Growing Parsley in Horse Manure

The sweetest parsley I have ever tasted grows in full sun on a windy slope in Saugus. In a place like Saugus, where summers are hot and dry, you doubt parsley could grow year round, much less thrive, without some protection
from the elements. Yet, for the past two years, Stewart East has harvested
from his parsley plants several times a week, 52 weeks a year. His secret is earthworms.
East, who is 80 years old, has been growing red worms – which are a kind of earthworm – for 50 years. Red worms grow to about 4 inches long. They are shorter and thinner than the gray worms that live in your garden soil and under your flower pots. If you like to fish, you have used red worms for bait.
In his original experiments, East grew red worms on an apartment balcony. He used grass and soil to culture them. “Earthworms need some sort of grit or roughage to grind down the decaying organic matter that they eat,” East said. Over the years, East has experimented with a variety of materials for growing his worms. He has found horse manure to be the most successful.
“The alfalfa hay in horse manure is an excellent source of roughage for the worms,” East explained. “The manure’s moisture-holding capacity is also ideal for earthworms; they simply cannot survive under dry conditions. That is why you typically don’t find worms in compost piles, which are often not moist enough for worms to feel at home. But don’t use cow manure; worms cannot grow in it because of the salt.”
If you don’t have a horse but want to grow earthworms, shredded newspapers are an acceptable manure substitute. Corrugated cardboard is also excellent; its grooves are ideal repositories for earthworm eggs. To contain the manure or newspaper or cardboard, make a frame – East’s is 8 feet by 10 feet – out of a double tier of cinder blocks, and sprinkle in a handful of red worms, which are available where fishing supplies are sold. Keep the area moist and, within three months, “you’ll have a jillion worms,” East said.
You also create the perfect soil amendment. Twice a year, East digs 12 large-size wheelbarrows of earthworm culture out of his 80-square-foot worm farm. He uses it both as a soil conditioner and as a top dressing for fruit trees, vegetables and flowers.
Stepping on the edge of a newly planted strawberry patch, my shoe sinks several inches into the buttery soil. A bed of asparagus planted last spring is already producing tender spears an inch thick – a result not ordinarily achieved until two years or more after planting. Two artichoke plants that produced 150 artichokes between them during 1993 are sporting new growth.
A planting of calendula (pot marigolds) shows perfect orange and yellow flowers without a trace of the powdery mildew and leaf spot fungi that are normally seen on their leaves.
“My plants are always healthy,” East enthused. “I give them nothing but earthworm culture; I never use chemicals and I never see any insect pests.”
I take a shovel and see how far I can dig in unimproved soil. I dig 3 to 4 inches before meeting an impenetrable layer of rock and sand. Now, when I try the soil improved with earthworm culture, the shovel goes down 8 inches at least; the color is dark and the smell is sweet, just like finished compost.
Earthworm culture is not only of value in the edible garden. East has used it as a medium for rooting hardwood cuttings of red flame grapes, as well as for rooting cuttings of indoor plants such as ficus lyrata (fiddle leaf fig) and dracaena marginata.
But it is the parsley to which I return, pluck off a few more leaves, and return again. I have never succeeded in growing this most nutritious of herbs for more than a single season. In Los Angeles, it usually dies in the warm weather. But East’s parsley, although it goes to seed, resows itself on the spot, and never stops putting out fresh growth, even in summer.
The lesson here is clear. Improved soil can make a significant difference in the life of a plant. It is known that unlike in humans, where perhaps half of what we are is genetically determined and the other half environmentally influenced, the productivity and health of a plant is determined almost entirely by its environment. In this environment, the condition of the soil is critical.

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