Hey! What could be more fun than breeding worms in that fantastic soil you’re regenerating? Apparently, nothing is better for all of those hard-working soil organisms that I posted about in Regeneration 101, than magical, mystical worm poop!
“Vermiculture” is the hoity-toity name for helping worms thrive and reproduce. Vermiculture is great for our planet because worms are fantastic for soil. And remember, healthy soil is a carbon sink- the organisms in soil are made up of carbon (C), meaning less C available to combine with oxygen to form greenhouse gas CO2.
So why are worms fantastic for soil? Chiefly because they eat bits of organic material, and break it down, and then excrete it as “castings.” Worm castings are one of the best organic fertilizers. As The SoilGuy says, “microbes QUICKLY turn [castings] into plant food, and the process already started in the earthworm’s gut via the digestive bacteria in it.” In other words, worm poop is microorganism food, and flourishing microorganisms is exactly what we want for soil regeneration.
Worms are also great for soil because they create tunnels as they stretch and strain their way through it. This de-compacts the soil, allowing oxygen exchange which is critical for healthy soil organisms, and plant growth. In fact, the critical nature of earthworms has been recognized for a long time: in “1881 Charles Darwin wrote: ‘It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.’ ”
Vermiculture is pretty easy. But in cold climates, it’s a seasonal activity. Many people take their worm bin inside in the winter, but I’m going to make my worm care a spring-summer-fall activity. The best vermiculture worms for southwestern Canada are imported African Nightcrawlers (Eudrilus Eugeniae), which are the same worms sold for fishing bait.
You can also nurture red wigglers (Eisenia Fetida), ideal for composting, but here’s some info about how they do in gardens: “Red worms are excellent at breaking down decaying organic materials… [but] These aren’t the type of worm typically found in a yard or garden. Placed directly into a garden with nothing for them to eat, red worms will likely die or move to other areas where they can find food and an environment more suitable for their needs. Dirt alone isn’t enough to keep red worms happy… With the addition of plant scraps or composting trenches… the red worms will not only thrive but will turn the garden soil into a healthy environment.”
Here is a step-by-step guide to the care and breeding of earthworms:
1- Get or build a bin. Most vermiculture practitioners like wood for bins because it isn’t water-tight, like plastic. You don’t want standing water in your worm bin. Wood also keeps the worms at a more stable temperature. Ideally, worms like 60 to 80 degrees F, but can tolerate 40 – 90. There should be drain holes in the bottom of the bin. Incidentally, the liquid that drains from a worm bin is valuable- a rich fertilizer called “vermiculture leachate.”
Dimensions of your bin depend on how many worms you start with. You need about 1 square foot for every pound of Nightcrawlers. It’s better to have too much space than too little. A bin 3 foot square, or 2 foot by 3 foot is enough to start with. It should be a foot deep, and it will need a lid. Worms do not like light! At the same time, make sure there are some spaces for air exchange.
2- Prepare worm bedding. All you need is shredded newspaper (not with colored inks), cardboard, or printer paper, but it must be fluffy- worms breathe through their skin, so don’t pack the bedding down. Next, says Aggie Horticulture, “Add a gallon [8 cups] of garden soil- the worms need the grit to aid their digestion… bedding material should be moist but not soggy. Prepare moistened bedding at least 2 days prior to adding worms, as it may heat initially and harm the worms.” If the bedding is too wet, add some dry strips to absorb the excess.
3- Add some table scraps- tucked into the bedding- for your worms to eat. EarthlyMatters advises “veggie and fruit peel and leftovers. Things you want to avoid or use in moderation are grains, pastas, meats, cheeses, and citrus. Some things your worms will really love are coffee grounds, [and] watermelons.” A pound of worms CAN eat a pound of table scraps a day when flourishing. But they’ll need time to adjust to their new surroundings. Feed as needed by checking for worm leftovers. Softer, less fibrous foods will go quickly, while root vegetables will persist awhile.
4- It’s finally time to introduce your worms to their home. Just spread them around on the moist bedding. Worms are hermaphroditic- of both sexes- but they do need to mate to reproduce. Give them time, space, and quiet, checking that their bedding is moist and fluffy. It will gradually change into a rich black soil. You can add bedding, then after a couple weeks, pull it up- most of the worms will be in it since the food is there- and empty the soil outside, preferably where you’ll be growing a garden, because this soil is full of worm castings! People pay a pretty penny for that exact same “black gold” at the plant nursery. Then put your worms back in the bin.
If you are going to add some of the worms to a garden, The SoilGuy advises that “a food supply of stable or finished compost [like the soil they make] should be placed in the ground first, then the earthworms into the new bedding, covered and watered-in. Then most of the earthworms will ‘stay put’ and breed.” Apparently, selling the worms you breed, as well as the rich compost they make, is a do-able small enterprise: “Before long, a worm composting system can create enough naturally reproducing product to make a tidy profit if the time and care is taken. Whether it is a smaller one for personal use in fishing and gardening, a larger farm for mass production, or starting a business for profit, a worm farm can continually keep itself running for many years to come.”
I can’t wait to try just a little worm farm at first. It’s February, so I have plenty of time to build my bin. I’m going to put out a call for free untreated lumber scraps, and involve my grandkids in this project. I’ll post a picture or two. Let me know how this project works for you.