Earthworms are a great indicator of soil health. When you dig in and see earthworms you know the soil is alive and healthy. They provide a variety of benefits such as breaking down organic residues, making nutrients more available to plants, improving water penetration, soil stability and soil aeration. They are the natural composters of the soil and play an important role in an entire ecosystem that you cannot see.
As earthworms digest all the organic surface litter, they produce a natural byproduct known as “castings.” Castings are rich in organic matter and nutrients that are beneficial to plant development and can contain five to 10 times the soluble plant nutrients than the original soil. If you have earthworms, then this is happening naturally in your soil and benefiting your plants, but there is also a way to maintain worms and produce additional castings to add where needed.
Vermiculture or worm composting is a method of composting that utilizes earthworms and food waste from your kitchen to create a rich compost that can be used as an organic fertilizer to amend the soil or as a planting medium for container plants. The Red Wiggler (Eisenia foetida) is most commonly used in vermicomposting as they reproduce quickly, can adapt to many different living environments and eat almost any type of organic matter.
One pound of worms (around 1000) can consume up to 1/2 a pound of food per day reducing up to 90% of kitchen food waste. They will eat most fruits and vegetables — both raw and cooked — and like coffee and tea grounds, as well as egg shells, bread, etc. However, there are some items you want to avoid. Worms breathe through their skin and some types of food will irritate them, additionally they don’t like the pH to get too acidic.
Avoid dairy, meat products, canned sauces, spicy foods, citrus, garlic/onions, colored or glossy paper, soap and yard trimmings that have been treated with chemicals.
While in many areas you can keep your vermicomposting bin outdoors, the ideal temperature range is from 60 to 80 degrees. They don’t like extreme temperatures and will stop reproducing and even die off once temperatures get below freezing or above 90. It’s recommended to find a cool, shady place to store your worm bin, perhaps in the garage or even under the kitchen sink.
When it comes to creating your bin there are a variety of DIY options or readymade ones that you can order. In the beginning, the most difficult part is making sure your worm to food waste ratio is appropriate, too many worms and not enough food will lead to poor reproduction and in turn it will take a long time to make castings.
Conversely, too much food and not enough worms and the food will spoil and start smelling. If you can start out with a good ratio you should have some “black gold” or worm castings to spread in your garden within three months.
If you are interested in learning more about vermicomposting and how to make your own bin join the Master Gardeners on Saturday, May 11 for a Worm Composting workshop. To register, call the Hidalgo County Extension Office at (956) 383-1026.
Ashley Gregory is the Horticulturalist for Hidalgo County with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. She can be reached at the Hidalgo County Extension Office at (956) 383-1026 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.