Gardening With Red Worms

July 14, 2009

Bean Garden & Red Worm Habitat
These may look like your average straw-mulched gardens, but…

…they’re NOT! 😆

During the several years of writing about vermicomposting online I’ve been asked quite a few times about adding worms to gardens/lawns to help improve soil quality, plant vigor etc. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to have the notion in their heads that if they simply add worms to their barren soil miracles will happen.

Add to that the fact that the composting species (the worms I write about and sell) typically don’t do all that well in soil – being adapted for life in rich, organic materials – and the outlook becomes pretty bleak. The really sad part is that some unscrupulous (or perhaps overly optimistic?) compost worm dealers will actually still sell worms to people wanting to introduce them to their soil…[sigh]…but that is an entire subject unto itself!

Of course, what people should actually be focusing on is improving their soil so that more worms move into the area (obviously if you live in an area completely devoid of earthworms you may in fact need to introduce some – but you definitely need to create a good habitat first!) – and the key to success??


I’m sure everyone remembers that famous line from ‘Field of Dreams’ – “If you build it, they will come”! Well, the same holds true for your soil – build it up with lots of organic matter, and native earthworms will gravitate towards it (again, unless of course there are none within miles of your location). Common sources of organic matter include grass clippings & fall leaves, but there are countless other possibilities such as manure, peat moss, straw etc.

OK – so that is basically how you get your regular ‘garden variety’ of soil worms to increase in numbers and improve your soil. But what about composting worms? Is it AT ALL possible to add them to your gardens – and more importantly, KEEP them in your gardens?

I’m happy to report that the answer is indeed yes…with a little bit of extra work and care on your part, that is!

I’ve written previously (here and elsewhere) about my ‘vermicomposting trenches‘. This is certainly a prime example of how you can basically introduce composting worms into your garden. I love this approach because it’s not only great for your plants but it also represents an excellent approach for keeping populations of Red Worms (Eisenia fetida) outdoors. Unlike keeping worms outside in plastic ‘worm bins’ (a definitely ‘no no’ unless in the shade, and brought in for the winter), a trench is the ultimate protective habitat. In the summer it will stay fairly cool and moist, and in the winter (with a little extra protection) it will keep your worms alive during subzero weather.

Are trenches (and the closely related pits) the only option for gardening with Red Worms?

This is a question I’ve set out to answer this year, and I am optimistic that the answer will be a resounding “NO”!

There are a couple of main approaches I am in the process of testing out. The first involves what I like to think of as a ‘living mulch’ system. The image above shows a bean garden that has been set up in this manner. Essentially, the idea is that you not only mix lots of rich organic matter (in my case, horse manure and grass clippings) into the soil, but you also then add a layer of Red Worm habitat over top of the soil. This is then covered with straw to help keep moisture in (and the worms alive/active).

This so-called ‘habitat’ is the material I refer to as ‘compost ecosystem‘ – basically bedding/food material that most of the larger worms have been removed from. It is typically loaded with cocoons and baby worms, and usually has quite a lot of good vermicompost in it as well. Apart from the relatively thin Red Worm ‘biosphere’ on the soil surface, I’ve also been adding the ecosystem material to the planting holes, thus providing the worms with sheltered retreats during hot/dry spells (not to mention providing the young plants with a great environment in-which to kickstart their growth).

So far I have been REALLY impressed with the results! In all honesty I have never been able to grow good bean plants – they always seem to be stunted or distorted, and end up producing a pitiful crop (same goes with peas). This year I vowed to become ‘master of the legumes’ (haha), and while I don’t think I’ll quite live up to the title, I do look like I’m on my way to having a bountiful crop of beans and peas. Obviously, I can’t say for sure how much of my success is due to my Red Worm gardening methods, and how much is simply due to better gardening techniques in general – but my hunch is that the worms are definitely helping!

How exactly?

Red Worms are an asset to your plants because they greatly help to speed up the break down of organic matter into humus and plant-available nutrients. Microbes of course are doing their lion’s share of the work, but without the worms mechanical fragmentation abilities, and unique gut environment it just wouldn’t happen nearly as quickly, or result in a material quite a special as worm castings.

