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Script 29.6

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Farmers have always known that the earthworms in their fields improve the soil. But you can also grow earthworms in containers where they turn farm and kitchen waste into rich compost to feed your plants.

Growing earthworms is called vermiculture. It is a fast and simple way to get free fertilizer for your crops and get rid of garbage at the same time. You do not need any special materials for it, and you can make as much or as little compost as you choose. That depends on what you need and how much space you can spare.

Farmers in many parts of the world cultivate earthworms and the methods they use differ from place to place. At the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore, India, two scientists have developed a method especially for tropical regions. It turns waste into compost in 2 to 4 weeks. Farmers who have used this compost fertilizer say it helps them grow healthy crops with fewer pests.

This method is being used not only on farms but even in the city. If properly done, the process is completely odour-free. It is a good way to get rid of garbage and help keep the environment clean.

If you would like to try it, here are the steps that Dr. Radha Kale outlines. She is one of the two scientists who developed this vermiculture method.

Prepare the earthworm containers
First, collect containers for the earthworms. Small, portable containers, such as wooden boxes or plastic tubs, are easiest to work with at first. If you cannot get these, you can build shallow stone bins or dig pits in a shady, cool place. Put stones or other material along the sides and bottom of the pit to keep out rats and snakes. You will also need some kind of mesh to cover the top and keep out birds that may feed on the earthworms. You could use a fine wire or plastic mesh. Or you could use a thick layer of straw or leaves.

Next, prepare the feed for the earthworms. The feed should be a mixture of three kinds of waste. First, some organic kitchen waste such as vegetable and fruit skins, nut and egg shells, used tea leaves, meat trimmings, etc. It should also include farm waste such as hedge and grass clippings, weeds, dry leaves, crop residues, sawdust, and grain husks. And, finally, dung from cattle, horses, sheep, goats, or pigs, or poultry droppings.

Put the feed mixture into the container or pit to a depth of 10-centimetres. Cover it with a layer of soil or sand to keep out flies. Then sprinkle with enough water to keep the mixture moist but not wet. Leave it out in the open for 2 weeks to decay.

When organic material first starts to decay, it gets very hot. The heat would kill the earthworms. So you must wait until the mixture is cool before you put in the worms.

Now you are ready to add the earthworms.

Get the right kind of worms for your vermiculture
You may be able to get some earthworms from a friend or neighbour. Or you may be able to buy a small supply of worms to start with.

You could also collect the earthworms yourself. But you should know how to recognize the kind you need. It is important to get the right kind of earthworms. Dr. Kale uses three kinds found commonly in the tropics, Eudrilus eugneiae, Eisenia foetida, and Perionix excavatus.

Earthworms that burrow deep down feed on organic matter in the soil. You must have seen the tiny mounds of earth they make, especially in wet weather. These earthworms help turn the soil. But they will not help you turn waste into compost.

You want the earthworms that feed on decaying leaves and dung close to the soil surface. Look for them under hedges or near manure heaps or other places where there is a lot of moist, decaying organic matter. The best time to look is just after a rain. Do not worry if you find only a few at first. They will multiply quickly.

Let the earthworms go to work
Earthworms bruise easily, so move them very carefully to the container you have prepared. Then just leave them there!

Make sure you keep the mixture always moist, but not wet. If it is too wet, the worms cannot breathe.

The earthworms will feed on the organic waste. In 2 to 4 weeks, they will turn it into moist compost which is perfect plant food.

When all the waste has been turned into compost, dump it out on the ground and make it into a heap the shape of a cone. Leave this for several hours. The worms will burrow down to the bottom of the heap to get as far from the light as they can.

Once the worms have burrowed to the bottom of the heap, scoop off the compost on top. Let it dry a little. Then sift it through a mesh or sieve to separate out the egg cocoons and baby worms. Place them in a new feed container at once.

From the bottom layer of the heap, pick out the larger worms and put them into another container.

You can keep the earthworm cycle going all the time by using three different containers. While the earthworms are feeding in the first container, collect more organic waste in two other containers. By the time the compost from the first container is ready, the waste in the other two will be partly decayed and cool. Then you can put the egg cocoons and baby worms in the second container, and the larger worms in the third. Now start collecting waste again in the first container, and so on. Remove the largest worms every once in a while and feed them to poultry or fish. Adult worms more than a year old do not reproduce much, so removing them will not affect your vermiculture.

If you have never tried growing earthworms before, start with only a small amount of waste at first. As you get more practice, you will be able to tell just what to feed the earthworms to get the best compost and just when to move them to a new lot. You can increase the amount as you get more experience.

Some farmers make large quantities of compost using earthworms. One farmer makes about 15 cubic metres of compost in 4 months. He does not have to buy expensive chemical fertilizer anymore, because the earthworms give him all the fertilizer he needs.

Care for the earthworms
Here are some important things to keep in mind when you are growing earthworms.

  • Never let the feed mix get waterlogged, because earthworms cannot breathe if it is too wet. The mix should be moist to the touch but not soggy.
  • Earthworms do not like to get hot and dry, so choose a cool, shady place for the container you grow them in.
  • Handle the worms gently because they bruise easily. Also, check the culture every once in a while and remove any dead worms.
  • Protect the earthworm containers from ants, centipedes, rats,and birds which may eat the earthworms.

Acknowledgements

This script was written by Vrinda Kumble, ecs editorial consultant services, Pune, INDIA.

Thanks to Mary Appelhof, author of Worms Eat My Garbage, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, U.S.A., for reviewing this script.

Illustration by Mary Frances Fenton. From: Worms Eat My Garbage cc 1982 Flower Press. Used with permission.

Information Sources

Visit to the Department of Zoology, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, India, and interviews with Dr. Radha D. Kale and Sunitha.

Earthworm cultivation and culturing technique,” by Radha D. Kale and Kubra Bano, Department of Zoology, College of Basic Sciences and Humanities, University of Agricultural Sciences, GKVK Campus, Bangalore 560 065, INDIA.

Other Sources

  • Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Appelhof. Published by Flower Press, 10332 Shaver Road, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49002, U.S.A., 1982.
  • Worms Eat Our Garbage, by Mary Appelhof. Published by Flower Press, 10332 Shaver Road, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49002, U.S.A., 1993.