The Earthworm - A Gardeners Best Friend

Most of us never stop to consider the importance of earthworms in the garden. Simple creatures but they are quite useful in the garden. Did you know the earthworms are nature's first gardeners? They are useful for a lot more than fish bait.

Some Basic Facts:

Earthworms are present in almost every type of soil but the healthier the soil the greater the numbers. A healthy soil permits lots of air and moisture, both of which are needed by the these creatures for existence. Earthworms have no lungs like you or me but instead breathe through their skin. Their whole skin absorbs oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is what plants use instead of oxygen. They also need some moisture but too much moisture is not good for them.

The four better known species of these worms:

Although there are thousands of varieties these are the most recognised

Nightcrawlers: 8 to 10 inches long and the fisherman's favorite.

Garden Worms: 5 to 7 inches long and found commonly in damp soils

Manure Worms: 4 to 5 inches long and found in manure rich soils.

Red Worms: 3 to 4 inches long and the most commercially grown.

Why Earthworms in the Garden?

A garden without these creature simply has a few things lacking. Their first job is to till the soil by tunneling through it. Tunnels created allow air and moisture to pass easily through the soil, creating a healthy environment for plants. Tunnels retain water that the plants can take up and also hold air to help bacteria break down organic matter within the soil.

After digestion they produce excrement about the size of a pin head. This excrement is called "castings" or "vermicompost" and is an excellent soil conditioning material. It improves properties of the soil such as porosity and moisture retention, aids plant growth and helps in the fight against pests and diseases.

Increasing Population in the Garden

How does one go about increasing the number of earthworms in their garden soil? Well the best way to do so is to add more organic matter to the soil.

Growing Worms At Home

Find A Suitable Place

The worms and bedding should be contained in a small box or bin, approximately one foot high and 2 x 3 ft. Temperatures of about 60 to 80 degrees F. are ideal, but the worms will tolerate temperatures from 40 to 90 degrees F. You'll want the location convenient to your kitchen to make disposal quick and easy. Even though a properly maintained bin is odorless, most would rather not have a box of worms inside their house. Most people prefer a basement or garage location.

Purchase Or Build A Container

The worms aren't too picky about housing, so mainly consider what suits you. Some people prefer building a box usually with the dimensions mentioned above. If you decide to build your own box don't use pressure-treated wood for those parts on the inside surface, as the chemicals may be toxic to worms. You can paint or stain the exterior of the box, but leave the inner surface unpainted. Be sure to drill at least twelve 1-inch holes in the bottom of the box for drainage.

Prepare The Bedding

Commonly available sources of suitable bedding for your worm bin are shredded newspaper, cardboard, or computer printout paper. With newspaper, use only the regular black and white sections - not the color sections - as dyes maybe toxic to worms. Tear the paper along the center fold, then keep tearing in parallel strips of about 1 inch in width. You'll need about 10 pounds for an average sized bin. You can use shredded paper from the office, but newsprint decomposes quicker.

Put the shredded newspaper in the bin. Add a gallon of garden soil The worms need the grit to aid their digestion-and 4 gallons of water to provide sufficient moisture. The 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.

Get The Worms

These worms are commonly raised for fish bait and can be readily purchased locally for stocking. You'll need approximately 2 pounds of worms for each pound of garbage your household produces daily. For example, if you are stocking one worm bin and your household generates one pound of kitchen waste a day, common for an average household of four, start with 2 pounds of worms.

Caring for the worms is easy. Spread the worms gently over the top of the prepared bedding. They can be fed on plant-derived products such as potato peels, lettuce leaves moldy bread, spaghetti, orange peels, tea or coffee grounds, and garden waste like corn shucks or pea shells. Large amounts of meat or bones can cause odors and attract dogs or rodents and should be avoided.

You can feed the worms every day, twice a week, or only once a week. Let your schedule, not the worms, be your guide. If you're going to be away from home for more than a month, you may wish to have someone feed the worms for you. To feed your worm bed, push back the bedding, place the food, and cover it so that it's an inch or so beneath the surface. There's no need to chip or grind the food; let the microorganisms and worms do that for you.

If you place the garbage in sequence at different locations in the bin over the course of several days, you won't come back to the same place twice and thus will avoid a disagreeable encounter with freshly decomposing garbage.

You'll need to change the bedding and harvest the larger worms after about 2 months and every month or so thereafter. To harvest the worms, you can dump them and the compost onto a piece of plywood in a cone-shaped pile. In a few minutes, the worms will move into the pile to escape light and exposure. At this point, you can remove the top few inches of the pile, wait a few minutes, and repeat. Eventually, you will be left with a pile of mostly worms. You can harvest the large ones for fish bait and return the small ones and the egg cases to a freshly prepared bin with new bedding.

Use the old composted garbage and bedding as a nutrient-rich soil amendment around plants or in your garden.

Redworms consume large amounts of organic matter and are found in manure and compost piles and decaying leaves. They live closer to the surface than earthworms and reproduce very quickly in captivity. Eight redworms become 1,500 redworms in six months!

Commercial Earthworm Production

Some earthworm wholesalers sell breeder stock to new growers and promise to buy the worms back from the grower at a "going wholesale price." These wholesalers then resell the worms to bait shops, home and organic gardeners, and other users. Such an arrangement could help a new grower market his produce, but his success would depend almost entirely on the wholesaler's honesty and ability to meet his obligations to the grower. Prospective growers considering such an arrangement should check carefully with their local Better Business Bureau and Chamber of Commerce, and also with the wholesaler's other growers or customers, to determine his reputation before entering into a contract.

Establishing an earthworm-business should not be done on a trial and error basis. Earthworms are a form of livestock and there are certain minimum requirements of care that must be met on a regular schedule. New earthworm growers should consider entering the business on a small scale and learn to raise worms successfully before attempting mass production.

You can find much more about diseases, pests, problems and commercial growing at Texas A&M Publications

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