I met Mark Allen a few years ago in 2013, when he was getting ready to sell his profitable business “Worms at Work”. He kept saying he wanted to sell it, but his body language and stories told me otherwise. Mark is passionate about worms, and at the time he said he was spending about 60 hours per week with them.
He had taken a soil biology course years earlier to learn more about what he was already witnessing, and understood from observation; that the important thing about soil is what it is made of biologically speaking. Worm bins are havens for beneficial microbe growth and reproduction, and as a result when you add worm castings (aka- worm poop) to your garden it may actually raise the overall temperature of your garden beds due to all of these thriving microbes. Mark told me that because he had so many worms in his garage, that they were contributing to a lower heating bill.
Upon entering his garage, this claim did not surprise me. He had every usable area covered in filling cabinets, wooden crates and tupperware bins full of worms. He had a sorting table, a paper shredder, a bar fridge (for worm food storage) and bagged castings ready for sale. It was a wormy paradise.
Mark was proud of how he was doing things differently than most, “I use a whole different system than everybody else does. I use shredded newspaper, cardboard and leaves which are all free! My competition uses hypnum peat, which is the black peat that’s in the muskeg bogs, and they take that and put it in 3 gallon buckets and they feed them a special recipe of grains. Mine eat kitchen scraps and a mixture of grains. I’m a recycler now, so that’s why I use a mix of cardboard and leaves and food scraps.”
I appreciated Mark’s practical nature, as this is a personality trait I share. Instead of buying grains and peat moss and feeding his worms a particular recipe, he used what is available to everyone for free. Mark Allen is a true recycler. In a classroom worm bin, this is exactly what I would suggest teachers and students use; whatever it is they can find around that is biodegradable and would otherwise be tossed into the garbage; leaves, ca
rdboard and food scraps.
The other benefit of using diverse food sources is that the microbial outcome is different in the final product; castings. If the same thing goes in every time, then the result is the same.
Mark said “Every little square inch is supposed to contain a billion micro organisms. Now, Nancy (a soil biologist) said When I put your castings under the microscope, it is the best I’ve ever seen. I don’t see all that in other people’s castings.”
When I questioned him about organic certification he brushed it off as being unimportant; “Oh sure, well it’s not certified organic, but why does it have to be? You go to the garden centre and its organic, but it’s been sterilized. I tell them that’s crap! If you want good soil, you want all the microbiology. Mine has lots of organic matter in there, look at all the bugs! All of these are just crawling with micro organisms!”
Mark is right, it is the biology that bring more benefit to the product than whether or not it is certified organic. Not only that, but when there is good soil biology, they break down harmful chemicals and turn this into an organic product. While Mark never bothered with organic certification, he knew that the biology in his product would make it organic.
Mark was full of stories that day. The one I enjoyed the most was about his daffodils that started sprouting in February. “When it was 20 below 0” he says “I’m out there shovelling snow, I get in there where my daffodils grow, and I have a daffodil like this [he indicates a 10cm height using his fingers] growing under the snow. I scraped it off and went and got a 10″ screw driver and I tapped it through about that much frost [shows a depth again using his thumb and forefinger] and [the screwdriver] went down the whole length of that hole. I went in and got a thermometer and dropped it in there, and it said it was 10 above in that hole, while it’s 20 below out here. I took that same screw driver over about a foot” where Mark hadn’t been adding his castings, “and I couldn’t get it in the ground. I could not pound it into the ground because it was frozen solid. That’s micorizae fungi making enough heat to make the plant grow under the snow!”
Imagine if we could tap into this amazing renewable energy source in a practical way to heat homes in the winter, or to grow crops year round in Canada. Mark is an inspiring man, who knows what he knows from observation and his passion for worms. He has since stopped raising worms, passing this baton onto younger generations, but his energy and enthusiasm for the red wiggler live on.