Encouraging Earthworms

Earthworms chillin' in some compost

“Earthworms are a gardener’s best friend!”

Earthworms burrow through your soil, digesting organic materials, creating tunnels for air and water to percolate through, and distribute their castings as rich ready fertiliser for your plants. Encouraging them in your garden is important, and it’s easy to do.

Benefits:

  • Aerate soil
  • Break down scraps
  • Create fertiliser
  • Distribute moisture

Jump to:

Earthworms Natural Habitat
Creating Conditions for Earthworms
Compost Bins
Sheet Mulch
Leaf Mould
In Vegetable Beds
Feeding Earthworms
Chop ‘n’ Drop Pruning
Worm Stations
Worm Towers
FAQ
What’s the difference between earthworms and composting worms?
Can I use earthworms in a worm farm?
Will earthworms eat my plants?
Can there be too many earthworms?
Related Articles
How to Worm Farm
Worm Towers
Worm Troughs
Worm Bags
Worm Stations

Earthworms chillin' in some compost

Earthworms chillin' in some compost

Earthworms Natural Habitat

Earthworms are found all around the world, at various depths in soil. They feed on decaying organic matter, such as leaves, dead roots and fruits that have fallen to the ground. They need moisture to breathe and remain comfortable, but heavy rain will force them to surface to avoid drowning. Some worms travel vast distances in their lifetimes, while others prefer to remain in one area, venturing out to eat mostly at night.

Creating Conditions for Earthworms

Compost Bins

Composting on open ground is a great way to encourage earthworms. They will find everything they need at the bottom of a compost pile (once the pile has cooled), including their ideal temperatures for reproduction. If you don’t find earthworms in your first compost pile, just be patient and keep composting on open ground. One day your piles will be teeming! They also play a role in the final breakdown of your compost, helping you create fine, even and consistent compost for your garden.

Sheet Mulch

Sheet mulching is a great thing to do for any unused or overgrown areas of your garden, and while it blocks weeds and grass from growing, it also creates an encouraging environment for earthworms in the area. Sheet mulch retains moisture, which will allow earthworms to come right to the surface, and if you’re using cardboard for your sheet mulching, earthworms will live in and slowly consume the cardboard, converting it to fertiliser.

Leaf Mould

Piles of leaves kept moist will begin to break down. This is called leaf mould, and is the ideal environment for many types of earthworms. They will wait for leaves to begin decaying before eating them, and the leaves provide the earthworms with ample sustenance, and retain moisture much the same way as mulch does.

In Vegetable Beds

If you’re already growing vegetables organically, in the ground, you’ve already created a great environment for earthworms, and there’s a good chance you’ll spot them as you dig in your garden beds. Don’t worry – earthworms will not eat your vegetables, nor their roots. Earthworms will only eat decaying matter. When you harvest, leave roots in the garden, as well as any other plant material you don’t intend to eat, as the earthworms will eat the refuse as it decays.

Feeding Earthworms

Chop ‘n’ Drop Pruning

You can supply food to the earthworms in your soil by practicing chop ‘n’ drop pruning, whereby weeds, prunings and vegetable discards are chopped and dropped on the garden as a mulch. As the material decays, it becomes food for earthworms.

Worm Stations

Take an empty plastic plant pot, turn it upside down and cut the bottom most of the way off, so you can open it like a lid. Half bury the pot in your garden, and put some kitchen scraps in it. Earthworms will find their way to the worm station, consuming the scraps and distributing their castings in the surrounding soil. It’s easy to set up lots of these to quickly establish large earthworm populations.

Worm Towers

Take a length of PVC pipe with a large diameter, drill holes toward one end of the pipe and bury this ‘holey’ section in your garden. Add kitchen scraps into the top, and ensure the surrounding soil is moist. Earthworms will gather in and around your worm tower, consuming the decaying scraps and fertilising the soil in the garden. Once one garden bed has a good population of earthworms (and plenty of compost to feed on), move your worm tower to another bed.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between earthworms and composting worms?

Composting worms (Eisenia fetida, red tiger worms or red wrigglers) are a type of earthworm which prefers to live above ground, in rotting vegetation and manure, rather than in the soil. They also prefer to stay in a localised area, and so are the best choice for worm farms and other containers. They are also chosen for their speed of consuming food and rapid reproduction (given the right conditions). They naturally live at the base of trees. Composting worms are a little smaller than common earthworms, and are usually more red, with distinct rings which are reminiscent of tiger stripes.

