Back to the Land: Earthworm Farming and Urban Gardens

Below is a detailed guide for creating your own worm farm and home kitchen garden. After harvest, the plant waste will return to the earthworms, which in turn will feed the garden and close the cycle of the production of organic homegrown produce, free of chemicals and rich in nutrients.

Text and Photos:  Javier A Pinzón

Pesticides, unfair trade, climate change, food security, increasing urban populations in comparison to rural populations…There are hundreds of reasons to reduce the amount of waste we create by returning to the land to grow at least part of our own food. But we are confined in small apartments in the middle of huge urban areas. What are we to do?

I met Felipe Camacho more than ten years ago, when we were both students. He aspired to be a systems engineer and I was studying to be a biologist. After graduation, I became a science promoter and, in the course of my work, I ran into him again, but instead of being surrounded by cables and hard drives, he was in the midst of seedlings on a California worm farm.

He laughed at my surprise and explained that none of this had been by chance. In his senior year of high school, in the late 90s, he had developed a self-sufficient integral farm with fellow students as a school project. Ever since then, he has been interested in plants and self-sustaining crops. After his engineering degree, he was able to repair PCs, connect networks, and solve Wi-Fi problems, but the plants always remained a hobby. In 2014, however, when he went back to graduate school to specialize in digital marketing, his hobby became increasingly central in his life. As a final project for his master’s degree, he invented the Viverolandia platform to promote the creation of urban gardens fed by earthworms.

Although worm farming is considered a biotechnology and can be carried out on a large scale, it’s also possible to do it at home. There are two potential benefits to worm farming at home: reducing organic waste and producing 100% natural fertilizer for a garden. The earthworm, especially the California one, is able to fulfill both of these environmental services. While consuming our organic waste (and reducing what ends up in landfills), it produces a natural fertilizer that is much more efficient than the synthetic ones on the market. The worms eat the equivalent of their weight on a daily basis and 55% of this is converted into fertilized soil, which contains large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and calcium. These worms actually originated in Europe, but it was in California that their ability to contribute to the production of fertile and fertilized soil was popularized.

How to Start a Worm Farm

Felipe explains step-by-step how to start a worm farm. The first thing is choosing a container: a plastic bucket works well and the size will depend on the available space. The soil where the worms will live must be well oxygenated, since these animals breathe through their skin, so it’s important that the bucket has holes that allow for drainage and ventilation. It’s essential to have a second container under the worm farm, to collect leftover liquid, called “worm tea.” It has no odor and is an excellent fertilizer for the garden.

Preparing the Bed with Soil and Food

Once you have your container, you should add one part soil and two parts organic waste, such as peels and pieces from fruits and vegetables, especially if they are soft and sweet. You should avoid onions and citrus peels, especially orange peels, and eggshells should be ground before they are added. In order to keep the soil moist, cover the waste with an absorbent paper towel or piece of cardboard.

Adding the Worms

Once the container is ready, very carefully add the working worms, which will digest the organic matter and convert it into fertile, fertilized soil. You shouldn’t try to disperse them, because the more they stay together, the more quickly they will reproduce and decompose the organic matter. These worms are hermaphrodites, which means they can be either male or female, depending on what is needed. Under ideal conditions, temperatures between 57.2 ° F and 80.6 °F, these worms will live for four and a half years and can produce approximately 1,300 offspring per year.

Harvesting the Humus

Once the worms have done their work, the humus is ready to be harvested. There are several ways to do this, but the goal is to separate the worms from the fertilized soil. You can stop feeding them for seven days and then put food in a corner. After a few hours the majority of the worms will be gathered together eating, making it easy to remove the soil from the rest of the container. Since earthworms do not like light, which can be fatal for them, if you place the container in the sun or under a lamp, the worms will hide as deep in the soil as possible, making it easier to collect the humus at the surface of the container. You can also empty the entire container and collect the worms one by one.

Once you have the humus, mix it with soil to sow your plants; this is the raw material for your organic home garden. There are many nutritional, medicinal, economic, environmental, and personal benefits to having a home garden. Here are some suggestions for getting started.

The Home Garden

The ideal spot for your garden will receive at least six hours of daily sunlight. To prevent the roots from dying due to high temperatures, use clay pots with sufficient drainage and depth, from 2.75 to 6 inches, so that the roots can grow and absorb nutrients from the fertilized soil. It is best to start your garden with purchased seedlings, since you will get much faster results than with seeds. The key to the garden’s success is good care, enough water and, of course, the organic humus created by the earthworms.

It’s common for gardens to receive small insects as visitors, some beneficial and some not. Aphids, insects from the Hemiptera family, are a bad sign because they are parasites that can quickly kill plants. Ladybugs and bees, however, are the best allies for your garden. Ladybugs feed on aphids, which makes them an excellent natural insecticide (you can also prepare homemade natural insecticides: garlic tea and hot peppers will keep undesirable intruders away). Bees help gardens by pollinating flowers so that they can produce fruit.

In a short time, your garden will supply you with tomatoes for salads, mint and spearmint for drinks, zucchini and eggplant for baking, spinach for soup, beans for rice, and rosemary, thyme, and basil to add flavor to all your meals. After harvest, the earthworms will once again receive the plant waste, which eventually feeds the garden and completes the cycle of the production of organic and homemade food, free of chemicals and rich in nutrients.

We should also note that, according to data from the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), urban gardens can be up to fifteen times more productive than rural farms. A space of just over one square yard can provide 44 pounds of food per year. So put on your farmer’s hat and start making a change, because not only will you be well fed, but you will also help to create green belts within your city, strengthening its resilience to climate change.


Examples of Successful Projects

In 2007, a group of students from McGill University’s School of Architecture converted a concrete area on the campus into a productive garden space, which they called The Edible Campus. It produces 13 pounds of food per approximately 11 square feet. In 2008, the project won the National Urban Design Award.

In Haiti, simple technologies and container planting techniques have been developed since 1998 —including the use of old cooking pots, tires, baskets, and the like— to help families on the outskirts of the city grow food in a total of 19 participating districts.

Montreal has incorporated urban agriculture as a form of permanent land use in its municipal parks. The city has the largest community garden program in Canada.

Urban agriculture is a priority in Cuba. In the capital alone, there are 90,000 people dedicated to planting home gardens. In 2013, this activity produced 6,700 tons of food for 300,000 people.

In 2009, an urban agriculture pilot project was launched in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, a city with one of the highest rates of urban poverty. This has made it possible to improve nutrition and save on food expenses for families, thanks to the abundant harvests of radishes, cilantro, lettuce, and cucumber.

From its beginnings in 2014, the restaurant Íntimo in Panama City has devoted part of its land to planting a garden, which supplies a portion of the ingredients used on the menu.