Monday, December 21, 2015

Let's Skip the "Eat Dirt" Metaphore 4 This Section!: Let's Eat Worms! - Vermicomposting

MMMMM!   Tasty little wigglers!

Now, I'm certain most gardeners really like to see healthy earth worms in their garden soil. But, I'm equally certain few gardeners realize what earth worms require to stay healthy, multiply profusely, and produce what is arguably the most nutrient-dense plant soil known.

Do you know?

Nutritious food! Lots of it, too.  Lots of yummy, rotting veggies, fruits, grass and especially that awesome corrugated cardboard!

Several years before my serendipity gardening pursuits led me to producing natural soil I thought it would be interesting to learn to raise earth worms for some extra income. A little book I purchased from an ad in the classified section of Mother Earth News Magazine shared the author's experience of raising worms on corrugated cardboard. Having a ready supply of tons of cardboard at the ag coop I worked at I decided to give it a try.

The guy hit the ball outta the park on that one! But, as I doubt he produced as the focus product, it's unlikely he knew how much value there is in marketing vermicompost soil and tea. This stuff knocks the socks off plants fed it!

Feeding Earth Worms - Watch Your Fingers!

I was amazed how much a hand full of earth worms I tried to transport from my cardboard compost pile in Pennsylvania to our new home in Oregon ate in that 9 day trek! I gave them a 12 gallon tub filled with fresh leaves and grass, but when I unpacked their tub in Oregon, not one live worm was to be found! The food was completely consumed by that one handful of the most voracious worms i'd ever seen!

In the cardboard compost over the several years it was in the back of our little rural acre, I noticed several species of earth worms in separate colonies. One caught my interest when I noticed how much cardboard their small colony consumed relative to other species. They were a gray worm, with a very tough skin, liked less wet material, and were almost frightening with their frantic wriggling when picked up!

So I pulled a small group out to watch more closely in a separate location. We were nearly ready and packed with loads of family belongings for a long cross-country move, so I let the bushel tub set til it was loaded on the back of the school bus my children's mom drove with most of our immediate household things and our three children. My little 1 ton flatbed was loaded to the gills with my shop equipment.

Long story short, I never discovered what that species of voracious worms was, but in years since I became interested in the farming of earth worms for the nutrient-dense soil they leave behind. Yeah, pun intended!:-)

Finally, last Summer a man with the community garden I served as gardener for wanted to have a vermicomposting operation to demonstrate soil production with earth worms, so I took the two hundred red wriggler worms he donated and quickly multiplies them to several tens of thousands. Here's the details . . .

Earth worms starve to death in most garden soils! The reason? They literally eat themselves out of food!

The community garden is run by a Salvation Army installation with a kitchen. The fairly large amount of kitchen wastes were what I fed those two hundred worms. In a month they multiplied in number to close to 100,000. I also had lots of corrugated cardboard to feed them, so they were happy campers!

By mid August when I decided to end my sole care for the garden because "It's too hot to tend to it" attitude by all other gardeners, the worms ate themselves out of food, and died off! But, they left behind in last Summer's few months a pallet-size two foot high sides bin full of nutrient-dense soil!

That soil is so fertile it will feed numerous plant beds it is top dressed over.

To farm earth worms, several environment requirements are necessary to assure healthy, top producing ve3rmicomposting.

First is the feed. If it's too "foody," the worms suffocate from ammonia the rotting food stuff produces. If too dry they literally die from dehydration! If to wet, they drown.

Worms digest food similar to fowl, where birds require sand and other sharp-edged particles in their craw to help break food into smaller particles. We just chew our food!

Provide small size particle sand, or sandy soil mixed with the food, and combine the food, including cardboard and paper, with well-distributed fine soil, or if the garden  is producing waste plant material, mix it well with the food and-or cardboard and sand-sandy soil.

Monitor the water and give ample frequent baths to maintain plenty of soft material and make movement in the worm bin easy for the little hard working crew mates.

At some point the pile of worm castings(manure) will reach the top of the container, I simply scooped off the top layer with active worms down to a level few worms were visible, and put these into the next empty bin to start the process over. The finished castings sat and matured for later use.

In Western Washington Winter temperature dips into single digits several times. Worms freeze to death below 20 or so. Cover and surround the container with plenty of heat-retaining material, or simply dig a shallow hole in the ground and cover them, allowing good ventilation art the surface, since they will suffocate without air. They go dormant in the cold.

One note on their bin; It must have the bottom open for air, and the content turned every couple of days to mix in air, especially in the center. The sides can be solid, but be more aware of the aeration needs.

To help maintain moisture I like to cover the top with a thin layer of soil after each turning and-or feeding.


  1. Hi Claude, As you are in America, I am guessing that the temperature of "Death below 20" is 20 degrees fahrenheit (which is celsius is -6.7). Just wanted to clarify that as I am in Australia and of course we use Celsius. Which means that the worms can survive in quite cold climates. Good to know. Did you ever test them in 20F degrees, or is that a known science fact. Vicki

    1. Hi, Vicki! Sorry for the terrific disaster of my site! I'm hoping to get up to refining it!

      You are so right about the temp equivalents.

      O'm in North West Washington State - the South Puget Sound - Lakewood. The winter rains here make grassy areas beside roads and sidewalks so wet the earth worms crawl up and out seeking air! Many end up on roads and walks so it's easy to see what temps they survive.

      In ground, they burrow deeper than the frost depth, so they do stay alive in low surface temps.

      However, with a worm bin, if it is not buried about two feet - uhm, is that about 1/2 meter? deep into the soil with the soil tight to their bin sides to eliminate freezing air, they do die in the low temperature.

      There is another factor, too. If they are fed ample kitchen scraps that decompose adding heat to their bin, the inner bin temp will be higher than the outside air temp.

      Another way to maintain their temp in cold weather is water proof insulation, like Styrofoam, or hollow plastic sides to a dog house or similar outside enclosure for a living creature shelter that covers all sides and top of the bin.

      To be sure to maintain their health in Winter, and all times, make sure their feed mass stays wet enough, has plenty of fresh feed all the time, and that molds,parasites, rodents and other worm-eaters are kept out.

      One way to protect them is to maintain an airy, fairly thick top layer of sand, feed and mulch covering their active feeding zone several inches- 20-40 cm - under the surface.

      Hey Vicki! Thank you for asking! Count me in for any questions of the material I have here. I'm looking for a savvy fresh garden cook to assist with the third section - harvest, recipes, prep, natural preservation, and interesting kitchen talks.