Can I use earthworms in a worm farm?

For a container worm farm, or worm trough, it is best to purchase or otherwise source specific composting worms (red tiger worms), as they will operate quicker and more happily in the conditions of a worm farm. Earthworms prefer to burrow deeper than most worm farms allow, and travel/migrate through vaster areas of land. You can, however, introduce composting worms to your soil, but it’s best to choose a place at the base of a tree where they can remain happily, as they won’t generally move on.

Will earthworms eat my plants?

No. Earthworms don’t have teeth, and so cannot chomp through fresh vegetable material or roots. Rather, they wait until bacteria and other organisms have begun to break down dead materials, before slurping up their share. It is perfectly safe to encourage earthworms in your vegetable gardens. In fact your plants will do better!

Can there be too many earthworms?

There’s only one instance in which you might consider there are too many earthworms in your garden. If they’ve been relying on your scraps as food for growth and reproduction, and suddenly you are not able to supply them with food, many of your earthworms will die, until their population balances with what food is still available. This would be a great shame. If, however, you build up the organic matter in the soil, by applying compost, growing a variety of food plants, and maintaining a mulch covering over your soil, all of this will naturally provide an abundance of food for earthworms, and you’re sure to find a large and stable population of them in your soil, even though you’re not feeding them directly.

Related Articles

How to Worm Farm

“Let the worms do the work, with worm farming!”

Worm Towers

Worm Troughs

Worm Bags

Worm Stations

19 comments on “Encouraging Earthworms

  1. Have you any advice on how to encourage earthworm populations on a much larger scale, such as a farm spanning 100acres? I am a young farmer in Northern Ireland and have noticed that modern practices in agriculture have led to a severe depletion of earthworm popluations. The soil type on my farm is mostly a heavy clay which retains moisture and suffers from soil compaction. I look forward to hearing from you.

    • Hi David,

      I heard a story about a cucumber farmer who dug long trenches and lined them with black plastic. He had a 3-stage composting system big enough for a bobcat to dig/turn. All manner of branches and vegetation would enter the compost system, and the semi-composted material would then go into the trenches. The trenches were teeming with worms, and to grow his cucumbers all the farmer had to do was put a handful of soil onto the surface of the worm trench, and plant a seed in it.

      For 100acres, I would want to be sure my plan will work, and the only way to be sure is to test it. Are there any earthworms on your land already? Where? (under trees, under rotting leaves, under grass) If so, think about how you can recreate those conditions over the land, then the worms will naturally move in.

      I would consider laying down logs and branches along fence-lines to create moist and shady areas for worms to populate. I would also look at growing trees all along fence-lines – fruit trees if possible. These will support worms in the long term. Also, though I’m not sure what you are using your land for, but if you’re trying to break up clay soil, the simplest method I know is to introduce weeds (self-seeding, short-lived, natives), which grow vigorously, cover the soil, die and become food for worms. Their roots will also help break up the soil and allow air in. I know of one trick which involves gauging the soil to germinate weed seeds. If you create a suitable environment for the worms, the worms will go on to improve your soil.

      Good luck!

  2. I made a huge worm tower with a 60 gallon plastic barrel. I have been adding kitchen waste to it for the last few weeks and will continue to do so all winter. Will worms be attracted to it in the spring time and help it to break down when it thaws in the spring?

    • Hi Ian, sounds great, and yes ive seen compost bins about the same size used as a worm tower, teeming with worms. The only concern I can imagine is that after a whole season of frozen scraps thaws, the worms wont get through it fast enough before anaerobic rotting starts (terrible smells). If you tear strips of cardboard into the mix, it will both help with aeration and provide some bedding for the worms (they’ll eat the cardboard too). Good luck and send me a photo!

  3. Will worms “show up” or will they have to be added ? I have been throwing in the rolled from toilet paper too. With the thing fully enclosed like it is I don’t think smells will be a problem unless it’s opened and that will only be to add scraps. Also wondering if other bugs will get on and help the process along. My only goal with this project is to reduce garbage. The tower is where my wife will have her garden so if at some point I do have to shovel it out it will be easy to do.

    • Hi Ian, glad you asked. Earthworms are already just about everywhere there’s soil, and will show up in and around compost piles, worm towers, and underneath mulch. They’ll chew through wet cardboard, newspaper and any other organic matter that’s wet and starting to break down. Other creatures, including a wealth of bacteria, will also join the party, and so long as there’s some air, you shouldn’t have any bad smells. I hope you’ll go ahead with your project, and let me know how it goes!

