Composting Worms close up. Photo by C,.Quish

Composting Worms close up. Photo by C,.Quish

The basics of keeping a worm farm are easy. Explaining why you would want to have one is a little harder to justify to people, particularly family members. Having been a worm farmer for over twenty years, my family finally just accepts and then ignores the fact there is a bin in the laundry room holding more than dirty laundry.

Reasons I keep worms:

  • Composting indoors in the winter and all year round. (No smell)
  • For the the rich castings they produce for plants.
  • They are a very low input pet.
  • Free fish bait.
  • No yard needed.

To get started, a container, bedding and food is needed. For one pound of worms, a plastic bin two feet by two feet and at least eight inches high will work. Any size will really do as the worms are not that picky. Choose  one with light blocking sides as clear ones let in light. Worms do not like light.

Worm Bin with tray to catch drips. Photo by C.Quish

Worm Bin with tray to catch drips. Photo by C.Quish

Bin top with air holes drilled. Photo C.Quish

Bin top with air holes drilled. Photo C.Quish

Drill air and drainage holes through the plastic top, sides and bottom. The vegetable scraps will be of high water content, releasing moisture as they decompose to the point that the worms can digest it. This liquid can and will drain out of the bottom. Place a catch tray of any type under the bin to protect floor and surfaces. This drained water can be diluted in a watering can to be used on plants as a fertilizer.

Newsprint for bedding, photo C.Quish

Newsprint for bedding, photo C.Quish

Fill the bin with shredded newspaper, no glossy sections, colored and black and white print is OK. The worms will live in and eat this paper. Moisten the paper with water so it is as wet as a wrung out sponge. Worms breathe through their skin which must be kept moist. Feed the worms by pulling back some of the newspaper to bury the food scraps. The worms will find it. One pound of worms will eat one pound of food wastes each day! The food will not disappear right away. It will need to decompose a bit first. All food scrapes can be used except meat, dairy, oils, bones or pet waste.

The type of worm to use is not native to the Northeast, nor can you dig up worms from the yard and expect them to live in this confined environment. Red Wigglers is the common name of the composting worm best suited to life in a bin. Their Latin name is Eisenia foetida. They are available at bait shops and online. Ask for them by the Latin name to be sure of their identity. The Worm Ladies of Charleston, Rhode Island is a reputable seller of the correct composting worms.

Not all worms are alike. Nightcrawlers prefer to live a solitary life, alone in long tube going several feet deep. They only come out at night to feed and mate, retreating back alone into its hole by daybreak. Several other worms live in our soils, but they feed at different levels and move to different areas to find food. These mobile worms will not like living in a confined space either.

Eisenia foetida close-up. Photo by C.Quish

Eisenia foetida close-up. Photo by C.Quish

Harvest the castings after most of the bedding food has been transformed into dark brown, crumbly material. Dump the bin on a tarp outside on a bright day. Worms do not like the light and will move downward into the dark. Scrape off the top inch or so of castings to watch the worms move further down. Pretty soon you  will have a pile of wormless castings  and a pile of worms. Put the ball of squiggling worms back into the bin with new strips of newspaper moistened with water and begin the process again. The harvested casting can be used in the garden around the plants and worked into the soil. Your plants will thank you for it.

-Carol Quish

Pile of earthworms.

The soils supporting our home lawns, vegetable and perennial gardens are improved by the presence and activity of earthworms. They are considered beneficial in the plant world. Earthworms move through the layers of soil creating tunnels for water and oxygen to reach the plant roots and channels for root growth. Their movement increases drainage and reduces compaction. Often called “nature’s rototillers”, earthworms feed on organic matter, bacteria, fungi and small soil particles in varying depths depositing their castings, or feces, in other horizons effectively turning the soil over. Castings are rich in nitrogen and nutrients easily absorbed by plants. Their feeding aids decomposition of organic matter, aerates soil, creates good soil structure and develops humus. The Rothamsted Experimental Station in England has done research finding as many as 250,000 earthworms per acre. That is a lot of subterranean work happening! Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to recognize the benefits of earthworms. His last book written in 1882 is on the worm biology and behavior. His discoveries of earthworms are still being seen today.

