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How to Create Topsoil 100 Times Faster

Earthworm eggs
Earthworms aerate the soil in your garden as the munch through organic matter. We offer Earthworm Eggs, which will hatch into 1,500 adult worms.

The first article I wrote about gardening was published 28 years ago and was called "Our Earthworm Friends." It explained the role earthworms play in building topsoil. I had been reading An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard, which tells about the 25 years Howard spent researching successful farming techniques in India. An Agricultural Testament was published in 1940 and it started the organic farming and gardening revolution in Europe and the states. Howard summarized the essential truth of sustainable agriculture:

The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture.

Fertile topsoil is what allows higher life, including humans, to exist on earth. This thin layer of living "skin" supports the trees and plants we rely on for oxygen and food. It takes thousands of years for nature to "grow" a few inches of topsoil.

Inspired by Howard's book, and eager to learn more about this critical natural system, I began making compost piles, collecting leaves and growing buckwheat cover crops to accelerate topsoil formation in my garden. As my soil improved, I noticed that earthworm activity increased. While nature can take 500-1,000 years to create an inch of topsoil we (our earthworm friends and us) can do it much faster. By adding dead plants, leaves, lawn clippings, kitchen scraps and other organic matter to soil, we feed earthworms and soil life, thus making it possible to create an inch of topsoil in just 5 years—100 times faster!

When An Agricultural Testament was written, there was emerging concern that industrial agricultural practices of excessive tillage and the use of chemical fertilizers and pest controls would cause soil erosion and damage soil fertility. In the 1940s, it was estimated that the US had already lost one quarter of the topsoil it was endowed with when America was "discovered". We now have less than one half of the topsoil we had 400 years ago. Internationally, especially in Africa and Asia where the majority of the world's people live, the loss of fertile soil due to overgrazing, overplowing and deforestation are the main causes of expanding deserts. Today, 1 billion people live in arid lands that are being converted to unproductive deserts where food growing will become impossible.

Red worms
Red Wigglers (Eisenia foetida) can quickly turn kitchen waste into valuable compost. We offer a 2-lb. package, which contains about 1,500 worms in various stages of growth.

Loss of topsoil and increasing desertification are two of the top environmental problems we face today. But we can be part of the solution in our gardens and communities. As I watched the earthworm population grow in my garden, I noticed that the more organic matter I added to my soil, the faster the worms transformed it into castings—the perfect food for plants. I did some calculations. There are approximately 1 to 2 million earthworms per acre of healthy soil. A million earthworms weigh a ton and pass their own weight in soil through their body each day. That's a ton of worm castings daily—a ton of rich natural plant fertilizer every day. My little quarter acre garden was supporting 250,000-500,000 worms that were generating one quarter to one half ton of humus daily. Even with in Vermont's short, six-month growing season, earthworms were improving the soil in my garden to the tune of 50-100 tons of humus per year!

In 1987, Gardener's Supply started the Intervale Compost Project next to our offices (see www.intervale.org). Today it is the largest composting operation in Vermont, transforming 10% of our county's solid waste into nearly 20,000 tons of organic compost annually. It would take a few billion earthworms to produce that much humus!

Over the years, Gardener's Supply has also become the largest distributor of home composting equipment in the world (we recently sent a large shipment of our Pyramid Composters to Europe, so we are international!). We also support school composting programs—and especially worm composting —because we believe that the next generation needs to understand the importance of healthy soil and soil fertility.

If you'd like to try letting worms help you compost your kitchen scraps all year around (at home or in a local classroom), all you need to get started is a container (we recommend using the Worm Chalet) and some red worms (Eisenia foetida). These special worms, also know as red wigglers, manure worms, red hybrid or tiger worms, will thrive for years on a well-managed worm bin. Regular earthworms or night crawlers (Eisenia hortensis) will not survive in this environment.

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