How earthworms can help your soil

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hecno

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Little is known about the behaviour of earthworms in Australia. Much of the research that has been done has been carried out in southern Australia, where the climate and soils are quite different to the NSW North Coast. For this reason, this information is very general in its approach. However, the principles established from research on earthworm ecology can be applied generally to most soils and climates.

Benefits of earthworms
By their activity in the soil, earthworms offer many benefits: increased nutrient availability, better drainage, and a more stable soil structure, all of which help improve farm productivity.

  • Improved nutrient availability
    Worms feed on plant debris (dead roots, leaves, grasses, manure) and soil. Their digestive system concentrates the organic and mineral constituents in the food they eat, so their casts are richer in available nutrients than the soil around them. Nitrogen in the casts is readily available to plants. Worm bodies decompose rapidly, further contributing to the nitrogen content of soil.

    New Zealand research shows that worm casts release four times more phosphorus than does surface soil. Worms often leave their nutrient-rich casts in their tunnels, providing a favourable environment for plant root growth. The tunnels also allow roots to penetrate deeper into the soil, where they can reach extra moisture and nutrients. Earthworm tunnelling can help incorporate surface applied lime and fertiliser into the soil.
  • Improved drainage
    The extensive channelling and burrowing by earthworms loosens and aerates the soil and improves soil drainage. Soils with earthworms drain up to 10 times faster than soils without earthworms. In zero-till soils, where worm populations are high, water infiltration can be up to 6 times greater than in cultivated soils. Earthworm tunnels also act, under the influence of rain, irrigation and gravity, as passageways for lime and other material.
  • Improved soil structure
    Earthworm casts cement soil particles together in water-stable aggregates. These are able to store moisture without dispersing. Research has shown that earthworms which leave their casts on the soil surface rebuild topsoil. In favourable conditions they can bring up about 50 t/ha annually, enough to form a layer 5 mm deep. One trial found worms built an 18-cm thick topsoil in 30 years.
  • Improved productivity
    Research into earthworms in New Zealand and Tasmania found earthworms introduced to worm-free perennial pastures produced an initial increase of 70–80% in pasture growth, with a long-term 25% increase: this raised stock carrying capacity. Researchers also found that the most productive pastures in the worm trials had up to 7 million worms per hectare, weighing 2.4 tonnes. There was a close correlation between pasture productivity and total worm weight, with some 170 kg of worms for every tonne of annual dry matter production.
How to encourage earthworms
Because earthworms do not like soil that is too acid, alkaline, dry, wet, hot or cold, their presence is a good indicator of soil conditions suitable for plant growth.

