Growing my own soil – with worms!

There is a permacultural saying (or is it an organic one?):

It all begins in the soil

That is – fertile and healthy soil is key to growing healthy, productive plants. Apparently it’s not just about the right balance of sand/silt/clay, pH, level of organic matter, available macro- and micro-nutrients (chemical fertility) or even the amount of air and water in your soil (the latter accounting for 50% of the volume – whaat?).  There is also soil life and soil structure to consider. Permaculturalists and organic growers have long aimed at nurturing the last two, but we don’t have to take them on their, very enthusiastic, word. Science is starting to catch up with some hard evidence, not least through application of new genotyping approaches, to reveal the secrets of this complex, invisible ecosystem…

It turns out that healthy, biodiverse soil, full of organic matter, full of life, is not only good for your plants – it can also help with climate change! With the right cultivation methods soil can provide a great net ‘sink’ for carbon dioxide. It could also help ameliorate effects of climate change-related droughts and temperature increases through better water retention.

OK – you can probably tell that I have been geeking out on some in-depth soil stuff. With 2015 declared the year of the soil it is hard to avoid it! If you are hungry for soil facts and inspiration I would recommend two things, both video-based:

  • “Symphony of the soil” documentary which not only conveys some essential facts about soils but also inspires with great stories of growing healthy soils with lots of awesome visuals. Well worth the US$5.99 Vimeo rental fee (watch the trailer for free).
  • Soil session from last month’s International Permaculture Conference (start at 2h 44min, end at 4.38, slides available here). You get four amazing talks, around 20 min each:
    • Graham BellThe Answer Lies in the Soil. A permaculture stalwart with the case study of his forest garden at the Garden Cottage in the Scottish Borders – an inspiring speaker with penchant for striking soundbites.
    • Chris Warburton Brown  – A Permaculture Approach to Soil – on developing a biostructural approach to permaculture soil testing, and some tantalizing tidbits from recent soil research on the importance of soil biodiversity.
    • Joel Williams – Introduction to Soil Biology and the Soil Food Web. What it says on the tin – very, very fast.
    • Christopher Nesbitt – Repairing Damaged soils in the Maya Mountains Using Permaculture: 26 Years of Progress. It is not directly relevant to our setting in Tayport but illustrates what can be achieved in soil restoration/building.

But let’s get back to my own gardening adventures.

The soil ‘question’ is rather poignant to a container gardener like me – you start with none! In the last post I explained how I filled my 200 litres of bags with a home-made potting mix using local ingredients. I am proud to announce that potatoes, courgettes and tomatoes seem to have done quite well in it this year.

Now it is time to think on how I will keep it fertile in the long run. Is it even possible to keep your potting mix alive with some semblance of a ‘natural’ soil ecosystem? Composting bins seem to be the standard answer here. Compost gives you lots of nutrients, organic matter and soil life. And it is a great – free and very local – solution to keeping your soil healthy (and we’ve had some good composting tips in our August workshop). It does not work so well in small spaces such as balconies though!

I turned again to my small space growing guru – Mark Ridsdill Smith of Vertical Veg – here and here. His answer was an emphatic – *vermiculture*. A fancy word for composting with worms. In fact, the guy is quite evangelical about it:

Worm compost is the urban container gardener’s best friend!

If you want to grow food successfully in containers, nurturing soil life can make a huge difference. Worm compost, for example, is full of microbes and life. Add it to your containers and you will get more vigorous growth, and far fewer pest and disease problems. Discovering this, was the biggest turning point in my growing (more important, even, than self watering containers), transforming sporadic successes into something more consistent.

The ‘full of life’ message had me pretty sold on it but worm composting also has an advantage of being a more compact and faster method than a traditional compost bin. Even better – it is easy to make your own!

As I am a DIY clutz, I was initially dubious about being able to accomplish such a feat. So I looked around for some commercially made worm homes (See Resources below).

Initally I’d hoped for some pointers or even subsidised options from the Fife council – they do want to reduce all landfill waste to zero by 2020 after all. But it seems that all the efforts these days go towards encouraging the use of the council brown bins for kitchen waste. And maximising their municipal composting. Zero Waste Fife used to help out with advice on composting at home but now their priority is to encourage recycling via the official channels in areas of multiple deprivation. Not so good for those wanting to keep some of the compostable goodies at home to feed our own soils – or those who do not get a brown bin (such as most flats and rural properties).

So I was left to my own devices in researching the topic. I found lots of suppliers – most with a very similar luxury accommodation – multistorey stack of trays mounted on tall legs, with separate drainage tray with a tap to catch the worm ‘juice’ at the bottom. There were plenty of accessories to go with that…I even found a special pick up scoop for relocating your wormies before the compost harvest. Perfect for those a bit squeamish about writhing tangles of slithering creatures…(you may laugh but after seeing my own wee tangle I am seriously considering that one!).