  4. Oh I’m doing it and continually adding to the bin as material is available. Once the worms get established in the area how fast will they get through the organic material? I’m hoping that they will be able to keep up.

  5. I usually throw kitchen scraps in a 3 gallon pail on the deck and it fills up on about 5 days. I’m hoping the worms and other things can get through that in the days between deposits.

  6. Well my bin has started to thaw and it has not had any bad smells so far. The level has dropped a little bit but so far I haven’t seen any bugs or worms yet but that may still come. One question….if flies lay eggs in the bin and maggots hatch will they eat down the contents of the bin. If so, how would I attract maggots to the bin?

    • Good thinking Ian! Yes, it turns out maggots can break down organic matter even faster than worms. There are people working with Black Soldier Fly (BSF) larvae to do just that, with compost bins designed to invite them in, and even mechanisms to allow larvae to escape, straight into a feeding container for chickens! I’m looking into this style of composting myself. You might be able to innovate a way to have the best of both worlds. I’ll let you know as I find out more.

  7. Are there BSF flies in Alberta Canada? If not will “regular” maggots do the same job? I don’t want to purchase anything and I also don’t want to risk introducing a new species to an area that they don’t belong.

  8. I have 7 raised beds measuring 4’X8′. I am interested in putting in 2 permanent stations in each bed … so each station would service a 4’X4′ area. What size pipe (diameter & length) do you recommend? Also, how deep do you recommend the pipe be in the ground? Our beds are only 1′ deep. I really look forward to hearing from you!

    • Hi Amy, thanks for your question.
      For raised beds, where the soil in the bed is not in contact with the surrounding soil, you can introduce compost worms (if you know someone who has a worm farm I’m sure they’ll share a scoop or two with you.) and you can set up stations just by using a large empty plastic plant pot, upside down, nestled in the soil about an inch, with the top (bottom) cut off and used as a lid. In this way you’re feeding in kitchen scraps just below the surface which is where compost worms love to do their work. Even one station for each bed will do, as they’ll move around in their as though its a huge worm farm.
      For beds which share contact with the surrounding soil, that’s when you want a deeper station which encourages the local earthworms to drop by for a snack. The size of the pipe has more to do with the ease with which you can fit scraps in there, and the depth can go as deep as your bed. Again, one station should do it, as earthworms move around a lot more than compost worms.

      Good luck with your project!

  9. My 60 gallon bin is completely thawed now and I have stirred it up with a bent chunk of rebar with a hook on the end. I have seen only a few flies in the bin but no other worms or maggots. I’m assuming they are on their way. My bin is almost full so I am hoping that it starts to break down fast and by a great amount so I don’t run out of room. Is there anything else I can do other than wait to encourage worms to show up?

  10. Hi,

    I have a raised bed garden which I put right on top of the grass. If I use newspaper and cardboard to discourage weeds, will those two items encourage earth worms?
    I am trying my hand at square foot gardening this year

    Many thanks,
    Maryann

    • Hi Maryann,
      Yes, wet newspaper and cardboard are common bedding/food people add to their worm farms, and yes as a sheet mulch they will encourage earthworms. Depending on the type of grass you’re building on top of, I would consider either laying a thick blanket of cardboard/newspaper, or a thinner layer, wet, and a plastic layer on top. Both will prevent grasses growing through, but the first will eventually break down and grass may then enter your beds and cause you grief. The second option needs some consideration because moisture can pool in a plastic bottom, but you can work with that to create a wicking bed, which is a very water-efficient technique for garden beds. Hope that helps and good luck!

  11. My bin level has dropped a bit and it continues to drop enough that I can add whatever waste is produced in the house.

    I still haven’t had to shovel it out so that is a good thing. We will be landscaping our yard soon. They will be digging out an area for a garden. When that happens I’m going to shovel out the bin so that I have more room and also to add some “trench compost” to the garden.

  12. Hi Shaun,

    I’m wanting to put some worm towers directly into my veggie patches. You say to remove them once you have enough worms but can I leave them in there and continue to put my scraps in forever and ever?

    I intend to periodically clean out the inside of the worm tower of course and share the insides with my potted plants!

    • Hi Emma, yes you can leave your towers where they are, and you don’t need to flush them or clean them out. If you’re wanting to get castings out you might have to wait a while after feeding for all the material to break down.

      Good luck!

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