“The best farmers are gardeners.”
What Is It? Worm farming is an ancient gardening technology dating back to the Middle Ages. The earliest written records appear 8 centuries ago. Back then wealthy farmers fertilized their fields with animal manure. Poor folks used mulches and earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) to keep their gardens productive. Today we call this Continuous Mulching = Year-Round Mulching = Sheet Composting.
What Do I Need? Only simple hand tools are required: Lawn rake, mulch fork, garden cart, 8-quart pail, flash light or lantern, and a scythe or machete to cut grass and weeds. For large gardens or truck farms a lawnmower or forage chopper are helpful.
How To Do It: Keep soil covered with at least 8 inches of mulch year-round = 365 days annually. Do not leave soil bare, not even for a single day. Pull aside mulch just enough to sow seeds or set transplants. When plants are established pull mulch close around their stems. Apply mulch periodically to maintain 8 to 12-inch depth. (Mulch settles to half its original depth in a few weeks).
“Feed the worms and the worms will tend your crops.”
Pile It On! Weeds, tree leaves, spoiled hay, straw, grass clippings, hedge trimmings, garden wastes, stable bedding, wood chips, saw dust, bark or other natural plant materials all make good mulch. Fresh vegetation is ideal as green leaves rot quickly and contain the most nutrients. If possible, use a variety of mulches to provide plants and earthworms with a balanced diet.
Fertilizer Not Required! Soil amendments are rarely needed if garden is covered with a mixture of plant materials. (Each type of mulch contains an assortment of nutrients). Sprinkle lime, wood ash, rock dust, or other plant food over mulch as desired. Water fertilizer into mulch or wait for rain. Cover manure with mulch to eliminate odor and keep flies away.
“Weeds are the shepherds of the garden.”
Weed Management: If any weeds poke through the mulch, thin them until they stand 3 to 4 feet apart. Widely spaced weeds help crops grow better. Weeds provide food, shelter and alternate hosts for beneficial insects. The good bugs eat the bad bugs. Weedy gardens rarely have pest problems. (If you do not have any weeds plant flowers among your vegetables).
“Sow worms and seeds for bumper crops.”
Seeding Earthworms: The night before planting take your pail and lantern to a nearby pasture, meadow or corn field. Place 1 gallon of leaf mold, compost or damp peat moss in the bucket to keep earthworms moist. Common earthworms come out of their burrows to feed at night so they are easy to catch. When you have gathered sufficient worms (4 per square foot of garden), cover pail with a wet towel then place in deep shade until ready to sow. Drop 2 to 4 earthworms in each planting hole or linear foot of furrow. Cover gently with damp soil.
Population Ecology: Earthworms do not travel fast; a colony spreads only 3 feet yearly. Seeding your garden with earthworms jump-starts the colonization process. Earthworms reproduce slowly; the average worm takes 2 to 3 years to reach sexual maturity. Thus, the more worms you start with, the faster the population reaches critical mass = enough worms to substantially increase crop yields. In most soils the tipping point is somewhere between 1 and 2 tons = 1 to 2 million earthworms per acre = 23 to 46 worms per cubic foot of topsoil. (Under ideal conditions worm populations can soar to 8 tons per acre).
Critical mass is reached when crops no longer need external fertilizers (organic or synthetic). At this point, populations of soil micro-organisms explode and nutrient cycling is so rapid that crops show no yield response to plant food. This process requires time, typically 12 to 15 years = 4 to 5 generations of earthworms before fields can sustain commercial yields without added nutrients.
All this requires massive amounts of mulch applied 8 to 12 inches thick (which effectively limits this technology to small areas). Earthworms eat organic matter. More mulch = more worms = more plant growth = higher yields. Earthworms need protein in their diets. For example, populations double when worms eat clover rather than hay. If practical, include nitrogen fixing legumes (clover, peas, beans and lentils) in garden mulches, or supplement with animal manure, weed seed meal, or fresh, green leaves.
“Good farmers grow fungi. The fungi grow the crops.”
Soil Science: Healthy farm or garden soils contain at least 8,000 pounds of “critters” per acre, about the weight of 8 dairy cows. All these hungry mouths eat organic matter. Covering the ground with mulch provides abundant food for the underground “herd”, especially earthworms and fungi.
Earthworms are a keystone species. You can measure soil health simply by counting worms. Many worms = strong soil. Few worms = sick soil. No worms = dead dirt. Well managed organic soils contain 1 million worms per acre or approximately 23 earthworms per cubic foot of topsoil. Earthworms aerate the ground and produce enough castings (manure) to grow commercial crops of anything you want to plant.
