Friday, 8 May 2009

Don't underestimate the importance of the worms

By Marc from GardenDesk

I have been interested in vermicomposting for nearly 20 years now. I learned about "raising worms on purpose" during my master gardener certification and had the privilege of interviewing a vermicomposting expert for a newspaper article I was writing. She taught me about how great the worms nutrient rich castings were for your garden. I wrote the article about composting with bins and with worms. I then went on to compost in my backyard for many years. Even though the worms excited me for all those years, I never managed to actually set up a good vermicomposting system until recently. With re-kindled interest in worms, I read all that I could find about them in books like The Worm Book and Worms Eat My Garbage, and even CHARLES DARWIN ON HUMUS AND THE EARTHWORM.

My excitement lead me to write about the worms on my blog. When I noticed that they were having babies, I really got excited and showed many close-up pictures. That's when I discovered that not all gardeners share my joy and excitement for worms. Some people, I found out, actually dis-like worms. What? Really? Words like "Gross" and "Disgusting" were uttered about my wonderful new garden helpers. Perhaps our friends the worms are just misunderstood.

Worms are possibly the most important creature on the earth. Earthworms are essential in good soil composition. They aerate it to allow water and oxygen to reach the roots of plants, which in turn supports all animals. Earthworms actually feed by ingesting humus and the soil that they burrow through. Out the other end comes the best natural fertilizer possible. This actually creates rich new topsoil. Charles Darwin estimated in his earthworm writings, that England's farmland had over 50,000 earthworms to the acre. He calculated that they turn over 18 tons or about 16,000 kilograms of soil per acre. This, according to Darwin, brings over an inch of rich soil to the surface every five years! Without worms, our earth would be completely rocky and barren.

What does this really mean to us? Most of us do what we can to be "greener". There are many efforts made to recycle, reduce and reuse. We worry about carbon emissions and over consumption of energy. Many people talk up gardening as a way to be more self-sustaining and to help reduce food transportation energy. All of these things are good and as an avid gardener I do get excited about more people returning to food gardening. But I have to stress that we need to be gardening organically.

Traditional gardening often leans on chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. Most people know that spraying these chemicals are bad for our air and water quality, but do we think enough about our soil? These things are harmful to the worms and are destroying our soil structure and our earth! Not gardening at all would be better than gardening with chemicals.

Now to step down off my soap box a little, I can emphasize with those gardeners who refrain from chemical pesticides, but don't think a little fertilizer will hurt anything. After all, the plants do grow much better don't they? I used to have this mindset until I learned the many benefits we get from worms and the fact that fertilizer drives the worms out of your garden. It is much better to employ those worms to make natural fertilizer.

So what should we do?

One word - COMPOST. Instead of chemical fertilizers, the organic gardener MUST rely on composting to feed the soil (and the worms). You can learn more about composting here and here. If you don't have enough room for large bins like Compostwoman, give worm composting a try.

Anyone can compost with worms because a worm bin can fit anywhere. We have ours right behind the kitchen table! There is no odor and no mess. The worms take care of composting your kitchen vegetable scraps and they don't make a peep (well actually, our house cats can hear them moving). If you don't like the idea of housing worms inside, they do well on a patio or deck as long as they don't get extremely hot, cold or dry.

You can make a bin out of wood or a plastic tub but I recommend getting one designed for vermiculture. I wrote about the many different kinds of worm bins available in my first worm post. We settled on the multi-tier GardensAlive Worm System. Gardens Alive is an organic gardening company that we have trusted for years and we love our new worm bin as well. We are already able to harvest the rich worm compost (vermicompost) from the first tray!

If you have never considered raising worms, I encourage you to give it a try. You will be helping the environment. Whether you make or buy your worm bin, you should look for a reliable source to purchase your first 500 or 1000 worms. You will not be able to dig up enough worms to sustain a worm bin. If anyone is interested, I will post again about the specifics of setting up and maintaining a worm bin.

So am I crazy? Do any of you already raise worms? Have I changed your mind if you used to say you hated worms? Just remember, don't underestimate the importance of the worms.

Keep Growing!

- Marc


jo said...

Worms indoors is no longer simply an oddity:
Some are actually creating wormeries inside their homes and even apartments.

The mind boggles. Or wriggles.

What puzzles me is the fact that whether you are blessed with Lumbricus or Allolobophora, they all seem happiest under well trodden paths or compacted gravel.
Not the lovely loose earth you soil conditions we create for them.

Kate@LivingTheFrugalLife said...

I've just started with a worm bin in the basement this year. As the weather is warming up, I've noticed a LOT of little flies in the bin when I open it up to add material. Too many of them are making their way upstairs to the kitchen. Anything I can do about that? So far I've just been vacuuming them up and hoping that they're not hurting the worms.

ChristyACB said...

I "planted" a few pounds of worms into my yard, garden beds and ground overall a couple of years ago because there simply weren't any. Now, my whole yards is just full of them. I can't move a clod of dirt in a bed without a worm or two wriggling around. My garden this year is mind-bogglingly good too. And worms, worms everywhere.

However, when I tried to do it in the house, my beagles and cat would NOT leave it alone! I don't know if it was the food or the worms, but they wanted them.

mamawhatthe said...

Great article- but I don't think you should be so quick to point people towards the commercial worm bins. They can be expensive and difficult to set up. Plus, many people have a plastic tub at home they could recycle into a worm bin with very little effort. I did it and my bin works great!

