Earthworms: Nature's Rototillers

In one week red wigglers are capable of converting up to eight pounds of organic waste into finished compost.

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Soil is a myriad of living organisms, some of which you can see and others you can't. But to gardeners, perhaps the most familiar and the most important, is the earthworm. Earthworms are nature's rototillers. They burrow through the soil, creating a vast network of tunnels. Along the way they constantly crush organic matter and leave behind their super compost.

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Worm compost is arguably the best stuff in the world for your plants. It's full of nutrients, both macro and micro, and it contains all sorts of other goodies such as enzymes. You can buy worm compost in bags, but you can also make your own. A "worm factory" consists of a series of bins to which you add organic matter in the form of kitchen scraps, shredded paper, coffee grounds and other materials that worms use to make their compost.

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Here, the top tray is filled with worm food, such as leaves, coffee grounds, shredded paper, egg shells and some vegetable scraps. There aren't any worms in this tray yet.

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In the next tray there are some worms. You can see how they've transformed what you saw in the top tray into partially decomposed compost.

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The bottom tray contains hundreds of worms wiggling around in what is essentially pure, finished compost. This rich organic matter can be used in a veggie garden and as a top dressing for container plants. To do this, dump the contents of the bottom tray in the appropriate garden location, rinse it out, and add more worm food. It will then become the top tray; the second tray will become the bottom tray, and so on. On this particular system, you can stack up to five trays to keep the process going full speed ahead.

But what about the worms? The worms travel upward through the trays. Once the compost in the bottom tray is finished, the worms make their way up through the holes in the trays in search of fresh food.

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The best worms for composting — which is also known as vermiculture — are red wigglers. You'll have to order them separately, but there are several sources online. About one pound of worms is all you'll need to get started, and they'll double in population every three months.

A five-tray factory, such as this one, will ultimately hold anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 worms, and they're capable of consuming five to eight pounds of food per week under optimum conditions.

They also produce worm tea, a super-concentrated liquid that you extract from the spigot at the bottom of the factory and use full strength or diluted on your plants.

Just remember, red wigglers can't stand light, and they have a narrow temperature range. So it's best to keep your worm factory out of bright light and within a range of 60 to 80 degrees F.

In the summer, move the worm factory into the garage. During the winter months, put it inside. Don't worry about getting a foul odor. As long as you maintain proper conditions, you may be able to smell something akin to pure compost, but it shouldn't be an offensive odor.

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