  • Ensure soil pH (CaCl2) is above 4.5
    Earthworms do not like acid soils with pH (CaCl2))* less than 4.5. The addition of lime raises pH and also adds calcium. Earthworms need a continuous supply of calcium, so are absent in soils low in this element. South Australian research found that earthworm numbers doubled when pH(CaCl2) rose from 4.1 to 6.7.
    • pH can be measured in water or calcium chloride (CaCl2). The CaC12 method is more accurate and gives values of about 0.5–0.8 lower than water pH. A pH(CaCl2) of 4.5 measures about 5.0–5.3 in water.
  • Increase organic matter
    Earthworms feed on soil and dead or decaying plant remains, including straw, leaf litter and dead roots. They are the principal agents in mixing dead surface litter with the soil, making the litter more accessible to decomposition by soil microorganisms. Animal dung is also an attractive food for many species of earthworms. The following farming practices provide food for earthworms.
    • Permanent pasture: Permanent pasture provides organic matter as leaves and roots die and decay. Pasture slashings and manure from grazing animals are also good sources of organic matter in pasture.
    • Green manure crops: Green manure crops are fodder crops turned into the soil to provide organic matter to benefit the following crop. The crops are grazed or slashed, sometimes pulverised, and then left on the surface or turned into the soil.
    • Crop stubble: Stubble is an important source of organic matter. Burning stubble destroys surface organic matter, and this affects worm numbers. It is best to leave stubble to rot down, and sow following crops into the stubble using aerial sowing, direct drill or (at least) minimum tillage. All these techniques mean less cultivation, and this also encourages earthworms.
    • Rotations: Rotating pasture with crops helps build up organic matter levels and earthworm numbers.
  • Reduce use of some fertilisers and fungicides
    Highly acidifying fertilisers such as ammonium sulfate and some fungicides reduce worm numbers. Researchers have found that orchards sprayed with bordeaux or other copper sprays contain few earthworms and have peaty surface mats and poor soil structure.
  • Keep soil moist
    Worms can lose 20% of their body weight each day in mucus and castings, so they need moisture to stay alive. Groundcover such as pasture or stubble reduces moisture evaporation. Decaying organic matter (humus) holds moisture in the soil. In dry times some species burrow deep into the soil and are inactive until rain 'reactivates' them.
  • Improve drainage
    Worms need reasonably aerated soil, so you may need to drain or mound soil in wetter areas to prevent waterlogging.
  • Reduce soil compaction
    It is difficult for earthworms to move through heavily compacted soil, so keep vehicle and animal traffic to a minimum in wet conditions.
  • Reduce cultivation
    Ploughing soil reduces earthworm numbers. Researchers have found that after four years, zero-tilled paddocks had twice as many worms as cultivated soils. However, shallow cultivation may not affect worm numbers.
  • Protect from climatic extremes
    Earthworms are intolerant of drought and frost, and do not like dry sandy soils. They are active only when the soil is moist, and are inactive when it is dry. Organic matter cover helps reduce the effect of climatic extremes, and retains soil moisture.
How to introduce earthworms
  • Change management practices
    If you do not have many earthworms in your soil, introduce some of the practices described above. It is surprising how quickly they build up in favourable conditions.
  • Transplant pasture
    Cut pasture sods from areas with high worm populations and transfer them to worm-free areas. New colonies will establish within a couple of years as long as there is plenty of organic matter and soil and climatic conditions are favourable. It is important that you transplant pasture, not just worms. Do not try and transplant compost worms into agricultural soils. Species that thrive in compost will not survive the harsher conditions of paddock soils, which dry near the surface.
 

NebulaNuggets

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Found some good info on worms, mulch and the use of wood so I thought I'd post it here:



Other Incredible Benefits of Wood Chips
When you use wood chips you not only radically increase the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, the wood chips also attract earthworms, which create vermicompost—one of the best composts on the planet. I believe the mistake most people make with vermicompost is to purchase it or create it by establishing earthworm farms. Then they have to spend loads of time collecting and spreading it. It is far more efficient to feed the worms that are already in your soil. They love wood chips and leaves and rapidly reproduce. You can easily create many tons of free compost every year right where you need it most, under your plants, with no effort on your part!

Wood chips also virtually eliminate the need for expensive soil testing. Most tests are seriously antiquated as they have no measure of the quality of the soil microbes. They are artifacts of an ancient era when farming was thought to be a chemical experiment. Wood chips will normalize whatever soil you have. Paul recently had his soil tested after decades of using wood chips, and most of his nutrient levels were literally 10 times higher than what is normally considered “great,” yet he never adds any fertilizers.

“Listen to these numbers,” Paul says. “On the test, you get two lines – the desired level that you want, and your lab results. The nitrates: the desired level was 40; my lab result was 120. Phosphorous, the desired level is 174; mine is 2,345. Potassium, the desired level is 167; mine is 1,154. Coming down to the smaller numbers: zinc, the desired level is 1.6; mine 21.5. What I love about this is I didn’t do anything!”

Another major benefit is the elimination of fertilizers. One of the reasons why industrial agriculture is so damaging is their use of chemical salts that decimate the soil microbes.

“When things are healthy in nature, no bug touches it,” Paul says. “Bugs and insects only attack dehydrated, stressed, and unhealthy plants. That’s the design in nature. Everything in nature is so in line with this maintenance and support of the environment. It’s not negative. See, when an insect attacks your plant, it’s telling you that your plant’s not well; it’s dehydrated. Don’t go killing the insect. Correct the problem and the insects will leave.”

Last but not least, wood chips serve as a great insulation blanket for your soil and moderates the temperatures in the summer and the winter. When you have a one to two foot deep blanket of chips over your plants, it’s highly unlikely that the soil will freeze in the winter, thereby damaging your plants and slowing down the soil microbes that build soil quality. And, during hot summer months, it keeps the soil cooler so the roots can work more efficiently with the soil microbes.