Beneficial fungi comprise about 70% of all soil life. Microscopic, thread-like hyphae connect all plants into a field-wide web, an underground “Internet” of roots and fungi that share water and nutrients. Plowing or cultivation destroys the fungal network, slowing plant growth and reducing yields. Mulching protects helpful fungi by keeping soil cool and moist. Constant moisture and moderate temperatures favor optimal fungal growth.
“Would you go to war with half an army? Most conventional farmers waste half their soil.”
The top 2 inches of soil contain the most oxygen and organic matter. This is the powerhouse of the soil ecology. Over half of all soil critters live in this thin, upper layer. Anything that disturbs this “topsoil” greatly reduces plant growth and yields. For example: Cultivation rips up the earth = the soil becomes too hot and too dry = plant roots cannot live in this hostile environment = the farmer wastes his best dirt.
“Cultivation is the same as scraping off the top 2 inches of soil. Dumb idea.”
A continuous mulch is like an insulating blanket that moderates the underground environment. Earth does not freeze in winter or bake in summer. Pores stay open so air and water penetrate deep into the subsoil. Wind and water erosion are eliminated. Weed competition is controlled. The entire soil profile is accessible to plant roots. All these factors promote life and speed nutrient cycling. Soil critters thrive and plants grow better.
Ramp It Up! Worm farming is best suited to small areas (because mulch is gathered by hand). For large areas grow mulch crops like Forage Maize (Zea mays) or Sorghum Grass (Sorghum sudanense) then harvest with a forage chopper. Cart mulch to where it is needed then spread by hand or use a mechanical mulch spreader. Purchase earthworms or earthworm egg capsules from a commercial worm farm. Seed not less than 6 worms every 30 feet = about 300 worms per acre. At this distance it will take 10 years to colonize 1 acre (209 x 209 feet, approximately). To colonize an acre in 1 year, drop 6 worms every 3 feet (about 30,000 worms per acre). Cover worms with damp soil and mulch to protect them from predators.
“Who needs Monsanto? Grow mulch crops and never buy herbicides again.”
Mulch-In-Place: Mulching large fields by hand is not practical; the cost of labor and materials is too high. The solution is to grow a mulch crop right where it is needed. This is called Mulch-In-Place. Sow Winter Rye = Grain Rye = Cereal Rye = Secale cereale at 3 bushels = 168 pounds per acre. Kill mulch crop with a roller-crimper or sickle-bar mower when plants grow 6 feet tall or when seeds reach the “soft dough” stage. Immediately (the same day) seed or transplant through the mulch using no till equipment. Mix earthworm egg capsules (175,000 per acre = 4 per square foot) with cornmeal or similar carrier then side-band down the row or deposit directly in furrows.
If desired, you can seed 8 to 12 pounds per acre of Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) along with your cash crop. Clover fills any holes in the mulch and provides high-protein earthworm food.
6-foot rye yields 5 tons = 10,000 pounds of long-straw mulch per acre, sufficient to provide 90% to 95% weed control for 6 to 8 weeks. This gives your crop enough time to close rows. Once the crop canopy closes, weeds are shaded and no cultivation or spraying is necessary.
Agronomy Note: Mulch-In-Place works with most any cover crop that grows at least 6 feet high and yields 4 to 5 tons = 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of biomass (leaves and stems) per acre. The best mulch crops are grasses like Forage Maize (Zea mays) and Sudan Grass (Sorghum sudanense) because they take longer to rot than broad leaved plants.
Mix It Up! Just like people, earthworms thrive on varied diets. Earthworm populations double every 2 to 3 years on fields where multiple species cover crops are grown. For best results sow mixtures of warm and cool season mulch crops including grasses, broad leaved plants, legumes, root crops, and wild flowers. More plant diversity = more earthworms = higher yields.
“The best soil test is a spade full of dirt. If the soil teems with life you will get a good crop.”
Sometimes old ways are the best. 800 years ago, worm farming was a great idea. Today, this technology is an integral part of the New Green Revolution. Try this on your own land: Compare side-by-side plots, mulched versus clean cultivated gardens. You will be amazed at the difference. Year-round mulching really is the easiest way to farm or garden small areas.
Related Publications: Managing Weeds as Cover Crops; Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer; Trash Farming; No-Till Hungarian Stock Squash; Earthworm Primer; Planting Maize with Living Mulches; Living Mulches for Weed Control; Crops Among the Weeds; Forage Maize for Soil Improvement; and The Edge Effect.
Would You Like To Know More? Please visit: http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.com — or — send your questions to: Eric Koperek, Editor, World Agriculture Solutions, 413 Cedar Drive, Moon Township, Pennsylvania, 15108 United States of America — or — send an e-mail to: Eric Koperek = email@example.com