Worms and gardening. How to use worms and their compost to grow flowers and vegetables.

Written by Matthew on February 18th, 2010

huge red strawberries

Strawberries from the Worms Etc garden 2009

Tips on vermi-gardening
Vermi-gardening is gardening using the help of worms.

The first year of a garden

Soils in areas that have never been worked before seldom have the qualities needed to grow domesticated plants and vegetables. Although soil in a particular area may be covered in grasses and other naturally occurring flora, modern plant breeds have been selected over the years for varieties that produce the highest yields. These plants can only meet their potential when rooted in a soil that meets certain conditions.

In general the best soils for gardening are loose and friable (also referred to as tilth), spring back when compacted even when wet, absorb water easily, retain that water until needed, contain nutrients necessary for plant development, support a thriving population of beneficial organisms, have strong pH buffering capabilities, and are resistance to erosion. The major method of improving soil conditions for gardening is to add “soil amendments.” Soil amendments are anything that change soil characteristics. Some soil amendments are better at improving soils characteristics than others. For example, it was once common practice to add clay to sandy soil or sand to clay like soils and this did improve soil tilth for a few years. However, after a few years often the soil would become as hard as concrete as the different size particles compacted themselves into a tight matrix. This was the opposite of the desired effect so this soil amendment method is clearly not ideal.

Compost is not only one of the best soil amendments but it also happens to be one that is available to all gardeners. This is because a gardener can either buy compost or instead can in essence “grow” his own compost. Every year a certain percentage of a garden should be planted for the sole purpose of enriching the soil. In areas with very poor soils during the first year a large portion of the garden area could be devoted to growing plants that will produce lots of good quality compost that will speed the soil improvement process along. Some of the best plants for this purpose are legumes. One of the beautiful things about composting with worms is that once a large population of worms is established the composting process can be completed in a shorter amount of time than without worms. Also worm compost is more effective pound for pound than most other compost. This means less shoveling and less work for the gardener.

Definition of compost:

“Rotted organic matter (usually plant refuse) that is absorbent, humus-rich, and, where well made friable; it is added to soil to improve fertility, structure and water-holding capacity.” -Illustrated dictionary of gardening

Another option for improving soils for the first year of a garden is to bring in soil amendments from outside. Usually this is a very expensive option because high quality amendments are costly. Well composted horse manures may cost 10 cents per pound or more. However, low quality and fresh un-composted manures they can usually be had for free. These manures would add little to the garden when first added. They may smell and attract flies. Worms provide an excellent solution to this dilemma. The manures can be composted with worms until a very high quality compost is produced. This material is not only a much higher quality material but it is also substantially reduced in size, more concentrate, no longer attractive to flies, does not carry disease, has no smell, cannot burn plants, and begins releasing nutrients immediately and over a prolonged period of time.

Where manures cannot be had or kept because of either scarcity or government ordinances, worms make it possible to compost food scraps and waste products from grocery stores or any number of other available options. Many times if you are able to work out a deal with a grocery store a stable supply of good quality scraps for composting can be had for free. Also neighborhood drop offs for food composting scraps can be set up. This is a good way to provide a service to the community by getting people involved in recycling valuable organic matter and providing a pathway for people with common interest to meet. This has been done successfully in many communities.

There are many different ways to apply amendments to a garden. In general new garden soils will require much more amendments than a well established garden. The first year it is provably advisable to dig and loosen the soil to as deep of depth as possible with either a shovel and pitchfork or with machinery. The soil amendments to be used should be broadcast or spread on top of the soil first that way they are incorporated during the loosening process. If using hand tools use the double dig method:

Following quoted from www.appropedia.org/Double_digging:

Remove the first square foot of soil from the beginning of the bed. Put this soil in buckets to be used later. The spade of a shovel is usually close to 1 ft so this can be used as your measuring tool.

With a spading fork loosen the ground under the soil you just removed. The depth of a spading fork is also about one foot.

Move the digging board back a foot so that you can access the next section of the bed. Dig out the top layer of the next one foot by one foot and transfer it into the first section. Try to mix the soil layers as little as possible when moving the soil from one trench to the next. This is because most of the microbial life in soil lives in the top six inches of soil and you want to disturb it as little as you can.