:smoking: I was thinking about starting a worm farm to help me get the full organic experience. But it seems to be so much easier to just put the worms in the soil. Don't till. Re-use the soil. And feed the worms
 

hecno

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Another interesting bit of info when feeding worms .
Phosphorus Rich - Potassium Rich - Nitrogen Rich
  • Parsley
  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Sweet Peppers
  • Radishes
  • Soybeans
  • Comfrey
  • Bananas
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Late Squash
  • Avacados
  • White Beans
  • Kidney Beans
  • Lettuce
  • Broccoli
  • Peas
  • Cabbage
  • Greens
  • Chard
  • Paper
 

MrOldBoy

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I’ve been building my soil for over 40 years - I have huge worms ...... Leaves are number one ingredient followed by manures.......

I often recycle cardboard back into the ground - the cardboard smothers the weeds for a few months until it breaks down ....

Also use straw a lot, straw is a great mulch and will breakdown into the soil .....

One thing that makes leaves the most valuable is their trace mineral content, tree roots go deep into ground and pull those nutrients and minerals up .....

Make mine mulch mulch and more mulch ..... and NO TILL
 

DTOM420

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I wanted to add some info that I recently learned for my specific soil issues. We have a pretty good amount of clay in our soil and it gets extremely compacted about 10”-12” down; and it takes very wet conditions to even find a few worms in our soil. It’s quite nutrient filled and there’s lots of ag around here, but it’s hard to get the nutes released. Well, it turns out that Jumper worms LOVE clay, and can handle some alkalinity where other worms do not like it. So, besides my vermicompost bin for my indoor grow, I’ve started raising Jumpers in a separate bin. The plan is to grow my population and, once I have a large breeding population, I’ll move batches to the outdoor gardens. The beds have amended native soil that’s been hand turned down to 36”-40”. This should provide them with all the clay they should want for years to come and keep most of them in the garden because of the variety and the moist soil vs the compacted and typically dry soil outside the garden. The depth of the bed will help give them relief/refuge from the extreme heat in the summer.

So, if you’ve got alkaline clay soil, look at Jumpers. :jump:

FWIW - They’re supposedly about 85% as good at composting as wigglers. Hope this helps someone with clay soils. Also, please check with your local ag extension or a local soil expert before you release ANY worms into nature! Jumpers, for example, are not native to the US and can be detrimental in some environments. They already exist in my state so it’s not an issue for me. But always check if there are restrictions, to be a responsible gardener.
 

DTOM420

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Teo last things I haven’t seen anyone mention/suggest that I’m doing and planning to do in my worm bin:

Feed malted grains and neem/Karanja meal - I can get a 50# sack of malted barley for about $50 at a brew store. Per Clackamas Coot’s suggestion, along with many other vermicompostere and no-till guys who’ve tried it, I’m feeding the barley to my worms and they freak out over it. I just ordered a 44lb bag of neem meal from KIS Organics And a 50# sack of Karanja from Planet Natural because my worms are also diving into the neem meal I gave them. Apparently adding a 50/50 mix of neem and karanja is even better; producing a very high quality and balanced casting as well as boosting their reproductive rates.

Feed comfrey and comfrey compost - this is known to produce some of the highest quality vermicompost you can get; particularly when mixed with the barley/neem/Karanja! I won’t have enough comfrey until next summer because I just planted 25 rooted crowns and it’ll take a while to grow enough. Because they’re dynamic accumulators, they will provide your worms with all the micronutrients they need to produce the best ewc you could hope for!

I’m not feeding much table scraps because I’ve learned that the foods I just listed produce a much higher grade of ewc than most table scraps. So, the only table scraps they get are high nutrients veggies like spinach, bananas (we eat loads of them!) and kale.

Hope this helps someone!
 
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MrOldBoy

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Jumpers maybe evasive so good idea to check but I’m not sure they would live overwinter in some areas ..... my soil when we moved into house had chemicals dumped on it and was sandy red clayish like with almost zero worms, I found only a couple when turning over soil, I was very disappointed ..... then I scored some horse bedding and shredded leaves and truck load of brown cardboard ..... 13 months later I have a 20x20 area of good soil with a huge worm count ..... now I’m composting more cardboard over the pile and enlarging the pile by raking compost outwards over cardboard and adding more shredded leaves and grass clippings ..... as pile breaks down I’ll continue raking it out enlarging until I have nice enough area for a garden and some flowers and maybe a few special flowers in the mix .....

Indoors I’m using worm bins and raising some composter worms for personal castings and some euro worms for bait and compost .... I feed them horse poop and some leaves and veggie scraps!
 
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