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 fact sheets - Earthworms
INTRODUCTION

(Magnified earthworm photo courtesy of Stuart McClure, CSIRO Land and Water )

Have you ever seen small particles of dead and decaying grass or leaves disappearing into a small hole in the ground?
There is a good possibility it was a worm in action.


Without the aid of worms, every plant and animal that expired and laid to rest on the ground would lodge right where it touched down. All trees, leaves, flowers, fruit, nuts, dead animals and food waste will just keep piling up and we would be trying to push through it. Worms and other types of decomposers ( beetles etc.) break down all this refuse. Trees and leaves turn into rich soil for new seedlings to germinate and grow into new plants. Then the cycle starts all over again. If you go into a forest you can see old dead logs or fallen leaves which are decaying, this will end up as rich soil for new seedlings to grow. The leaf litter (dead leaves and animals) contains nutrients which were made by plants during photosynthesis, this includes calcium, nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, and organic minerals and nutrients from dead animals.

Worms will munch organic material through their front end and out their back end comes worm poo, which is a very important natural organic plant food. Because the worm digs long deep tunnels and excretes worm poo behind itself, it creates tunnels which aerate the soil and carries water plus nutrients deep down to the plant's root system.

This action is like digging a deep trench across the garden and when you replace the soil, both the top soil and base soil are mixed together. This mixing action allows not only the nutrients from the organic layer to reach the plant's roots but also allows the minerals from the parent soil to come to the surface.
The layers of soil are thoroughly mixed, seeds are covered which enable them to germinate, and over long periods of time stones and other objects on the surface are buried. Every year earthworm castings cover each acre with approximately 18 tons of rich organic soil. The earthworms usually die in the hot dry summer and the organic material making up their bodies is gradually distributed, providing additional nutrients for plants.

AERATING
As worms move through the soil, they loosen it, creating air pockets. This allows oxygen to get to the roots of the plants so they can breathe.


CREATING SOIL DRAINAGE
Worm burrows are like drainage pipes in the ground which decrease the drainage problems in heavy soil and help to prevent sour, diseased soil.

EARTH WORMS ARE GOOD FOR LAWN TURF
Lawn that has been established for some time will tend to build up a lot of thatch. Thatch is a layer of living and dead roots, stems, and organic matter that accumulates at the soil surface. Thatch accumulates when the rate of decomposition is much slower than the rate of the growth of the grass. Thatch can also be caused by cutting the lawn when it is too long and left to lay on top. When using certain fertilizers or pesticides it may encourage an accumulation of thatch by increasing turf growth and/or killing beneficial organisms, such as earthworms which are needed to break down organic matter. Exorbitant amounts of thatch reduces penetration of water and other materials, such as fertilizer. Thatch will encourage the development of a shallow grass root system which makes the turf more susceptible to stress and pests attack. A heavy build up of thatch can require expense in having the area scarified and cored. Nature supplies earthworms to break apart the thatch and pull organic matter deep into the soil and also mix extensive amounts of soil into the thatch layer. This aids in a more speedy deterioration of the thatch layer by increasing microbial activity and enhances its properties for the improved growth of turfgrass.
Earthworms are generally found in the top 30cm to 45cm of soil since this is where food supply is most plentiful. The worm ingests soil and organic matter which is swallowed and ground in the gizzard. The excreted material (castings) are employed to line the burrow or are deposited at the entrance of their holes. Often people mistake these mounds for pest and apply chemicals to the ground before checking to see what has caused them. Earthworm tunnels through the soil help oxygen and water to penetrate the soil further and their castings (waste product) enriches the ground.
For earthworm activity to thrive depends directly on soil temperature and moisture. They become active when soil begins to warm in the spring and they move deeper below the ground in late summer as the soil surface begins dry.

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HOW TO BUILD A WORM JARWorm Jars
Children need to be educated with nature's wonders of the garden world.
The best way is to start from the soil up, explaining how the worms mix the top rotting material with the ground below. So why not start a worm jar!

You will need a jar or a wide neck bottle.
Put a small amount (approx two centimetres) of gravel to go onto the bottom of the jar. This area will hold the moisture in the bottom.
Follow this with five layers of different types of sands and soils, using different colours and textures to help the variations stand out.
After you have deposited the five layers into the jar, place a few worms on top of the mix.
Now position a small layer of rotted leaves or vegetable scraps on top.
Last of all, place three pellets of organic slow release fertilizer on the top and give a very light spraying of water. Only add more moisture when the soil shows signs of drying out. The amount of water in the gravel cell at the bottom of the jar will give you a guide on how moist the soil is.
Wrap a piece of dark paper around the jar and secure with a rubber band to hold the paper in place. This will help keep the light out and encourage the worms to dig their holes against the edge of the glass.