They were all around £40-£80. I have to admit that I was more than a bit put off by such an investment, without a guarantee of success. Add to that around £19 for the recommended 500g of the ‘proper’ composting worms and my interest rapidly switched to plastic box DIY options. After trawling online, local DIY and bargain stores it turned out that a sturdy, largish, dark-coloured, opaque box with a tight fitting lid is not so easy to find. And a cost of £15-20 was still nothing to sniff at.

I started doubting the wisdom of my entreprise, but then some of my Tayport friends came to the rescue! One of them turned out to have an old, decrepid wooden box in her shed which she gladly got rid of. Another happened to be sieving through his compost to top up his garden beds and was able to extract a bunch of composting worms for me. It turned out that you do not need to dig deep to find them – they do tend to congregate around the freshly added kitchen scraps at the top. I was told that the worms are probably descendants of the ones from his own wormery which was tipped into the compost heap some time ago. Although we did not confirm the identification as yet, we suspect that they are Eisenia foetida or Tiger Worms. Handily, he also happened to have a small piece of wood to repair my box – and cut it to size for me!

Things were looking much more rosy now:) My other half helped with making the box sound, and drilled some drainage holes in the bottom so that the worms do not drown in their own ‘leachate’ (or worm wee). We did not drill any ventilation holes in the sides of the box as wood is much more breathable than plastic and should allow enough air flow. The box also has holes for handles on the sides and in the lid, which can allow for additional ventilation if needed.

Now it was time to make it cozy for my little wrigglers. I lined the bottom of the box with a wet newspaper to stop the holes from clogging up with worms and popped the box up on the upturned plastic takeaway containers. We made a nice 10-15cm bed of moist newspaper strips at the bottom and it was time to introduce my lovelies to their new home. We added some of my friend’s compost with the worms to help with their acclimatisation (it contains the microbiota and grit essential to worm well-being). It was all topped up with a wet piece of cardboard to stop light getting in and mosture getting out. Oh – almost forgot about the tray to catch the leachate below the box – I found an old baking tray that did the job just fine.

We have fed the the worms a couple of times within the last two weeks – a few handfuls of everything in our vegetable scraps apart from onions, garlic and lemons – all chopped up into 1cm bits. Added some crushed eggshells as well to keep away the deadly acidity. They seem to contentedly aggregate around the food batches buried in their bedding, still plenty for them to munch on. They are probably slowing down for winter – despite the sunshine recently the temperatures have been definitely below their optimum range of around 15-25°C.  I’m now thinking about relocating them to the staircase outside our front door to keep them going during the cold weather…do you think the neighbours would mind?

Ventilation is definitely sufficient judging by how quickly the paper in their bedding dries out – I have to spray it with water at least every 3 days. It may be time to cover up the holes with bits of tough plastic bag held down with drawing pins.

So far, so good. I am very excited about the whole thing and get quite anxious about the little critters’ well being, checking on them every day. I am already worrying that my little box might not be enough to process all our food waste and grow enough soil, and thinking that I should probably build something more substantial. I am particularly taken by wooden boxes which can double as garden seats which would look very inoffensive in the drying green, don’t you think? I may need to learn some woodworking skills after all…

Do you have any tips on growing soil with worms in Tayport?


Useful resources

There are masses of videos out there on how to make your own wormery.

When designing my own bin I took into account advice on DIY single plastic box wormery from Vertical Veg, Backdoor Survival and Composting Junkie. Backdoor survival also has tips on how to convert your single bin into a multi-storey one. Multi-storey wormeries have an advantage of allowing worms to travel up to trays with fresh food, leaving worm-free compost in the trays below. Great for wormophobes and saving time on having to scoop out your beasties from among the compost you want to use. All three websites have excellent tips on making your worms happy – including a full gourmet menu from Vertical Veg 🙂

UK-based worm supplies

Wormeries – all plastic-based. Original Organics seems to be a good value just now at around £50 but also check out WormsDirect, Wiggly Wigglers and Wormery (the latter has a good variety of wormery designs).

Worms. The advice I have seen is to start with a 500g pack, or around 500 worms. There seems to be a bit of a war between suppliers as to which worms are best for home wormeries.

Bucket of worms thinks it is the Blue nosed worm or European nightcrawler (Dendrobaena veneta). Also available from a more local Scottish supplier, Scottish Worms.

Wormery thinks it is the Tiger worm or Red wriggler (Eisenia foetida/fetida).

Others offer a mix for good measure, e.g. WormsDirect. In fact, it really depends on your local environmental conditions, with Dendrobaena perhaps more suited to wetter and colder Scotland. The point is moot if you get your worms from a local friend with a successful compost heap or wormery like I did. Even if you don’t know the species, you know that they are adapted well to the local conditions! (NOTE: Do not use worms dug out from the ground – these are true earthworms, not litter feeders, and will not be happy in your wormery).

Everything you might (or might not) want to know about Eisenia foetida by Joseph Yard. Warning – a video of cute little worm babies included!