Wally Richards – Worms: the gardener’s little helper

It’s a fact: earthworms are the greatest garden helpers you can have.

The more worms you have in your garden, the healthier your plants will be.

Sadly many gardens are lacking in earthworms and often the reason for this is because water soluble fertilisers have been used such as Superphosphate, General Purpose Fertiliser, Rose Fertiliser, Nitrophoska Blue etc. These fertilisers create acidic conditions that worms detest. Chemical sprays and weed killers, including the Glyphosate ones, are also harmful to worms.

When you don’t have a good worm population you will have low counts of other soil life forms, collectively called micro-organisms. The health of the soil is easily gauged by the number of earthworms found when turning over the soil.

An acre of good soil will contain about one million worms. This works out to be about 23 worms per square foot.  Big worm populations make for great healthy gardens and plants.

Here are a few “worm facts”:

  • Earthworms make contributions such as adding calcium carbonate, a compound which helps moderate soil pH. Each day, they produce 60 percent of their body weight in urine, which contains high levels of nitrogen.
  • Worms can eat their own weight each day.
  • Worms live where there is food, moisture, oxygen and a favourable temperature. If they don’t have these things, they go somewhere else. Worms tunnel deeply in the soil and bring subsoil closer to the surface mixing it with the topsoil.
  • Slime, a secretion of earthworms, contains nitrogen. The sticky slime also helps to hold clusters of soil particles together in formations called aggregates.
  • Although they have no prominent sense organs, earthworms are sensitive to light, touch, vibration, and chemicals.
  • Incidentally, earthworms have five hearts.

Earthworms do not like dry soil and in dry times they will burrow deep into the soil and wait till the rain comes.  If you have good populations of worms, they will do the bulk of your digging of gardens for you.

If you dig a garden or rotary hoe it, after levelling off the soil with a rake, you should put a layer of compost over the soil. Digging can disrupt the worm’s food supplies. The compost will put matters right. Even better, before spreading the compost, layer the ground with newspaper a few pages thick and wet down. Cover with compost. Worms love newspaper (hence the term bookworm) and the inks used these days are ok. However don’t use glossy paper.

There are ways to make your gardens ‘worm friendly’ and build up their population.
Drench gardens with MBL (Magic Botanic Liquid) which will clean up chemicals from the soil and other contamination. Give the garden a liberal dressing of soft garden lime such as Hatuma Lime. Hard limes made from limestone take too long to be of immediate advantage. Don’t use any water soluble fertilisers or chemical sprays including weed killers. Use natural foods such animal manures, blood & bone, sheep pellets, sea weed, sawdust and straw. Gardens with low or no worm populations can be restocked with worms after making them ‘worm friendly’.

The fastest way to achieve good worm populations is to breed worms in a Worm Farm.

This is a specially designed container that you place kitchen scraps into along with a starter bag of worms. The worms fed on the rotting material, converting it to vermicast (rich soil).
The ideal conditions that a Worm Farm should offer allows the worms to reproduce until their numbers reach what can be called the worm population limit. They then stop actively breeding until their numbers reduce. By removing some of the worms every so often, they will keep producing a never ending supply of worms.

When harvesting the vermicast you are taking a number of worms out unless you carefully pick out the worms and put them back into the worm farm. In this respect it is better to only harvest a quarter to a third of the vermicast at any one time.  Allow a couple of months or more to pass before harvesting again.  The harvested worms can be placed into what I call ‘worm pits’ in the garden. These are simply spade sized holes dug in the gardens, filled with shredded wet newspaper, kitchen scraps, animal manure and any organic material. About a handful or two of vermicast and worms are seeded into each worm pit then covered with compost. Keep the area of the pit moist with occasional watering as needed. Apply compost and animal manures over the surrounding garden as a mulch along with a sprinkling of soft lime from time to time. If all goes well, over the following months you will build up big populations of worms in the gardens. Concentrate on the vegetable garden first and later do the same to other gardens. In a bigger garden place the worm pits towards the centre about 3 metres apart.

There are a few brands of worm farm available.  The type that I use is called a Worm-A-Round. It is so good that I now have two of them in operation.  It comprises of 3 round tiers 60cm in diameter and standing 46 cm tall when all tiers are stacked on. The bottom tier has a tap and the leachate (worm pee) is collected and harvested from there. The two upper tiers are for the scraps and worms. A lid covers the farm. The size is important, as too smaller units can become too hot or cold for the worms in summer or winter. Placed in a shaded situation the worms can keep cool enough in summer and huddle together in cold winters. There has in the past, been some cheaper smaller units available, which likely were not very good, as to the number of problems gardeners found when trying to use them.

Having a worm farm is a great investment.  Not only do you benefit the gardens with worms, vermicast and leachate (liquid plant food) you save money in disposing of your kitchen waste. I also use the vermicast mixed into compost for containers when potting up. This places a few worms along with the rich vermicast into the containers, making for really great container plants.

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