Opal said...

I started a worm bin to maintain a supply of worms for my chickens to snack on. Since setting it up and thinking about the benefits of worms, I have considered worm compost. Our soil is often very hard and sandy so it makes growing things difficult with out additives, compost, fertilizer, potting soil, black cow, etc.

I don't know where to get the worms from in the quantity you are talking about. Could you post some links on that?

Taryn said...

I have a worm bin in our apartment- yeah for wormies! Eat my food scrapes!

tpals said...

I've been tempted to have a wormery but so far only have compost bins outside. I'd be interested in your follow-up post on the subject.

Marc said...

jo - the worms in my bin are redworms (eisenia fetida) - much smaller than the worms you mentioned. They are found in nature under piles of leaves or rotting plant material. They dwell in the top inch or two of the soil so they are happy in shallow worm bins with vegetable scraps buried in the top two inches.

Kate - I'm glad to hear that you are now a worm composter. Fruit flies can be tricky. Their eggs often sneak in on vegetable peelings, especially if they were not washed. I have heard of people microwaving their food scraps to kill potential eggs before adding the scraps to the bin. Also, if you keep a layer of damp newspaper on the top of the soil in the bin, that hinders the flies access to the food scraps. Since you already have them, you need to think more of how to get rid of them. Maybe the scraps that you are adding are not decomposing fast enough. You may be adding too much at a time or you don't have enough worms. Also be sure to bury the scraps under the soil to limit their access. As far as I know, they are not hurting the worms at all. Good luck, I hope you can get rid of them.

ChristyABC - That is fantastic about the worms you added to the garden. Exactly what I was trying to describe. My post was more about the benefits of worms in nature than keeping worms indoors. As for your pets bothering your indoor bin, we love our pets but they do get into things don't they? Could you try again in a room or area where your beagles aren't allowed in maybe?

mamawhatthe - Making your own bin is a great option. I was just reporting what I am currently using. I tried to make my own bin last year and failed miserably with it. Since we lost $30 worth of worms and since we had a $20 Off coupon for GardensAlive, we didn't view our new worm bin as very expensive. There are many on the market that cost much more than the one GardensAlive offers. A unit made for worm composting has worked well for us, but if you can make your own, then great.

Opal - many people sell worms by mail and they travel well since they are shipped in the soil that they are already living in. Look for red worms or red wigglers. They are usually offered by the pound. A pound of redworms is about a thousand worms. I bought mine from Rising Mist Organic Farm. You may be able to find them a bit cheaper on other websites or even on Amazon. I chose Rising Mist because they pride themselves in being organic. I do think it is best to start with al least 500 worms in your bin if you can.

taryn - Yeah for wormies indeed!

tpals - I'm glad that you are interested in the possibility of worm composting. Keep up that outdoor composting - very important.

Thanks to all,

Deb said...

Not many people know that the common "earthworm" is an introduced species to North America. It arrived in soil brought as ballast on English ships in the 1600 and 1700s. Before that point the woods of New England apparently had four to five feet of leaf litter on the forest floor.

No worms were probably one reason the soil fertility was easily exhausted in pre-Colonial and early Colonial times, as there were no worms to constantly process the soil and add micronutrients.

Within a couple of centuries the lowly and "slow" worm had worked its way across the continent. When you realize that they literally changed the face of the continent you get a whole new respect for them. :)

Shawna said...

i plan on making a worm bin this year. we're gardening in my uncle's garden this year. he likes to think he's organic, but sprays his dandelions and fertilizes other things, both which make me cringe and perhaps i can show him a better way. i was thinking of housing the bin outside since we have a small apartment and a curious toddler, but i may have to bring it in occasion. i'd love to hear more, as i think i will be heading out to create a makeshift bin soon!

Joanne said...

My husband nearly made my heart stop the other day. He suggested that we get rid of our compost bins so that we don't attract rats and mice! "No way!" was my unequivocal answer. I'll live with the occasional furry visitor. And anyway, I think if they find a little food outside, they may not come searching in the house.
I'd like to eventually try a worm bin.

Anonymous said...

I love it when I dig into my garden and come up with a shovel full of worms. I know then that I am doing a good job of feeding my garden! My neighbor has been worm farming for the last couple of years and has offered to help me get started. I can't wait!

Anonymous said...

So glad to read about the benefits of worms. I felt a little crazy earlier today but couldn't help myself. As I walked down my gravel driveway in a light rain, I noticed gobs of earthworms "swimming" through the rain runoff across the gravel. I ran back to the house and got a container with some dry dirt and started picking up as many as I could. After picking up maybe 50 worms, I took the container to my raised bed and turned it upside down leaving it there to make an umbrella while the worms could make their way into the soil. A few hours later there were only a couple still at the surface so I knew that most of them were making new homes where my tomatoes will be if it ever stops raining long enough for me to plant.

Anonymous said...

I have one thing I cannot seem to get a straight answer on. Maybe you can help. I hope so. I compost all the black and white paper and junk mailwe get in the. I have heard some gardners say they use ALL the junk mail etc. Colored and black and white. I used to hear the colored papers had chemicals that could harm the garden or worms. What have you heard? What do you do? I want to reused so- to-speak all paper if possible but am still afraid to shred the colored ones until I know it is ok to use them. Thankyou. Jody

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify I am talking about if I should use the colored papers in my larger compost piles not the small worm ones. Jody