Composting is the age old method of turning waste materials into humus, which will lighten and enrich your soil. Sir Albert Howard, doing research in India, developed the Indore method of layered composting.It is suggested;
a bottom layer of brush for drainage
a 6" layer of green matter
a 2" layer of manure
a thin layer of topsoil (contributes micro-organisms) powdered limestone (to counter-act acidity)
Continue layers until the heap is 4 feet wide, 6 feet long, and 5 feet high. Turn every six weeks and compost will be ready to apply in two to three months.
There are two types of composting; Aerobic and Anerobic.
Aerobic is the system utilizing oxygen. This method is the most simplistic and successful, even though the minimal loss of nitrogen through free elements into the atmosphere is present. Anerobic composting requires storage tanks and other systems to keep oxygen from invading the anerobic decay process. This method also takes longer to complete and manufactures methane gas as a by-product. The odor is disagreeable, the gas itself is flammable, and should be vented off periodically. It is generally ill suited for the home composter.
Earthworms however, are an excellent addition to the composting process. Composting is basic to the breakdown of organic materials and can be practiced on either large or small scales. The waste a family generates can be turned into nutrient rich earthworm castings for your plants, flower beds, and garden plot.
Composting involving earthworms is both aerobic and advantageous. The worms process the material, creating a micro-biological decay cycle of approximately sixty days. Home composting can include everything from kitchen waste to yard waste, but attention must be paid to what is used on your yard plantings and lawn, (pesticides, weed killers), many of which are harmful to earthworms. Many substances cannot be digested by earthworms, or are harmful to the earthworm, and it may avoid the area altogether.
It is best to introduce worms from the outside of the compost heap, giving them time to identify substances or areas of the heap that could be avoided. The internal temperatures generated in a compost heap can reach 160° F, which earthworms will avoid at all costs. Earthworms survive best in temperatures ranging from 50° F to 75° F, which is the approximate temperature of a cooled compost heap. It is easy to harvest the castings in your compost heap. Take compost from the outer edges until worms appear. Wait 30 minutes. The worms will retreat as light causes pain to their skin. Repeat the first step as many times as it takes to get a compact mass of worms in the center of the bottom of the heap. If the first outer "scalp" is not fully composted, set it aside to become the first layer of the new heap. The castings can be used immediately, or set aside for use at a later time.
Earthworms are important contributors to soil health; tilling, keeping a porous quality to the soil, allowing plants to take nutrients freely. This, combined with the auxins and cytokinins (plant growth stimulators) in earthworm castings, provides an ideal medium for plant growth and health.
Red worms are different from the common field worm, or angle worm. Red worms feed primarily on decomposing organic material at the surface level. Field worms feed primarily on earth and bacteria contained with soil. Red worms also reproduce at a faster rate than field worms, providing a larger amount of castings for your garden.
The soil must be amended with organic material for any worms to thrive there. Adding nitrogen fertilizers can create an acid condition in the soil that all worms may avoid. Most pesticides are toxic to earthworms and may harm beneficial insects as well.
The nutritional value of earthworm castings is best realized when mixed with soil. Even with sufficient organic matter at hand, all species of earthworms consume some soil, creating a rich humus when castings and soil are combined. The texture becomes ideal for plant growth, as many types of bacteria are consumed then neutralized by earthworms. Castings have a pH level of 7.0 (neutral). Large numbers of earthworms in your garden will combat both acid and alkali conditions in the soil. Earthworm tunneling increases water absorption and retention along with creating passages for water and air to filter through to lower levels of the soil. Most red worms are sold in bed- run form. Bed- run contains all ages and sizes from cocoon to bait size, and adapt to a new environment easier.
Earthworm castings are a soil amendment of the highest quality. As organic materials pass through the earthworm, many of the nutrients are made available to growing plants. An excellent organic fertilizer and soil conditioner, earthworm casts won't harm your plants through over-application. Castings as a soil conditioner make the ground friable, retain moisture, and provide nutrients. Confirmed tests have indicated that castings, when compared to native soil contain about 5 times the available nitrogen, 7 times the phosphorous, 3 times the magnesium, 11 times the potassium, and 1½ times the calcium. There are also results stated in terms of optimal values, 2 times the nitrogen needed for optimal growth, 7 times the phosphorous and potassium. This is so because earthworms, passing soil and organic matter through their digestive tracts, liberate minerals for use by growing plants. Earthworm castings cannot be compared to commercial chemical fertilizers, nor should they be.
When we became aware of the value of earthworm castings, use of commercial fertilizers ceased. The flavor and appearance of our food grown in our garden convinced us. Oh yes, earthworm castings will benefit the growth of most all plants, including weeds.
EARTHWORMS IN YOUR GARDEN
All farmers and gardeners are concerned with the "tilth" or health of their land---the condition of the soil. To be wholesome, a soil should:
Readily accept and retain moisture: Clay and loam soils are often too compact to let water in. As they tunnel, earthworms create channels which allow water in, minimize run-off, and drain well .
Be aerated: Air spaces are essential for good root growth, the growth and function of all soil organisms, and the oxidation of minerals for plant use. Tunneling increases air spaces and allows roots to spread easier. Castings help prevent compacting of the soil for additional air penetration.
Contain humus (organic residues): Castings are high quality humus, rich in nutrients, and are constantly being generated by earthworms. An earthworm can produce its own weight in castings in a 24 hour period. So if you have 100 pounds of earthworms, they might produce 100 pounds of castings per day!! The gardener must help by encouraging earthworms. You should allow humus to accumulate, or provide additional humus for earthworms to eat. You can do this by allowing crop remnants to remain on the ground, and by adding to it such materials as manure, grass clippings, alfalfa or grass hay, straw, and leaves. If you fail to do this, the earthworm population will decline and possibly disappear, as will the other criteria for a healthy soil. Plants grown in humus-rich soils are bigger and produce more fruitful growth.'They also tend to be more resistant to insect damage.
Have plant nutrients: Earthworm castings are rich in all of the essential plant nutritional elements. Studies done comparing native soils and castings show castings to be richer in every nutrient. Worms bring up additional materials and deposit them at the root level. Nutrients are always around, but not always available to the plants. Earthworms consume these unavailable minerals, and enzyme action in their digestive tracts makes them water soluble. They can then be absorbed by the plant's roots.
Have good tilth: Tilth is one of the most important aspects of any soil. It refers to the physical condition of the soil as it relates to ease of tillage, and,also describes the structure of the soil. A soil with good tilth is sufficiently loose in structure, well aerated, and easily penetrated by roots. It retains water better; soluble mineral nutrients do not leach off as fast. Earthworms dig deep into the subsoil, loosening it. Gradually the topsoil layer becomes deeper. Castings are excellent soil particle binders. Tiny individual mineral bits will group together into larger granules that don't compact or stick together in a gooey mass; yet retain water better. Castings also contribute to soil by giving it a more neutral pH, a measure of acid or alkali conditions.
Contain an active biological population: Earthworms will live in the soil if the farmer does his or her part, as in item 3. Chemical fertilizers can increase the overall acidity of the soil to a point where the earthworm populations decline. Pesticides are toxic to earthworms and many beneficial insects and micro-organisms.