Photography: Craig Wolfrom
Dirty worms lead to clean living.
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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. >>>