Often after a rain, earthworms come to the soil surface then re-enter the ground head first. Some scientist think the worms come to surface for air if the ground is saturated. Others believe chemicals in the rain are inhospitable by changing pH and chemical amounts from acid rain. Still others think since the surface is moist, the worms come to the surface to mate. Earthworms are negatively affected by drying out by the sun therefore most surfacing happens at night. The action of tunneling back into the ground squeezes the worm leaving a pile of castings above ground. The casting look like tiny round balls piled up in a pyramid up to two inches depending on the size and type of the worm. Casting piles normally go unnoticed unless the turf is cut exceptionally short like that on golf course greens and tees. Home lawns should be cut to a height of at least three inches. Wet piles can stick to mowing equipment gumming up the blades and gears. The piles are easily dispersed once they dry.

Earthworms breathe through their skin. Oxygen is absorbed by mucous on the outside surface of the worm where it is transferred to the internal organs. This is called a gas exchange. The circulatory system of the earthworm contains five hearts or aortic arches. They pump fluids to blood vessels and capillary beds throughout the body circulating back to the hearts. The earthworm’s digestive system starts with its wide opening of a mouth that its throat or pharynx protrudes out of grabbing organic matter, soil particles and all that they contain. This food is swallowed down to a storage area called a crop. The food then moves to the gizzard where it is ground up by strong muscles and tiny stones and grit swallowed by the worm. Once the food is sufficiently ground, it moves to the intestines where digestive juices extract nutrients and some are absorbed by the worm. Excess digested food is then excreted as worm castings. It is these castings that are rich in nutrients readily available for plant roots to pick up. Earthworms don’t have eyes but are sensitive to light, vibration, touch and chemicals. They want to be in darkness and will move away from the light.

Chemicals added to lawn and garden can kill the earthworms. Preferred pH levels are neutral to 6.6. Adding lime in large doses can be too shocking of a change in their environment. Many earthworms will move to areas with better suited conditions or they may just die. Some insecticides and fungicides have lethal effects on earthworms. Researchers have also found earthworms within chemically treated soils to contain up to 20 times the toxin levels than the soil the worms inhabited. Stored toxins built up in the earthworms could then be passed up the food chain to animals using the earthworms as food.

Earthworms are classified as animal invertebrates. They are in the phylum group Annelida, meaning segmented worms.   Each segment contains four tiny setae or claw like bristles used to move through the soil.  Worms are hermaphroditic;  each worm has both male and female parts with the male pores located on the outside of the animal. Earthworms are not self fertile. They need another worm to mate and reproduce. Each worm is fertilized in the mating process called cross-fertilization.

The most common earthworms found in Connecticut are Lumbricus terrestris, called the Night Crawler, and Lumbricus rubellus called Red Worm. Night crawlers are known to venture deep into the soil in permanent vertical burrows. The will come to the surface to feed also. Red worms prefer to live in a manure pile or area with high organic matter. Both of these earthworms originated in Europe and were introduced to North America unknowingly on plant material, ship ballast, wheels and shoes of immigrants. Native earthworm finding are very rare. It is not known whether native types were wiped out by glaciers scraping the earth or if the new earthworm invaders displaced the old. Different theories exist. What is known is that the earthworms that are present today are many, active and busy decomposing and recycling organic matter in rich new topsoil.

There are some invasive worms originating from Asia that are causing problem in some areas of North America. They are such fast consumers of organic material they are changing the layers of soil and eliminating the forest floor called ‘duff’. Some birds nest in the duff areas to raise their young. Insects and animals that also reside and feed in the fast disappearing habitat are also finding it hard to live. The effect of the exotic worms in the local habitat really is upsetting the ecological balance. Some populations that depend on the areas the worms are ruining might vanish forever. Research is presently being done but much more needs to happen. So does education of the general public. Some fishermen are using invasive worms for bait, then just dumping the leftovers on the ground. They are unknowingly spread the invaders. ATV and off-road enthusiasts also can pick up soil, worms and eggs in tire treads, then depositing them far from the initial infected site. Hopefully in the not too far future, more information and education programs will be available. Keep watching!

