Note: This article appeared in the May 2016 issue of the Post Oak which is neatly formatted at http://www.acctexas.org/newsletters/
Since we have depleted our soils due to monocultures, excess tilling, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and other non-organic farming and gardening practices, there is increasing interest in making our soil healthy. Healthy soils are a living, diverse, complex, balanced, and sustainable ecosystem of living organisms. They help to control plant disease, pests, insect, and weeds. They also form beneficial symbiotic associations with plant roots; recycle essential plant nutrients; improve soil structure with positive repercussions for soil water and nutrient holding capacity, and ultimately improve crop production.1 One teaspoon of healthy soil can contain billions of microbes, thousands of species of protozoa and fungi, mites, and nematodes, and a couple of termite species.2
Why would I want to farm worms
So what’s the poor homeowner to do who purchased a house on a lot where the developer scraped off all the top soil and compacted all the remaining dirt? Your local hardware store will sell you many soil conditioners and enhancers which promise beautiful flowers and plentiful gardens. But before you buy, be sure to read the labels and fine print for research that supports the claims, ingredients, and scary warnings.
Fortunately, there is an easy and cheap way to get healthy soil. To discover it, find a place in the corner of a yard under a bush that has been unattended for years and dig a little. You will soon find nature’s miracle soil conditioners, worms. A worm farm is all you need to improve your soil if you have a little time or have a youngster in your household who likes projects or needs one for school. However, a worm farm is not for everyone. Answer these questions to find out if you should become a worm farmer.
- Have you fantasized about being a farmer but don’t have room in your yard for chickens, goats, or other urban farm critters?
- Can you look fondly at worms and maybe even touch or cuddle one?
- Do you buy worms for fishing and want to save money?
- Do you buy expensive compost or worm castings for your plants, e.g., seed starter mix?
- Do you buy fertilizer to feed your household and garden plants?
- Could your house or garden plants use a “pick me up”.
- Does your household generate a lot of table scraps but you don’t want a compost pile in your yard?
- Do you need low maintenance, non-demanding pets that take care of themselves during your month-long vacations?
- Are your bored and need a hobby?
If you answered yes to many of these questions, then a worm farm may be your salvation. If your answers were iffy, then you may want to take a slow and inexpensive approach to worm farming. If you stopped reading by this point, then a worm farm is not for you.
Worm farms (vermicomposters)
So you want to take the plunge into worms and need to consider your choices. You can make a cheap worm farm using a 5 gallon bucket with a lid with some holes, some composting leaves from your yard, table scraps, shredded junk mail, and of course some worms. Or, you can go online and spend around a $100 to get a worm farm specifically designed for success (see picture). Just Google worm farms and you can see the many options that are available. Or, go to Amazon and search for “worm farm”. You may want to sort the search results by average customer reviews and read the negative reviews from verified customers to find out if a worm farm has problems. Note that some worm farms will advertise that they are odorless, have great ventilation, are easy to clean out, etc. These are hints of problems that could exist with certain types of worm farms.
One key to successful worm farming is having the right kind of worms. There are over 7,000 varieties of earthworms in good garden soil. But, don’t go out in your back yard and dig up a few worms, throw them in your newly constructed worm farm with scraps, and think you’re done. The worms in your yard or from most fishing shops are probably night crawlers. As their name implies, these worms will crawl away the first chance they get. You want a variety of worm that can tolerate being crammed together like prisoners. You want red wigglers (Eisenia fetida for you Latin scholars) because they like living in very close quarters with thousands of other worms (see picture). You can buy them online, or better yet, find someone with a worm farm and ask for a starter bag of worms. Worm populations double every 3 months, so most worm farmers are happy to help out. Worms can live up to 15 years and young can reproduce when only a few months old. Worms lay eggs that are incubated in cocoons.
Worms have few requirements, but need to be kept in a well ventilated, dry, cool, covered area that stays between 60 and 80o Fahrenheit. If you have a cabinet or closet close to the kitchen, it might be a great choice because it will make feeding table scraps easy. Or, a basement or garage might be more convenient, especially for emptying the worm castings and cleaning the empty worm bin.
I have found that worms are not picky eaters. They eat most table scraps except meats, oils, dairy, and citrus products (lemons, oranges). Also, avoid things like plastic coated paper, fresh grass clippings, leaves from eucalyptus or magnolia trees, and needles from pine, fir, or cedar trees. A diet of 50% table scraps and 50% fiber (e.g., shredded leaves or paper) is ideal. Worms have little mouths and no teeth, so they love to suck in moist, mushy food like sweet potato peelings, overripe bananas, coffee grounds, pulp from a juicer, and cantaloupe rinds (see picture). They also like mushy shredded paper and shredded leaves.
A well-established 3 bin worm farm with 10,000 well-fed worms can process 5 pounds of food waste, shredded paper, etc. to produce several inches of castings a month. Collecting worm castings depends on the type of worm farm you have. With a several bin system, you remove the bottom bin, scrape out the castings, make the empty bin the top bin, and add layers of food scraps, some castings from another bin, and shredded leaves or paper to get the worms to move to the top bin for food.
Using worm castings
Worm castings can be used on household plants, to enrich compost as in a starter mix, or can be applied directly to garden flowers or vegetable plants. I discovered that the most useful product of my worm farm is the occasional container of a dark brown coffee looking liquid called leachate that drains off as the worms eat through their moist food. You can use leachate straight on outdoor plants or mix it with equal parts water for a house plant fertilizer. I have found that plants respond quickly after a helping of leachate. Google “benefits of worm castings” to find other uses such as fighting off plant diseases and pests, etc. Worm castings are even touted as a way to get rid of fire ants. They seemed to work for me, but controlled research is needed to determine if, when, and how castings work. Worm farmers seem to be excellent at describing the benefits of castings and leachate similar to how parents are excellent at describing the achievements of their kids.
To summarize, worm farming is a non-demanding way for home owners, gardeners, and plant lovers to save money and enrich their soil. Worms are probably the best low maintenance pets you can have.