Earthworms, ManBugs and Organic Gardening with Master Gardener Jimmy Williams

Jimmy Williams does not own a computer. No, he doesn’t live in a cave or under a rock. He lives in Los Angeles and is one of the busiest people in town. He’s even written a critically acclaimed book now in its second printing, From Seed to Skillet. But his knowledge isn’t meant for digital contraptions. Rather, it’s his digits—mainly two very active green thumbs—that make him most alive as he talks about his giant thyme plant, his grandmother’s juicy tomatoes and perhaps his most favorite subject: Earthworms.

Williams is a master gardener—an extraordinary wealth of knowledge when it comes to growing edible gardens without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. A former New York-based fashion designer, Williams was raised in gardens. Williams’ grandmother had him helping in hers by age four, where he would get his first taste of her famous Goose Creek, South Carolina tomatoes—the seeds of which he still plants today, carrying on a legacy of farmers descended from West African slaves. “They brought a lot of seeds over. That was a common thing—traveling with seeds was their food source. They had to cultivate and save seeds for their survival. Not just blacks, but people all over the world.”

His green thumbs overtook his love of fashion design and he began transforming grassy yards (or barren New York rooftops as the case was) into beautiful—and edible—landscapes for friends. Soon, friends of friends and complete strangers were asking Williams to perform his magic on their lifeless lawns and a career was (re)born when he finally moved to Los Angeles.

Williams is not the bragging type, unless he’s talking about his many incredible fruits and vegetables. “I propagate all my thyme from this plant,” he says, pointing to a flourishing, aromatic shrub in his secluded Silver Lake nursery that doubles as paradise—especially if you happen to be one of the ladybugs immersed in his thyme or the bluebird that darts from plant to plant. He’s converted A-list celebrity yards (Barbra Streisand, Antonio Banderas, Mathew McConaughey) into edible gardens because, as he says, “even they know that it tastes better when you grow your own.” (A bite into the most succulent strawberry ever would seem to support this statement.)

A taste for the exotic like curry and cardamom leaves, Vietnamese cilantro, Okinawan spinach and the caviar of the fruit world, Australian finger limes (which may possibly be the most amazing fruit in his garden), spicy greens, overgrown chive plants and broad beans pepper his nursery, which is bursting with every color and leaf shape, juicy flavors and a dizzying array of delectable aromas–his eye for fashion has not waned; indeed it has simply transformed into an eye for weaving together the fabrics of leaf and blossom.

A Food and Wine Magazine article about Williams some three years ago led to a partnership with well-known garden writer, Susan Heeger, to complete the idea that had been marinating in his head for nearly two decades. From Seed to Skillet offers readers a step-by-step guide to growing and preparing food from your very own organic garden. He shared some pearls of wisdom with Organic Authority on a recent tour through his nursery.

(This interview is edited and condensed for length and clarity)

OA: Why are worms important in gardening?

JW: Healthy soil has tons of healthy worm populations. The beneficial bacteria and all your microbes—the biggest concentration of that is in the tunnel of the earthworm. The perfect condition for a root to grow is in the tunnel of an earthworm. So what do you do? Increase your population of earthworms. It’s simple. But people don’t get it. They don’t realize that what goes on under the ground is the most important thing: A whole symbiotic relationship between microbes, beneficial bacteria and earthworms. They stay close to each other and will all work together. One can’t survive without the other. But with all those chemicals, worms disappear.

OA: Is there a best type of worm or specific worms you would recommend using for specific climates or plants?

JW: They are all important. Red wrigglers, which are great for compost, Nightcrawlers and Spiker worms—they’re African worms that compost twice as fast as wrigglers. Very hard to find, but I have them [Spikers].

OA: Are there any risks with using worms?

JW: Risks? They’re the cleanest things on the planet. Did you know that Charles Darwin did the first study on earthworms?

Jimmy 

Jimmy in his Silver Lake nursery,  photo: Laura Klein

OA: Darwin? Really? What did he have to say?

JW: Well, his theory was everything on the planet once passed through the system of an earthworm.

OA: Wow. Interesting. How many should be in your garden?

JW: 10-12 worms in a shovelful after the soil is healthy. Remember, when you use organic matter, you’re really not feeding the plant—you’re feeding the soil. Bone meal, alfalfa, oyster shell—your plant cant uptake those nutrients; it can’t use that stuff until it’s broken down by microbes and bacteria and then it’s eaten by the worms after that.

OA: Do you have any tips on how to control pests naturally?

JW: Folio feeding.

OA: Folio feeding? What’s that?

JW: It’s when you feed the plant through the leaves, when you take your worm or compost tea and spray it on the plant. They take nutrients in through their leaves much faster than the roots. After World War II, when chemical fertilizers came about, they didn’t realize the damage they did to plants. A lot of farms were completely destroyed. Now, many are realizing how beneficial it is to naturally fertilize and folio feed. The nutritional value and overall health of the plant is better, the environment is better and the quality and taste of the food is better, too. And, you’ll have less pests, fungus and parasites this way, too.

OA: Wow. So what about introducing bugs to combat aphids or other unwelcome troublemakers?

JW: Well, if you have a healthy garden, they come on their own. Lots of people buy ladybugs for aphids, but don’t realize that they need homes with pheromones. If they don’t have a home, they leave, and the aphids will still be there.

OA: Interesting. So how do you tell a male ladybug? Or is it ManBug?

JW: I’ve never heard that one before! How do you tell a male ladybug? I’m actually not sure! (Laughs)

You can find Jimmy at the Santa Monica and Hollywood Farmers Markets in Los Angeles or visit his nursery by appointment only. Check out FromSeedtoSkillet.com for more info.

Jimmys garden

Birds eye view of the nursery, photo: Laura Klein

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Photo: Chronicle Books