Earthworms may be the easiest and most profitable “livestock” on your homestead. I’m not necessarily talking monetary profit, though it is possible to make a living from selling earthworms, that is beyond the scope of this article, and I refer you to the sources listed at the end for more information.
You see, I don’t count profitability in strictly cash terms when it comes to homestead projects. I consider a project profitable if it, 1. Saves me from laying out hard earned dollars on goods or services or, 2. Recycles waste products from other projects while giving me something valuable in return. Earthworms certainly accomplish both of those goals, as you will see.
Earthworms are most accommodating livestock. They do not need daily tending; they will thrive with minimal supervision, providing their modest needs are met. These needs are a sufficient supply of organic matter for food and to be kept moist. Unless you want to keep your worms indoors, they do not require much by way of equipment, bins or boxes.
Earthworms will benefit your homestead in several ways. Worm manure or “castings” are richer in available plant foods than other manures or compost. While manure and compost are great for your garden, digested by worms, they are terrific! Worms will convert such items such as coffee grounds & filters, shredded wood and paper, sawdust, weeds, etc. into a rich fertilizer for your garden. At the same time, the worms themselves are very high in protein, about 60% for dried worms and are a great supplementary feed for your chickens and pigs.
There are hundreds of different species of earthworms around the world, from the Arctic to the jungle. Eisenia fetida is the one most easily acquired in the United States and is recommended for composting use. In other countries other species might be preferable. I suggest you check with your government agricultural service or local garden club.
Eisenia fetida goes by many common names; manure worms, fishing worms, brandlings, red wrigglers. Check the advertisements in the back of almost any gardening magazine and you’ll find ads for them under one or more of these names. These worms do not normally live in the soil so much as in manure heaps. They are not the same as night crawlers. Night crawlers tend to be solitary worms with ‘territories’ and they do not do so well under the growing conditions described here.
A pound of “bed run” worms will normally cost less than $30, postage-paid. Bed run means just as they come from the growing beds and will include all sizes from eggs and newly hatched worms to large breeders. Unless you have an enormous amount of manure or compost to process quickly, one or two pounds of bed run worms will be a sufficient start. Some companies also sell graded worms, usually by the thousand. Being larger, these will be more expensive than bed run and are not necessarily a better deal.
When first starting out, you will probably want to contain your worms to a small area. That way they are easier to check up on, keep damp and feed. An easy way to do this is to find a large plastic tub with a lid and cut the bottom out. Find a shady spot and remove some soil (about 6 inches deep is fine) from an area the size of the bottom of the tub. Set the tub in place and pile the soil you removed around it, firming it down well. This setup will accomplish two things. It will keep the worms moister and keep their food in one place. Earthworms are smart. As long as there is food and moisture they are going to stay put. Unlike other critters they are not going to wander off in search of greener pastures! The other thing is that the tub will help protect them from animals that will eat them like skunks and mice. If you put your kitchen scraps in the tub it will also keep out stray dogs, cats and javalinas (the wild pigs or peccaries of the desert).
Before your worms arrive, wet the ground in your box and add some type of organic matter, 2-3 inches thick. Fallen leaves are a good start, or a little compost. Grass clippings, old hay, rotted manure are all good. So is shredded paper. I shred all my junk mail as well as old financial records, and it all goes to the worm box since there is no recycling program where I live. You just want to be careful that what you put in will not heat up. When your worms arrive, just dump them in, put on the lid and let them adjust to their new home. In a couple of days, when you lift the lid, you will probably find worms right on top of the organic matter. They will dive back down into their little burrows as soon as the light hits them. They much prefer the dark. In a box with a lot of worms you can actually hear them going back down if it is quiet and you listen carefully. It sounds like little popping noises.
If you are using your worms to compost your kitchen scraps, just dump the scraps on top. The worms will go up into the scraps and begin feeding on their own. Don’t mix the scraps into the bedding, however, in case they should begin to heat up. By leaving them on top, the worms can go down away from them if they heat up. While you can feed the worms just kitchen scraps, you will have a better finished compost with a better range of nutrients if you give them some other foods occasionally. As mentioned, I shred all my junk mail and feed it to the worms, just dump it on top. Once in a while I sprinkle in some manure, usually 1-2 inches at a time. About once a month I add a small amount of earth and a sprinkle of wood ashes. If your soil is acid, you will want to add a dusting of wood ashes or lime to your worm box every 1-2 months. Earthworms like a pH range of 6.8 to 7.2 (just like most garden plants).
If pest animals are not a problem or you just want to add worms to your compost piles, things are even easier. Scrape out 3-6 inches of soil from the area where you will build your heap. If you have built a pile on this site before, just leave a couple of inches of compost over the area instead. Wet it down well and add your worms. Build your compost pile as usual (there are so many articles everywhere telling you how to build compost piles, I won’t go into the details here). Yes, the pile should heat up, especially if you use a lot of manure or green stuff. That’s fine. The worms will stay down in the soil under the heap while this happens. Just as soon as the temperature goes below about 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit the worms will begin to work their way up into the pile. The only thing you have to do at this point is to keep the pile moist. If you live in an arid area, throw a tarp over it to help keep the moisture in. You can also cover the heap with soil or straw.