Moving on to my second (new) Red Worm gardening approach…

Another method I am trying essentially involves growing plants in open vermicomposting systems. I was inspired to start doing this on purpose after several years of watching healthy plants grow out of my wooden backyard worm bin on their own (to read more about this be sure to check out these posts on the Red Worm Composting blog: Compost Bin Potatoes & Compost Bin Tomatoes).

I’ve written already about my ‘Worm Bed Potato Gardens‘ over at RWC as well. Initially, I wasn’t all that optimistic about my chances of success with this approach. I assumed that the continual settling of material in the bins, coupled with the constant worm movement down below would make for a very unstable (and thus unfriendly) growing zone for the roots/tubers of the beans and potatoes planted in the systems.

Worm Bin Potato Box
Young potato and bean plants seem to be enjoying the compost-rich habitat provided by this worm box

On the vermicomposting side of the equation, I also worried that the boxes would get too hot sitting in directly sunlight during the summer.

I must say that I am definitely feeling a lot more optimistic about this approach now, several weeks after getting started. In fact, I’ve come to realize that this may very well be a downright excellent approach for growing potatoes. As a few people have pointed out, a great way to stimulate more tuber growth is to continue heaping up organic matter and soil against the stem of the plant. Well as it turns out, in the case of my worm bin potato boxes, this is exactly what is going to be happening. As the worms lower the level of organic matter in the bin, I will be continuing to add ‘food’ (in this case bedded horse manure) on top, so all the plants in the boxes will end up with pretty long stems, mostly buried in organic matter. I’m not sure this will be quite so favourable for the beans, but they do seem to be doing reasonably well, so we’ll see how it pans out.

Speaking of beans…

Laundry Line Bean Planter

Another set of these planter-worm-bins are sitting at the base of my laundry line posts, and are being used to test the growth of pole beans. My hope is that I’ll end up with a massive overhanging growth of various runner beans. Apart from the laundry lines themselves, I’ll be adding some lines of twine between the two posts as well, so as to provide the beans with more growing space.

I’ve often felt guilty about not using the laundry lines for their intended use a lot more often, but at least this way they are being used for SOMETHING!

I should mention that the set-up of these bean boxes was somewhat different from the potato boxes. All I did in the case of the potato systems was fill wooden boxes with partially composted horse manure containing loads of Red Worms. With the bean planters I first added a thick layer of aged horse manure, then added peat moss and coffee grounds (with crushed egg shells to help offset the acidity of these materials), and finally topped everything with the ‘compost ecosystem’ material I talked about earlier. Aside from not having enough ecosystem material to fill both planters, I also wanted to make sure that the systems didn’t settle too much, thus behaving a little more like a normal planting box.

As mentioned, I’m feeling pretty optimistic about my chances of success with the crops in my various ‘Red Worm gardens’, but we shall see how everything pans out over the long haul!

Stay tuned – I’ll definitely be providing updates!

[tags]gardening, potatoes, beans, legumes, red worms, vermicomposting, worm composting, worm bin, compost bin, composting, compost, vermicompost, worm castings, organic gardening, worm bed, raised beds, planters[/tags]


One Response to “Gardening With Red Worms”

  1. Toni Lorona on May 25th, 2013 11:20 pm

    My approach, which is working for about 4 years now, is a bit similar. Been container gardening for over a decade. I have a lot of large containers with a lot of different kinds of plants. I enrich purchased potting soil with home-made compost. Sometimes when I lift a pot, I will find red worms writhing on the ground, or on the underside of the pot. I relocated those worms to a the top of a container- create a little depression for them first– then cover with kitchen scraps. Cover that with a large piece of bark, or newspaper and then a flat rock. Water a bit. Every now and then, add some more vegetable scraps. I’ve been doing this for quite a while, and it works because I see the worms castings on top. I do not add commercial fertilizer, yet my container plants thrive. When I need to report, I see a lot of red worms in the container. I relocate them, and start again.

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