VermiComposting – Your Garden’s Best Friends at Work

Mark Purser of The Worm Farm in Durham, CAEarthworms are fascinating creatures, and are certainly one of the most active and commonly known members of the soil food web. They are major players in the realm of decomposers, breaking down organic waste and recycling nutrients obtained from bacteria and fungi growing on decaying matter. They are certainly all-stars in the garden.

Vermicomposting is the natural process of using earthworms and associated micro-organisms to convert organic matter, such as kitchen waste and yard clippings, into a material known as worm castings (worm manure). Earthworm castings are loaded with nutrients that plants thrive on and that are vastly important to healthy soil. Interestingly, worm castings are often richer in nutrients and mico-organisms than the material worms consume to create the castings!

Earthworms perform a number of functions beneficial to soil:

• Stimulate microbial activity
• Mix and aggregate
• Increase porosity
• Improve water-holding capacity
• Provide channels for root growth
• Bury and shred plant residue
Credit: Clive A. Edwards

Facts About Worms

The largest earthworm ever found was in South Africa and measured 22 feet from its nose to the tip of its tail.

The pointed end of an earthworm that looks like a tail is really its head.

Redworms are hungry eating machines; 1 pound of worms (approximately 1,000) can consume and process ½ pound of organic waste every 24 hours!

Earthworms breathe through their skin – their “sliminess” facilitates their ability to absorb oxygen.

Earthworms play a big role in positively affecting soil structure and the way water moves through soil. Their presence in the garden is most often an indicator of a healthy soil system.
Earthworms could be referred to as honeybees of the soil, pollinating soil with beneficial micro-organisms. They act as a kind of mass transit system for aiding the colonization of beneficial soil organisms throughout an area. Earthworms loosen and aerate soil by creating tunnels and turning and mixing the soil as they move around. This increases soil drainage and contributes to the growth of plants, which in turn helps reduce soil erosion.

All these factors also help decrease the amount of water usage needed in the garden – vermicomposting combined with mulching is especially effective in terms of water conservation.

On yet another beneficial level, studies have shown that earthworms can make a 30-50% reduction in heavy metals, such as lead, in contaminated soils; the bacteria living in the guts of earthworms helps break down hazardous materials.

Earthworm species number in the thousands, but the two most common earthworms raised on worm farms are nightcrawlers, commonly raised as bait; and redworms, also raised as bait, but more importantly as composting worms to benefit farms and gardens.

Local (Upper CA) vermicomposting resource:

The Worm Farm in Durham is located 7 miles south of Chico at 9033 Esquon Rd. Owners Mark and Arlita Purser raise redworms (Eisenia fetida) on farmland that has been in their family for 100 years. Currently the farm has 9,600 linear feet of windrows of worms, both indoors and outdoors. The Pursers are dedicated to providing gardeners with a means of producing healthy plants while positively affecting the environment. They sell (and ship) redworms, worm castings, and other soil amendments.

The Worm Farm is a popular field trip destination, offering groups a hands-on tour of the farm, year-round by appointment. Be sure to wear your gardening clothes when visiting!

The Worm Farm also offers Build Your Own Worm Bin workshops, open to all ages and held the first Saturday of each month at 10am.  Ongoing: Mention North State Parent for a special workshop fee of $25 (normally $50). All supplies are included – you/your family will take home a functioning worm bin – complete with bedding and worm residents!

As passionate advocates of organic gardening, the Purser’s and their crew are happy to share their knowledge with anyone wanting to learn more about the benefits of vermicomposting and growing healthier plants, fruits and vegetables. Give them a call at (530) 894-1276, or visit The Worm Farm website for worm related info, including instructions on how to build your own worm bin.

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Mount Shasta writer Lisa Shara is a passionate gardener. She tends to several compost piles that are the birthplace of the many worms she relocates around her garden.

Article appeared in North State Parent magazine, April 2009

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