When I was a child, I would play in the mud. My grandmother’s house in the quiet (at the time) Bombay suburb of Parel had that rarest of items in the city: a small postage-stamp sized patch of garden by the front door. Large enough to grow a banana tree that was too starved of nutrition to ever fruit, several anaemic chillies and a few flower bushes as well as a tulsi plant.
One of my favourite pastimes was to construct elaborate earthworks on miniature scale, in mud. What this largely translated to, was me digging up mud from one place and mounding it up in another. In the torrential Bombay monsoon, I’d spend hours watching my carefully crafted viaducts, canals and embankments endure until they crumbled into the slush.
Earthworms were, to me, merely passive observers and timid nuisances who lived in the mud I wanted to play with. I viewed them as an artist might regard the quiet but inquisitive family living next to his studio. At the time, I did not know how much of a productive working relationship earthworms and I would end up having, or I might have paid more attention to them.
Today, I still play in the mud, or the soil, rather. My wife, Neha, and I live in a small house with a little kitchen garden, near Pethuparai Village. Most of our waking thoughts revolve around how to add organic matter and diverse forms of life to the soil in our garden. In this task, earthworms are a reliable and much-leant-upon ally.
Earthworms fall into three types based on how they live and eat (AKA their ecophysiological characteristics):
All earthworms play a huge role in improving the soil of a garden, which is why Neha and I are excited about them. Apart from the nutrition and microbial life they add, their constant burrowing aerates and loosens the soil, making it friable and easily penetrated by roots. A healthy population of earthworms in one’s garden bed is a very good goal to strive towards.
Another of the ways that we enlist their help is by harvesting their excreta, or castings, to use as a soil amendment or as a component of our potting mixes for newly sown seeds and plants. Also known as vermicompost, these castings (especially when fresh) are incredibly nutrient dense, full of live microbes and, because they’ve passed through the digestive system of a tiny creature, are composed of soft, fine particles. No need to sieve it!
We use a vermicompost bin to house the earthworms, and it should be mentioned that there is no such thing as the ideal vermicomposter for all situations. Depending on your specific needs and context, you might choose from any number of solutions. So rather than focus on any specific solution, it might be wiser to understand the principles instead. For example, all vermicompost solutions share common elements:
- A Container with Drainage: Whether your solution is a bin for kitchen wastes, or a pit for farm manure, you’ll need a waterproof container; Old paint buckets, bathtubs, old oil drums, a concrete-floored pit: these are all acceptable, so long as you have some form of drainage installed. A few crude holes are fine!
- Bedding Material: The bedding sits at the bottom of your container, and is where the worms breed and live. Ideal bedding materials are shredded, biodegradable substances that break down slowly. Torn up bits of newspaper or cardboard, cocopeat, scraps of (natural fibre) cloth, even tougher leaves like jackfruit is fine. You’ll want to place the bedding material in a two-to-three inch high layer, and it should sit on a mat made of burlap or any similar material. The burlap will filter out the worms and bedding material and let water through to be drained out.
- Worm Food: The worms will live in the bedding material and slowly accumulate worm castings on top of the bedding. In order to do that, though, they’ll need a lot of food! We like to use green leaves, tender stems and similar garden waste (no woody or hard material) and lots of sun-dried, 2-to-3-week old manure when starting out a vermicompost bin. After a month or two, we begin twice-weekly feedings of kitchen waste. We feed them all our veggie peels (except onion and garlic), leaves from the garden trimmings and even the rare bits of (chopped) raw offal from chickens. We do not feed the worms cooked food waste, anything sharp or hard, like eggshells, nor do we add any liquid other than a rare sprinkling of water to keep the bin lightly moist. (Earthworms need moisture, but will drown in standing water!)
- The worms themselves: We like to enlist local earthworms from our garden and deploy them in our worm bin, but one can also purchase specialised composting worms that are quicker and more efficient, depending on how much vermicompost you have to make (or how much waste you can process!) In order to collect the worms, we dig a 6″ x 6″ x 3″ trench in a shady spot in the garden, tip in a handful of fresh cow dung and wait. After a week or so, the soil around the dung and some of the dung itself, is writhing with worms. We also collect worms from our horse dung compost, which we obtain in bulk from a neighbour.
- A means to collect the worm juice (Optional): Another byproduct of vermicompost, is the liquid that leaches out of a worm bin. Called worm juice, this liquid is partly the excreta of the worms, but it also contains dissolved nutrients and microbes from the worm castings and the raw worm food. It tends to collect slowly; a well-kept worm bin the size of a 20-liter bucket provides about 100 ml of worm juice a week, but when diluted 1:10 with water and sprayed on as a foliar spray or as a soil amendment, it’s a potent hit of nutrition and microbial life, which perks plants up in a trice.
Constructing A Vermicompost Bin
Use these step-by-step instructions to replicate our vermicompost bin
Tools / Supplies:
- 20-liter bucket x 2
- A lid wide enough to allow one bucket to sit atop the other. We use a barrel lid, but any sufficiently strong material will do.
- Handheld drill with a 2″ holesaw attachment OR a 10mm bit.
- Shredded bedding material x 1/2 bucket (see above for ideal materials)
- Worm food x 1/2 bucket (see above for ideal materials)
- Cow manure, sun-dried for about 10 days x 2 handfuls
- Worms (As many as you can collect, we got about 50)
- Burlap sack
Drill a 2″ hole using the hole saw in the centre of the bottom of one bucket. We’ll call this one the Worm Bucket. If you do not have a hole saw, use the 10mm drill bit instead, to drill a cluster of 10-12 holes in a 2″ area around the center of the bottom of the bucket. Also drill corresponding hole(s) into the lid, so that the liquid can drain out of the Worm Bucket, through the lid and into the second bucket, which we’ll call the Collection Bucket.
Unseam the burlap sack, so you have two halves of sack material. Place one half in the bucket with the hole in it, ensuring that the burlap forms a single layer across the bottom of the bucket. Soak the burlap with water.
Add a 2-inch layer of bedding material into the bucket, above the burlap sack. Soak it thoroughly.
Once it has stopped dripping, add another 1-inch of bedding material and soak it.
Assemble the buckets. First, place the Collection Bucket on the floor, then close it with the lid. Line up the holes in the lid with the holes in the Worm Bucket and place the Worm Bucket atop the lid.
Add in the handfuls of manure, mixed in with some worm food. Water gently. Confirm the water is collecting properly in the Collection Bucket. If yes, then proceed.
Add the rest of the worm food so that the bucket is about 2/3rd full. Place the remaining piece of burlap sack on the top of the Worm Bucket so fruit flies and other insects can’t get in. (You can even tie the sack on, with a rope or cord, if needed.)
Keep in a shaded, cool area, away from disturbances and vibrations from the ground. (Such as passing cars, or heavy foot traffic areas.)
After about a month, or when at least half of the worm food has turned to worm castings, you can start feeding kitchen waste in. Remember to start with small amounts as monitor how long it takes the worms to process it. If you over-feed, the worm food will rot before it gets eaten and begin to smell as well as attract pests.