When I first moved out to the HQ on the Heart Diamond Ranch, my first project was to establish a small, but intensive food garden. I chose a location with easy access to water, the appropriate amount of sunshine hours and at the right time of day. I was also looking at the soil of all of my candidate locations but quickly came to realize that none of my options had outstanding soil, though many were acceptable for the first season. The soil consisted of a red sand that, although nutrient rich, contained a very small amount of organic material. Although I could grow healthy plants in the sandy, well-drained soil, I knew that my heavy feeding garden vegetables would rapidly deplete the soils nutrients as well as be in frequent need of water when the long, hot summer days started to stretch out between rains. With these criteria in mind, I picked my favorite site and set about doing several things.
First, I marked off the edges of my new plot and went after it with a pick, loosening the soil and breaking the thin, tough and yellow bermuda grass from the years before.
Next, I double dug the patch, using a bale of alfalfa hay that was at least 5+ years old as my organic matter amendment to fertilize and provide some kind of primer or substrate for any mycelium that might want to bless my garden when the conditions were right.
After that, I put a heavy layer of the same, aged alfalfa hay mulch on top to keep some moisture in and maybe slow down the bermuda grass. Knowing that my tilling and mulch weren’t enough to permanently stop the bermuda grass from returning once I started watering this patch, I transplanted in enough large leafy greens to densely shade out the floor of my garden plot.
With the immediate garden established, I looked to longer term soil building strategies. At the time, I was the sole resident of the ranch headquarters, so I was only producing a very small stream of organic food and vegetable scraps. The garden was also still in its infancy, so it wasn’t really producing enough plant material to feed the large compost pile that I really wanted. So, I decided to build a smaller-scale solution to turn my small organic matter waste stream into a dynamic soil amendment.
Enter the worm tower.
A worm tower is a cylinder, usually PVC pipe of varying diameter, that is partially buried vertically in a garden or raised bed with holes drilled throughout the buried portion. Organic material is added little by little to the top of the cylinder and the decomposing material ideally attracts worms and other decomposers that will enter through the drilled holes in the cylinder and break the material inside down into humus, allowing the nutrients to leach out into your surrounding garden soil.
I decided that a small version of a worm tower would be ideal for converting my kitchen scraps into humus and getting them into my garden soil.
First, I collected my materials:
You can see above, I used a section of 3″ PVC pipe that came pre-cut at 18″ long.
Next, I marked out where I would drill holes in roughly evenly spaced pattern. That part is really up to you, although good luck being happy with a pattern that doesn’t look at least a little symmetrical.
Since I didn’t have a vice to stabilize the pipe while drilling, or a very sharp large drill bit, I used a smaller drill bit to drill guide holes, before going back over each one with a larger, 1/4″ drill bit.
I used a drill in this instance, however, in the future, I think my Dremel/Rotary tool with a burr or the small drill bit attachment would have been just as well now that I have more experience with the Dremel and PVC.
As you can see, they don’t have to be exact, just be sure to drill enough of them, as not enough will lead to poor access to your materials by the worms and possibly poor drainage of any liquids that may accumulate as a result of decomposition.
You can also see that I didn’t perforate the entire pipe. In deciding how much pipe to bury, I considered the fact that my annual vegetables will feed most heavily in the top six inches of the soil, so I definitely wanted to bury my tower that deep. Any extra depth would be great, but not necessary in this particular example.
Another very important note: Make absolutely sure that none of your holes are above ground level. Worms and ants are not friends. Also, although ants may eventually find their way into your worm tower from underground, if they find their way in through holes you drill above ground, they will likely carry your materials back to their own homes and any worms they find in the process. It’s not the end of the world if ants get in, for example, they don’t hurt a compost pile, but they will make your worms think twice about joining the party…or just eat them.
The hole was a good fit, leaving only about 6 inches above the soil level.
Finally, since it was late summer/early fall, I wanted to give my worms and their food a little temperature boost throughout the winter months. To do this I painted what would be a south-facing section of the pipe black with spray paint so it could catch some of the low winter sun and keep the contents a little warmer, hopefully speeding up decomposition in colder months.
After that I loaded it up with my garden litter and kitchen scraps:
The jury is still out on whether those egg shells will break down, by the way. It’s all a glorious experiment though, so I’ll let you know!
Put on the cap and used my Magic Worm Whistle to call the worms in for dinner.
What’s that you say, how do you make a Magic Worm Whistle? Well, that’s for another post.
Happy Worm Tower Building!