After a couple of months (usually, cool weather will take longer) you will notice that the texture of the pile has changed. It will also shrink a fair amount. The texture change will be more noticeable if you have covered the heap with something that keeps out light, as the worms will work all the way to the surface of the pile. If you covered it with straw, just rake back the straw and look under it. Your compost should begin to look more like damp coffee grounds than the original ingredients. At this point it is ready to use. You can just spread it around your garden as usual, or you can harvest the worms it contains separately. I’ll tell you how in just a minute.
First I want to discuss another way of raising worms. I first got started raising earthworms in the manure under my rabbit cages. This is a great way to keep down flies, as they do not seem to breed in manure that contains a lot of earthworms. To raise worms this way, wet the ground under one cage. If the ground there is even with or above your walkway, then scrape the soil out before wetting it. You just need a little depression, 3-6 inches deep to help contain the manure. As long as that is the only area that you keep damp, the worms will stay there. They won’t go into dry soil if there is a moist area. Now add your worms and when they have gone down into the soil, rake up all the manure from under your other rabbit cages onto the worm area. Keep it damp. In dry climates during the summer this can mean a daily sprinkle. In a few weeks you will notice that the only whole manure you see is the freshest. The worms will have digested the rest. At this point you can expand the area of the worm bed simply by wetting down an adjacent area and raking up the manure onto it.
I raised worms like this when I lived in eastern Texas. Our soil there was very sandy and very acid, so I added lime and wood ashes about once a month. Spilled feed, fur and straw from the nest boxes were just tossed on top of the worm beds. In a few days there would be little left of them.
You would think that all that damp manure would be a terrific breeding place for flies, but there were hardly ever any maggots to be found. The only place I would see them in this system was when a rabbit, usually a young buck, continuously urinated in one spot. This would make that area very wet with ammonia. To remedy this, use your garden fork to loosen up that spot and add something to absorb and neutralize the ammonia. You can use sawdust, peat moss or even the old-fashioned clay kitty litter. Also sprinkle on a little extra lime or wood ash. Add more absorbent material whenever you notice the area getting soggy again.
Worms are not very active when the temperature drops below 50 or above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. If your worm box is in the sun, the inside will be too hot and the worms will stay down in the soil to stay cool. If the weather is very cold, they will go down to stay warmer. If it gets really cold they will hibernate. If it is too hot and they cannot escape, they will die. In the hottest part of summer and the coldest part of winter, you may notice that the worms are not in the upper part of your box feeding. In summer you may notice some fly breeding in your kitchen scraps. In winter the scraps may simply get very moldy or even just sit there sort of frozen, instead of breaking down. Some help in summer is to cover the scraps with a little soil. In winter you can insulate the worm box by piling leaves or straw around it to help keep the worms warmer. You can also add fairly thick layers of manure occasionally. The manure will heat a bit and keep the upper layers in the box warmer.
If you just raise worms in your compost pile, I have noticed that as soon as the heat drops below about 85 the worms will be up in the pile. In the winter, they will mostly be in the bottom center of the pile where it is the warmest. Then in spring as the weather warms they will work their way up.
Worms are covered with a slimy mucous. If this slime coating dries out the worms will die. They must be kept damp at all times. I once had a break in the toilet drainpipe. When we dug it up, the entire area around the break was very wet and was filled with worms. At the same time, if they are completely immersed in water, they will, after a time, drown.
SEPARATING THE WORMS FROM THE COMPOST
Earthworms do not like bright light. An easy way to separate them from their castings or compost is to use this trait to your advantage. Set up a table, or put a piece of plywood over your wheelbarrow or garden cart next to your compost pile or worm box. The plywood should not completely cover the cart or barrow. Leave a gap that you can push the compost into. Use a garden fork to toss two or three forkfuls of compost onto the platform (if you use a shovel you will cut a lot of worms into pieces). Break up any big lumps and shape the material into a cone. Now go away for a little bit. On bright sunny days, 10 minutes will be long enough. On cloudy days and when the temperature is cooler, it may take 20 minutes for the worms to go down from the surface of the cone. Now gently begin scraping the castings off the top of the cone. As soon as you get to the worms stop and wait another 10 or 15 minutes, for them to go down some more. Now scrape away some more compost. Again, stop as soon as you get to the worms. Repeat this procedure until you have mostly a pile of worms left. This is easiest to do on bright sunny days when you are outside working in the garden anyway. Just go check on the worms every 10-15 minutes. In extremely hot weather, you will want to make sure that the platform itself does not heat up in the sun and cook the worms. Also, don’t forget about them on a hot sunny day, or you will find them dried up and dead the next day. If something comes up and you can’t finish, just dump them all back on the heap.
