Palaces For The People
Monday, September 22, 2003
Growing Earthworms


Some Helpful Facts About Finding and Raising Earthworms
Because of the recent interest in knowing more about earthworms for home gardening, market gardening, and poultry feeding, I will share a few facts.

Earthworms may be bought from many suppliers at a fairly wide range of prices. You can, however, usually locate a starter breeding stock locally at no cost or at nominal expense in most parts of the temperate U.S.A.

The ideal earthworms are "red wrigglers", or "manure worms", known by the scientific name of "Eisenia Foetida". These worms commonly inhabit manure piles and compost heaps, usually at the bottom layers around the edges. Since they require well-aerated moist surroundings, these are the places to look for them. Rabbit manure piles are often free for the hauling (you load) at rabbit farms, and are particular favorite dwelling places for red worms.

There is an ample literature of manuals for raising red worms, especially by Shields Publications. One ought to get several of these books from the local library and read them before experimenting on your own.

Raising the worms is not difficult. One sheet of (recycled) plywood or OSB ripped into three strips of 18 inches by 8 feet long, where one strip is further divided into two 4 foot lengths, will side a wormery for less than $10 investment. (Use recycled scraps of 2"x4"s to join the corners.) Another sheet of plywood or OSB can make the top cover. This 32 square foot wormery can produce an eventual steady supply of 24 to 48 pounds of surplus worms every three months, plus also yield a ton of high-value plant fertilizer (worm "castings") quarterly. (Pure worm castings, sold in 1 cubic foot plastic bags, retail for $9.27 at Harmony Farm Supply catalog in Sebastopol, California. The wormery example described above produces 32 cubic feet of these castings every 90 days.)

Those people needing larger productivity of worm yields or plant fertilizers can make a second, third, or many more additional worm bins.

Insulating the worm bins against cold weather can be done simply and inexpensively. Straw bales or spoiled hay bales (about $1 each throughout many parts of the USA) have an insulation value of R24 to R47 rating depending on whether they are laid strings up or strings sideways. These bales, after weathering out in the rain and snow all winter, can then be added to the wormery as bedding for next crops of worms in nicer weather. Adding fresh manures into the (insulated) wormery generates bioheat which can keep the worms active and productive all winter in their nice warm, energy-cost-free wormery.

Manures normally would be heaped along one half of the wormery, giving the worms the option of burrowing into it or retreating out of it depending on the temperature of the bioheat of the bacterial decompostion of the manures. If frosts occur slowly enough, earthworms can freeze solid and return to life when thawed, but fast frozen worms will be killed from ice crystals which puncture the cells -- these will never regain life.

Worms prefer moderate temperatures aound 72 degrees Farenheit, and in nature are most productive (procreative) in the spring and fall. Protection from summer heat is as important as protection from winter cold. Freezing and drying-out both will absolutely kill earthworms, although their eggs survive these conditions for much longer than the worms themselves do.

It takes five months growth before any worm can enter reproductive activity, but much longer to finish to full adult growth. Worms can only mate with other worms about their own size, so 5 month old worms cannot mate with 12 month old worms because of the size differences.

However, every two worms of the similar size can cross-mate, with each one fertilizing the other and both getting pregnant. Eggs are emitted in small capsules, containing 1 to 24 eggs each. The average is said to be 2 eggs per capsule, but that varies according to how favorable conditions are kept for the worms. From the mating act to egg hatching takes about 30 days, but the capsules are shed in 10 days, allowing multiple matings per worm per month. As you can see, if given favorable conditions, worms can multiply very quickly.

Worms purchased from mail order houses will vary from all mature adult breeders to mixtures containing all ages from fresh hatched to adult. The mail order quantities will be about 1,000/pound of adults to 2,000/pound "bed run" (mixtures of all ages). Worms procured from manure piles will be similarly mixtures of all ages.

The important thing to remember is that every worm will eat its weight in food daily, regardless of how small or how large it is, and many small worms will contribute the same value of worm castings as any equal weight of full grown breeders. As feed stock for poultry they also are equal, pound for pound regardless of size.

Since it takes five months of growing before initial breeding, there is an waiting period before regular harvesting should begin, but once one has a plentiful supply of all ages in the pipeline, then harvesting may continue perpetually.

Feeding the earthworms, and providing them "soilless bedding", are areas of much diversity and exuberant claims. Consensus among successful long-time worm breeders (multi-million worm operations continuing for many years) is that cardboard makes an ideal bedding and adequate feedstock, straw makes a good bedding but poor feed, rabbit manure is best feed followed by horse manure mixed with stall bedding.

The internet is full of websites showing worms bedded on compost, garbage, shredded paper, fed all manner of grass clippings, cafeteria wastes, supermarket spoilages and crop residues. At some point, every organic thing is in a condition of decay suitable for toothless worms to process.

Eathworm castings can be used as mulch around the base of plants, where watering carries nutrients down to the feeder rootlets. Plants have been shown to rapidly colonize worm casting with dense networks of roothairs. Visually, plants can be observed to "perk up" within a day or two of application. There is no toxic limit of worm castings, and they will not cause "fertilizer burn" no matter how much you use. Plants can be grown in pure castings, although I am not recommending this, nor suggesting it, merely citing that it has been demonstrated by credible scientists. There is no danger to plants by using any amounts of worm castings, and interesting scientific findings showing markedly improved growth of plants by feeding them small amounts of worm castings has been demonstrated by top university scientists.

I hope someone finds these facts interesting and helpful in getting started down the road of freedom away from dependancy on store-bought factory-made fertilizers that damage the future.

Sincerely, Lion Kuntz
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