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VERMICOMPOST

NATURAL RECYCLING
Worms recycle food waste by turning it into compost or plant food. If we allow worms to recycle our organic waste either in compost bins or dug into the ground we can keep it out of our landfills.
The earth worms prefer a neutral to alkaline soil, and they can live in acidic soils with a pH as low as 5.2. If you wish to maintain a large number of worms in the garden and the soil is below a pH of 5.5, then I would suggest you dissolve a handful of agricultural lime in water and mix it into the feed before applying to the pit. Make sure the powder does not come into direct contact with the worms as the material will burn and cause the worms to become dehydrated and die.

Worms love to live in a light, sandy loam and not heavy clay, so by adding coarse sand, gypsum or organic materials to the clay they will further enhance the soil. In time the worms will work the soil over by mixing the added materials with the clay and their castings will improve the crumb structure.

To keep your earth worms living in the ground, always keep plenty of deep mulch on top of the ground surface. Regular natural organic fertilizer added to the mulch will make your worms happy and want to live in your garden.

HOW TO PREPARE YOUR WORM BIN OR HEAP

When building a pit or container for holding worms make sure that you first place approximately 200 mm of coarse organic material (straw or garden cuttings) over a layer of gravel to give good drainage at the bottom of the pit. Then place 250 mm of shredded newspaper plus peat moss over the top and then add 250 mm of kitchen scraps. Now soak thoroughly, cover with plastic and then the pile should heat up to 60 deg C.

After two weeks the temperature should have dropped to 25 deg C. The plastic can then be removed, and once the temperature has dropped below this level, the worms can be sprinkled on top of the heap and they will very quickly wriggle into the mix.

After the worms have disappeared, place another layer of scraps on top and then cover the heap with wet hessian to ensure that the worms feed all the time, placing more scraps as they consume the food.

FEEDING YOUR WORMS IS NOT A PROBLEM

Red worms will eat any thing that was once living, including all kitchen scraps such as:- old bread, vegetable scraps, tea leaves and left overs from the food table, shredded newspaper, cardboard, grass and garden mulched leaves and fallen fruit. Meat scraps are very good, but such feed tends to attract flies, dogs and cats.

Some food scraps may take longer to break down. Corn cobs, nut shells, bones, egg shells and seeds. If you grind them smaller they will decompose at a faster rate.

ADDING THE INGREDIENTS
A mixture of well rotted cow manure and lucerne hay builds up bulk in your worms. Place the mixture in several piles on top of the pit so the worms do not have to wriggle all over the place looking for food. Place enough food to last the worms for two days, otherwise the feed will go sour and mouldy and the worms will not touch the heaps at all. If you do not want to go to the trouble of buying this feed material, a mixture of soft fruits can be made from:- cabbage leaves, capsicums, tomatoes, in fact all sorts of vegetables that you find unfit to eat yourself.

SPECIAL NOTE
Fruit fly eggs can be on the fruit peel that you throw into you compost. You can prevent infestation by freezing the waste food for twenty four hours. The smaller you chop your food waste the faster worms and bacteria can compost it.

DO NOT FEED YOUR WORMS WITH
Worms can eat most food wastes, but some types of foods that people eat may be harmful to earthworms. Highly acidic foods like pineapples, lemons, large quantities of salt, spicy foods (hot peppers, curries) pickles (food soaked in vinegar)

FISHING WORMS
Need to be fat and juicy to attract the fish. This can be achieved by separating several handfuls of mature worms and keeping them in a box or pit.
Once the worms have turned all the scraps into compost, you have a ready made natural organic soil.


SUMMARY
1/ Worms weigh about 250 grams per 1000 and the can live up to 15 years.
2/ They double their population every 6 to 8 weeks.
3/ They will eat almost their own weight daily.
4/ Worms will turn any organic matter into casting (their manure) to a neutral PH.
5/ They are hermaphrodites (male/female) and lay eggs on maturity (2-3 months).
6/ The worm eggs have 1-28 babies.
7/ Remember worms do not like acidic things such as; Citrus, Onions etc.
8/ Worms just love bananas and eat paper and cardboard.
9/ They do not eat anything live.
10/ Worms are good for the environment and help save rubbish tip space.
11/ They need shade and moisture to survive.
12/ To keep a successful worm farm you will need at least 1,000 worms.
13/ Worms farms can dispose of dog droppings providing the droppings are used separately in small doses.



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