USING YOUR WORMS AND CASTINGS
There are many uses for the worms you have harvested. You could set up a business and sell worms yourself. You can feed them to poultry, pigs and pets like fish, frogs, lizards and turtles. They are first-class high protein feed and these animals will relish them. I used to feed a three-pound coffee can full of worms to my six chickens about twice a week. This enabled me to feed less expensive scratch feed instead of laying pellets while still getting just as many eggs.
When using castings on your garden, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. With the first method described, the food scraps do not heat up, therefore, seeds are not injured and will sprout with abandon, sometimes right in the worm box. This is alright, but realize that any weed, tomato, melon or other seeds tossed in the box will probably sprout right up once you spread the castings on the garden. With the second method, your compost pile will hopefully have heated up well before the worms went to work on it, thus destroying most of the weed seeds. In the third method there will be few if any seeds at all, since the castings will be almost entirely made up of rabbit manure.
If you follow the first or second methods there will probably be pieces of things that are not fully broken down. You can use the compost straight as it comes or with the worms separated out, in the soil or as mulch, even if it is a bit lumpy. The third method will produce a very finely granulated product with few lumpy bits. If you used woodchips or other high carbon, slow to decompose materials in your compost, and you want a finer material, then separate the worms out and screen the compost through ½ inch wire mesh.
The last year I gardened in east Texas, I grew two-pound carrots. Yes, that’s right. Carrots that weighed in at two pounds each. Of course I had the advantage of an acid sandy soil. No rocks, not even pea gravel, on the place. I had been following the bio-dynamic/French intensive method of gardening for several years. My four-foot wide beds had all been double dug at least once and large amounts of compost added to them. This compost was made up of woodchips and from cleaning out the barn where we kept goats and chickens. It had heated up wonderfully and by the time it was spread on the garden, the worms had also been working on it.
In February with the carrot bed forked up, and as much encroaching Bermuda grass removed as possible, wood ashes were sprinkled on, to help raise the pH and as a source of potash, which is very important for the formation of root crops. Then about two inches of worm castings from under the rabbit cages was spread on top. Imperator carrot seed was sprinkled over the bed and a more castings sprinkled over the top. Some spoiled hay was shaken out over the bed, though not in a solid sheet, just as very light mulch. There was still a lot of soil visible. The carrots sprouted within two weeks and were off and running. The tops were huge. Now conventional garden writers will tell you that you shouldn’t put manure on your carrot bed. It will cause the roots to fork. That manure is too high in nitrogen and you’ll get great big tops and no bottoms. Well, those great big tops grew some great big bottoms! True, it did take them awhile to size up. About 6 weeks after the seeds sprouted, I weeded and thinned the bed. After that the tops were beginning to shade out the weeds and all I had to watch for was Bermuda grass. When they were about three months old they were beginning to get big enough to eat, so I began pulling everything big enough to bother washing and cooking, gradually thinning them farther and farther apart. In the first part of July I pulled the last carrots from that 100-square-foot bed, so I could plant some beans. I was utterly astounded. The tops were two-and-a-half feet tall. The tops of the roots were almost three inches across. I weighed them. They averaged two pounds each. I surely wish I had taken some pictures of those carrots. Nobody believes me. And of course the next year I moved to Arizona where I had to start a new garden.
My current method of using worm castings and worm-processed compost is as follows. I double dig the beds the first year I make them, picking out as many rocks as possible (I now garden on hard-packed caliche, which is full of rocks). I don’t grow root crops on new beds for a couple of years. To make room for the addition of a lot of compost, without raising the beds too high above the paths, I remove a five-gallon bucket of soil from the bottom of each trench as I double-dig. Then I double-dig just once more; the first time I grow carrots, potatoes or parsnips, this time screening the top 12 inches of soil through half-inch hardware cloth, to get rid of the rest of the rocks.
After the bed is raked into shape I add fish meal, for nitrogen, kelp for trace minerals and SulPoMag (sulphate of potash magnesia for potash). I just sprinkle these on top of the soil. I top that with about three to four inches of compost. I water and let the bed settle for a few days then plant seeds or transplants. The compost contains a lot of small worms and eggs. As long as there is compost on top of the bed, the worms will continue to live. They also work on mixing the compost and fertilizers into the soil. This method has produced a tremendous improvement in my soil and my garden. I’m well on my way to growing two pound carrots again!
I am currently experimenting with using worm compost as the major ingredient in the mix for making soil blocks. I also use it as top-dressing and mulch around trees, perennials, and long season vegetables like tomatoes and squash.
Now I don’t promise that you will grow two-pound carrots, but it could happen. I can promise you that raising earthworms will provide you with many opportunities for recycling, for producing a high protein feed for other animals, and will greatly improve your garden.
SOURCES & FURTHER READING
Raising Earthworms Successfully
Worm Castings (Vermicompost) Fertilizer Value
Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up & Maintain a Worm Composting System by Mary Appelhof 2nd ed., rev. and expanded. – Kalamazoo, Mich.: Flower Press, 1997. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN: 0-942256-10-7 1
Raising Earthworms for Profit by Earl B. Shields Paperback – January 1, 1994
The ABC’s of the Earthworm Business by Ruth Myers