Repeat steps until you reach the end of the bed.

Before beginning the double dig process it is helpful to kill the weeds off and get the soil to a good workable moisture. Also all work done on beds after or during the soil loosening process should be done standing or kneeling on boards about 2 foot square to spread weight and prevent compaction.

Annual Garden Maintenance

One of the best maintenance methods for gardening is top-dressing. Top dressing is the addition of soil amendments of nutrients on top of the soil without an further incorporation. This, interestingly enough, mimics the way the soil is rejuvenated in nature.

At least every season new soil amendments, such as worm compost, should be added on top of the soil. This leaves behind a barrier that weed seeds have to grow through, forms an insulative barrier for temperature extremes, allows nutrients to gradually seep into the root layer, stops almost all erosion, provides a home for beneficial insects, produces a layer that young weeds are easily removed from, within a few years makes a layer that is easy to plant into without any tillage, resist compaction, and much more. If the compost was worked into the soil instead, then many of these benefits would not occurs. Not to mention the fact of how much less labor is required to just top dress.

With worm compost as little as a quarter inch layer is needed in a well established garden. This may not be a thick enough layer to prevent weeds so a mulch like product could be added on top of the worm compost. This mulch will break down over time and add to the soils health.

Keeping worms to produce compost

First an appropriate composting bin needs to be set up. Worms are not picky about what they live in so many different things will work. Anything from stacked car tires to old refrigerators have been used. The most important thing is that adequate drainage be provided and the temperature not get to extreme, below freezing and above 105 degrees are to extreme for red wigglers.

Once you pick out a home for the worms you need to add “bedding” to it.
What is bedding? Bedding is the stuff the worms live in.
•    Shredded paper
•    Shredded cardboard
•    Peat moss
•    Dead leaves
•    Old compost
•    Aged manure (do not used fresh manure for bedding)
•    Coconut coir
•    Dirt / soil from the yard is NOT bedding. Adding a little is ok but no more than a hand-full
•    Mixing several different types of bedding together is fine and great

The bedding needs to be damp. Get a container and put some water in it. Then take a hand-full of your bedding and place it in the water letting it soak for a few seconds. Then squeeze out the excess water just like you were squeezing out a sponge. That is all that is needed to dampen the bedding. Now take that hand-full of damp bedding and place it into the bottom of the worm bin. Repeat this until you have about 4 inches of bedding in the bottom. You are now done adding bedding.

Just an interesting note here that worms can live in damp bedding alone. The problem being a lack of food so overtime they would not multiply or grow much.

Next step is to add a small amount of food by placing it on top of the bedding. Small amount means about a cup full.

– What is food? Worms are not picky eaters so just about any fruit, vegetable, nut or bean will work. This includes coffee and filters, egg shells, bread, and even meat and cheese. The problem from meat and cheese is that they can stink like crazy so don’t add them unless you want stinky worms. Cover this food with a little bedding to keep flies and smells away.

You may add another layer of food or two, just don’t get it so deep that air will not infiltrate to the bottom. Also it is important that the food is in layers and not “stirred in.” This is because worms need to be able to escape the food zones into a bedding zone or they will not live.

You are now done preparing the worm’s home. Any worm would be happy and cozy in there.

Now to add the worms just place them on top of the bedding. It may take them a day or two to move into their new home because they need a little time to adjust to the new conditions. Think of it kind of like when you get fish for an aquarium, it is best to let them adjust slowly to the new conditions. After two days they should be settled into their new homes. In another day or two you should see some worms gathered around the food that you added. This is a good sign that every thing is well.

Wait until most of that food is gone before adding more. Slowly the worms will be able to eat food faster. As the number of worms in your bin grows so to will its composting capacity.

Eventually it will be time to harvest the worm castings, but it may take some time before the first harvest. In preparation for first harvest feed the bin only on one side. Eventually over the course of a few weeks most of the worms will migrate to that side. Then the side that has not been fed recently will have relatively few worms and the compost can be used in the garden.


1 Comments so far ↓

  1. Tim Harmon says:

    Something else I would like to do, worm castings a fairly expensive (worth it!) and to create your own supply could pay off over time.

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