Vermicompost: The Secret to Soil Fertility

Use the free services of resident earthworms to make vermicompost, one of nature’s most potent fertilizers.


| June/July 2008



Worms

A night crawler pulls a leaf to its burrow.


Photo by Dwight Kuhn

Vermicompost, or compost made mostly by earthworms, is seven times richer in plant nutrients compared to compost created mostly by fungi and bacteria, and recent studies suggest that small amounts mixed into soil suppress diseases, slugs and insects. Numerous studies have shown that when only 10 percent of the volume of potting soil used to grow seedlings is vermicompost, a huge range of plants simply grow better — from carrots to tomatoes to zinnias. It’s easy to entice earthworms to work their magic right in your garden, or you can make vermicompost in enclosed bins, or both! In addition to improving soil fertility chemically with their castings (a mixture of manure and slime emitted through the worms’ skin), earthworms improve soil physically by opening airways and drainage holes as they travel.

Notice that I did not tell you to buy worms. That’s because we’re recommending “catch-and-release” worm composting, which makes use of the earthworms present in your own yard. These species have already demonstrated their satisfaction with your unique climate and soil, though few (or none) of them are likely to be red wrigglers (Eisenia fetida), the species used in commercial vermicomposting systems. That’s ok. Common red worms (Lumbricus rubellus) and other species plucked from compost bins or soil (or rescued after flooding rains) usually make well-behaved captives, and you can usually coax larger night crawlers (L. terrestris) to colonize any spot by piling on plenty of mulch.

Indeed, when it comes to using earthworms to build soil fertility, Clive Edwards, Ohio State University entomologist and author of Earthworm Ecology — the academic bible on earthworms — thinks night crawlers deserve top priority. “The best thing is to obtain some L. terrestris and inoculate your garden with them. They are the most important species in promoting soil fertility,” he says.

Night crawlers are widely available as fishing worms, but before you buy any, try these simple setups to give resident night crawlers a helping hand.

Maintain permanent pathways that are mowed or mulched, so there is always a layer of decomposing litter at the surface. Night crawlers build semipermanent burrows, where they stockpile food gathered at night. Providing safe year-round habitat is essential to keeping populations high.

Use the spaces between widely spaced squash or melons as night crawler condos. Place wet newspapers or cardboard over the surface (they love the shelter), sprinkle raw oatmeal over the newspapers (they love the food), and top with 2 inches of coarse, moist compost. Repeat the layers and top off with grass clippings, straw or another attractive mulch. If you build it, they will come.

john duffy_3
8/13/2010 10:20:57 PM

For those of you who have never tried raising redworms either in an indoor or outdoor bin, I encourage you to give it a try. Redworms, red wigglers, manure worms or whatever you prefer to call them, are really a lot of fun to raise. They require much less maintenance than "Regular" pets. They are highly adaptable creatures and the amount of fruit & vegetable waste they can consume is amazing! Not only do they produce a lot of castings (worm poop) but, they make excellent fishing bait. For more information, I highly recommend the following website. www.redwormcomposting.com I have learned so much from this website that it would be a shame to not share it with others.


norm_1
11/3/2008 8:46:03 AM

Great article on earthworms! I tried a couple of the projects. One I really liked in particular; I dug a hole about 20 inches deep by 12 inches square and filled it almost to the top with trimmings from my kitchen. I also had some Quaker Oats that had been on the shelf a bit too long that I tossed in. I covered it to the top with some dirt put a cement stepping stone on top that I had been tripping over anyway. I did this probably the first part of July and checked the middle of September. Wow! In return for feeding the worms they gave me back some wonderful loamy sandy looking soil! Very impressive. Needless to say I put that in my little box garden and immediatly filled my "worm feeder" back up! Thanks Mother, keep the articles coming!






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