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The amazing work of worms.

Wiggly worms play a vital role in our environment!

They eat and eat and eat, turning waste into something wonderful called compost. And one tigerworm and its offspring can breed 1500 worms in one year. In the right conditions they’ll eat their own weight in food every day!

"Wormhouse". Making a worm farm is one way you can help the environment around you. It’s also a fascinating way of learning about these tiny workers, which burrow away in the soil under our feet.

Worms might be small but they’re important because they eat organic material and soil and make it into humus or topsoil in which plants grow best.

Special types of worms are needed for worm farms. These are not usually the ones found in the garden.

Two types of composting worms are the red worm (Lumbricus rubellus) and tiger worm (Eisenia foetida).

The red worm prefers the top five centimetres of soil, especially where there are lots of dead leaves on the ground. Earthworms found in cowpats and horse manure are almost always these red worms.

The tiger worm has red and yellow stripes on its body and prefers to work in surface areas under rotting vegetation, manure and in compost. They often wriggle vigorously when they are in your hand.

According to the book, Earthworms in New Zealand, there are 192 species of earthworms in New Zealand. Most of these are native species.

However, only about eight species have a major role in improving our pastures, horticultural land and gardens. These are all introduced species. The native worms prefer the native bush where they have grown to love their special habitats.

The other species are earthworkers, which are able to burrow deep in dry conditions. They are better equipped to survive in the sometimes harsh conditions in the soil and garden. Composting worms will not survive for long in the soil unless the conditions are right. They need manure, organic material, moisture and oxygen. If these are provided, they are very quick to breed and produce a lot of castings, which are great for the garden.

Worms help to increase the amount of air and water in soil. They help to ``turn’’ the soil by taking down organic matter from the top and mixing it with the soil below. Their burrowing creates natural drainage systems. The presence of worms shows the soil is healthy. Worms can compost rubbish faster than any other type of composting method.

About worms

What do you know about worms?

Compost filled with worms busy breaking down organic matter from a worm bin. The body of an earthworm is made up of rings or segments. These segments shrink and stretch to help worms move through the ground. They do not have eyes, ears or legs. They have five hearts.

The main body parts are the mouth, head end, tail end, saddle and bristles. Setae (bristles) are tiny hairs that cover each segment to give the earthworm grip as it slides forward. Earthworms are composed mostly of water and have no bones. They use muscles to contract the different segments of the body and move along.

Earthworms take soil and organic material in through their mouth. The material passes through the body and emerges through an opening in the tail end as castings. These make great fertiliser. Worms are hermaphrodites, which means they have both male and female reproductive organs. One earthworm and its offspring can build a population of 1000 to 1500 earthworms within a year.

The skin of an earthworm is very sensitive to sunlight. Earthworms breathe through their skin so they must stay moist and out of direct heat or light.

If an earthworm loses part of its body, it is sometimes possible to regrow its tail if less then a third of the rear end has been cut.

How to make a home for worms

There are lots of ways to set up a worm farm.

One way is to build or obtain a wood or plastic bin. Drill holes in two sides and on the bottom. Use a piece of flat wood or plastic sheet to cover the bin.

Moisten newspaper with water and place in the bottom. Sprinkle in some eggshells. Place worms in the box. Bury about 250-500 grams of food scraps once a week. Make sure to rotate the placement of the food.

The worm bedding should be changed every three to six months. Remove newly made compost and replace with newspaper strips.

Old carpet can be really useful to lie on top of the worms and their food. This provides welcome darkness for the wrigglers and helps them keep their cool.

When the worms have finished eating the available food and converted it into castings, tip the compost, worms and any newspaper scraps on to the garden.

Worm farms shouldn’t be too wet, neither should they be too dry. Experiment if you don’t quite get it right first time.

What do worms like to eat?

Mmmm… yummy worm food. Well, the worms like to eat it! Earthworms will eat anything organic – that comes from nature – as long as it can be broken down and is kept damp. They cannot eat dry food.

Worms will eat newspaper, cardboard, compost, dead leaves, crushed egg shells, vacuum cleaner dust, rolled oats, weeds, lawn clippings, peat moss, coconut fibre, carpet or underfelt. Other ideas for worm food are waste from vegetable juicers, soaked and ripped pizza boxes, paper, tissues, dirt, hair, cardboard fast food packaging, potato peelings, apple cores and pea pods.

Composted animal manures are a great food source for earthworms. However, chicken manure should be avoided because it is too strong.

Earthworms also like to eat vegetable or fruit scraps. It is best if the food is in small pieces.

Think carefully about how big your worm farm has to be so you can get the right balance between the number of worms and the quantity of food you’ve got to feed them. Too much and there’ll be clumps of rotting food the worms can’t keep up with. Too little and they’ll starve.

You may like to try putting the worms’ food on to the top of their home in a rotational pattern, setting aside set areas each time you feed the worms and not simply heaping the waste on to the worm farm higgledy-piggledy.

Worms don’t particularly like acidic foods such as oranges, lemons, grapefruit, tomatoes and strong-smelling foods such as onions and garlic. They don’t like the smell and they’ll climb out of their compost bin to get away from it. It is best not to give them meat scraps or dairy products, as the compost bin is likely to become smelly and attract rats and mice.

Some other things that definitely don't belong in a worm farm are plastic bags, bottle caps, rubber bands, sponges, aluminium foil and glass.

How much do they eat?

In the right conditions, earthworms can eat their own weight in food every day. For example, 1kg of earthworms can eat 1kg of food every day.

It is important to calculate how much food is needed in a compost bin. If there is too much food for the earthworms to eat, the compost bin will become smelly. The worms will not be able to process the food before it starts to rot.

What happens next?

Worm poo is vermicastings, shown above, which makes great fertiliser for the garden.Food in – compost out! Once the worms have gobbled through the food scraps, they process them into worm poo or castings. There are two byproducts from a worm farm – vermicasts and liquid "worm tea".

Vermicasts are a high quality soil conditioner and can be added to the garden or pot plants.

Worm tea is the liquid waste from the worms. It’s not for drinking! Worm tea is also a good fertiliser and can be sprayed over the garden with a watering can.

keeping the worm farm disease free.

Maintain your worm farm with organic disease free scrapes, plant matter and manure, to insure you are not spreading disease around your garden via vermicast.

See if you happen to feed your worms something that has disease, it could potentially spread to your garden though the compost and liquid fertiliser you use from the worm farm.

box by box

Once my worm farm is established i like to maintain it in bulk box by box instead of adding little by little everyday.

i'll add plant matter, manure then cardboard and layer it three times, like as if i was making a compost pile but in my worm farm box and check it monthly over winter, but in the warm summer months i will check it every two weeks. Adding in more bulk additions as needed until the box is full of rich vermi compost.