white babies. Nobody’s afraid of worms around here,” laughs Thorson.

When Thorson does start using the worm compost, she’ll learn what Whitehead’s has learned: It’s both easy and difficult.

With the organic method, Green says, the soil is tested first to see what it needs. The vermicompost tea is applied as soon as it’s made and the yard must be kept aerobic, he said. But the amount of attention that must be paid to get the organic process through its adjustment period adds to the cost. Though residents might like to have all their parks grown with organics, “each city has a budget,” Green says. Chemical treatments usually require three or four treatments, but the organic needs five, he said.

Eventually, the treatment will kill off pests and weeds, Green says, but early efforts produced some lawns that yellowed out and sprouted weeds, and the next year the company brought back some chemicals to control weeds. “We learned you couldn’t just depend on the vermicompost if a yard had been previously treated with typical petroleum-based products,” Green said. “You can’t just switch a lawn, it needs a slow transition,” he said.

Homeowners aren’t embracing the new organic fertilizer with the same enthusiasm as the company yet, says Merri Whitehead. “I don’t feel like a lot of people are changing their ways to match the organic advancements. They want their lawn right away.”

But there is considerable interest in using the organic methods in public places.

It’s being used to fine effect at Atkinson Park in Ketchum. Green says, “The people managing Atkinson Park in Ketchum are on top of it and very motivated to get their program working.”

When the worm tea was first promoted, Merri Whitehead says, “the phone rang off the hook. Many people were concerned about the bike path, and whether it was safe for their children and pets. It gets sprayed often, and with chemicals.”

As Green noted, there is limited public money to spend on landscape processes. But there’s a hopeful note: This summer, Whitehead’s is tending an experimental patch along the bike path in south Hailey. It may take a couple of years, Merri Whitehead says, but eventually the green movement will catch up where “green” is most loved.

This article appears in the Fall 2007 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.