-Carol Quish


A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune of attending an ASA-SSSA-CSSA
(agronomy) meeting in San Antonio, Texas. It’s a beautiful city built up around
the Alamo with a huge convention center, tons of shops and restaurants, and a most
unique and inviting river walk. The convention center is located next to Hemis
Fair Park, the site of the 1968 World’s Fair, and one can still take an
elevator to the top of the Tower of the Americas to view the city and its

San Antonio Botanical Garden

There were many, many interesting speakers and posters. Among the reams of
information I picked up was some interesting facts about an unusually active
type of worm that are proliferating in my dahlia beds. I was talking to Dr.
Josef Gorres from the University of Vermont about his poster on what effects
earthworms have on natural ecosystems when I mentioned these strange acting
worms. He told me they were ‘jumper worms’ (an Amynthas species) which originated in Asia and made their way to
America via the horticultural trade. They were first noticed in Connecticut and
New York in the 1980’s.

Most people were brought up to believe that earthworms are beneficial creatures and in some situations they are. They till
the soil and help break down organic matter and mix it with the soil particles. Doing so improves the soil structure and makes soil chemical conditions
conducive to primarily annual crop plants.

One problem with these worms is that they are an epigeic species which means they live and feed close to the soil surface. These jumper worms, often referred to
as ‘Alabama jumpers’ quickly consume vast quantities of organic matter right on top of the ground, like your mulch or the duff layer of a forest floor. When I
would weed or plant or dig up my dahlias, I noticed the soil was exceptionally well-aggregated and every shovelful seemed to contain a half dozen or more of
these jumper worms. My dahlias do not seem to be adversely affected by the worms so far and probably appreciate the slight increase in pH and calcium
concentration that have been noted in some studies on these worms. But, dahlias are not native to New England.

This same statement cannot be said for some of our native plants, not just in New England but in the Midwest as well. Keep in mind that northern forested
ecosystems developed pretty much without earthworms. The glaciers that came down over the land basically wiped out any earthworm populations. Forests shed
their leaves or needles and in cooler northern climates, these accumulate of the forest floor creating a duff layer. Many species of native plants,
birds,  insects, amphibians, microorganisms, and more depend on this duff layer for reproduction, habitat, food and other essentials.

Picture from by Dr. Bruce A. Snyder

When invasive earthworms, like the Alabama jumpers, either migrate or are transported to a forested area, they quickly devour the leaf litter and duff
layer. They also alter the soil chemistry favoring exotic invasive plant species like garlic mustard and stiltgrass. Native species of plants and animals decline. There are also cases of
herbaceous perennials, like hostas which are often planted in woodland gardens, declining because of root feeding by these worms.

Some signs of invasion into woodland areas would be a reduction of the forest floor duff layer, fewer or no spring ephemerals (like trilliums and dog-tooth
violets), and even areas in woods with bare mineral soil exposed. Often one will notice non-native invasive plants making their way into the forest. In
light of the other imminent threats to our beloved New England forests including climate change, development, invasive species, and deposition of nutrients
and other materials from the atmosphere, the spread of this and other species of invasive earthworms, does not bode well and we should do our best to educate
ourselves and others about ways to slow their incursion.

To start with, I noticed several websites that had Alabama jumper worms for sale either to use in vermicompost bins or some sites were actually telling folks to
add them to their gardens. One site lauded the fact that these worms are able to survive winters in many northern states! Needless to say, it is not a good
idea to purchase and release these worms into our New England soils. It is also important to try not to move worms when bringing new plants into your gardens
or when giving plants from your gardens to others. Invasive worm species can also be spread by fisherman dumping unused bait into the woods near the lakes
or on the tires of logging trucks and other vehicles.

Also, since these jumper worms have very rapid growth rates, they need copious amounts of organic material. Our gardening practices, therefore, can affect their
populations. Areas with copious amounts of compost or mulch are more likely to be colonized by them. Both compost and mulch are important gardening tools to
many gardeners, including myself, so we need to use them moderately and wisely. Two articles for further reading on this subject are ‘Non-native invasive
earthworms as agents of change in northern temperate forests
’ (Front Ecol. Environ. 2004; 2(8):427-435 and ‘Amynthas and Bipalium – Why the Concern?’ at
Garden Variety Invasive Species blog.

A little more than a week after returning from Texas, we were hit by a heavy, late October snowstorm which ruined many Halloween plans and dumped a foot of wet
snow in my neighborhood causing not only massive power outages but colossal tree damage as well. I am hoping to spend this next weekend beginning to clean
up some of the damage. Our old apple tree just pulled up out of the ground, birches were bowing with their tops stuck in the snow, and now I know where yellowwood
got its name.

Apple tree roots pulled out of ground by weight of snow.

Birches bow to ground

Branch torn from trunk exposing yellow wood.

Until next time,