Vermicastings are the scientific term for worm castings. We feed a mixture of organic wastes to our population of earthworms (Eisenia fetida). They, in turn, ingest the material, breaking it down into smaller components, inoculating it with beneficial microbes before excreting it out their backsides. So yes, vermicastings is the fancy term for worm poop. There is no heat involved in the process, so nutrients aren't lost as gases, like they can be during composting. The earthworm greatly increases the surface area of ingested material allowing for a high density of microbes to colonize the material and increase the nutrient availability of this now stable organic matter. This method of managing organic material is called vermiculture.
Remaining fruit and vegetable waste after 5 days of feeding
Worm bin fed with shredded fruit and vegetable waste
Worm castings are water-soluble allowing plants to quickly absorb essential nutrients and trace minerals. These nutrients are available to plants over a greater length of time and will not burn even the most delicate plants. They are much richer in nutrients than bulk compost, therefore application rates are much lower. Chemical fertilizers are a one-shot wonder. The plant uses what is immediately available – the rest leaches out into the soil beyond the plants reach. Worm castings release nutrients slowly, being readily available to plants throughout long stretches of the growing season.
To understand why worm castings supercharge plants, we need some backstory.
It’s kind of funny, soil didn’t start out with plants. It started out with bacteria and fungi. We will refer to them as microbes. Plants came after, so for the hundreds of millions of years that plants evolved in the soil, they have always had microbes alongside them. That’s a long time to get to know someone, and the plants formed a very close relationship with these microbes. It wasn’t till the last couple hundred years that we started to decouple plants from their friends via herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, grading, tilling, etc. Decoupling plants from their microbes has had its consequences.
Plants are not great at collecting water and nutrients from the soil profile on their own, so they “hire” members of the soil food web to collect many of these resources for them. Some of these members of the soil food web are bacteria and fungi, microbes. These microbes collect resources from the surrounding soil and bring it back to the plant’s roots. The plant trades a combination of sugars, carbohydrates, and proteins called “exudates,” which it produces itself, for the resources collected by the microbes. “You give me this and I’ll give you that.” The different organisms are simply making a mutuality beneficial trade. These sorts of cooperative relationships in nature are called symbiotic relationships.
The most important of all these cooperative relationships are between fungi and plant roots called “mycorrhiza.” 90 percent of all the plant species in the world form mycorrhizal relationships with one (frequently many) species of fungi. They play critical roles in developing and maintaining healthy ecosystems. Researchers have shown that mycorrhizas dramatically increase plant health and survival. Mycorrhiza are just one branch of the tree, which make up the history of the relationship between microbes and plants.
(mycorrhiza colonizing plant root hairs, extending the reach of plant roots into the soil and providing a protective shield against harmful organisms and chemical burns such as road salt)
Bacteria and fungi do more than just help plants collect vital nutrients and water. They offer many beneficial services to plants and plants are happy to pay for those services. For example, trees will send up to 40% of their produced energy down into the soil, in the form of exudates, to feed these microbes. Why would a tree in the fight for survival willingly give away nearly half of its energy to another organism? The tree is investing its energy into microbes and receiving a return on that energy investment that justifies nearly half of the tree’s energy production. The tree is receiving a large amount of help from these microbes!
Roots that have released exudates into their surrounding soil, commonly support populations of microbes that are 10 to 50 times higher than areas outside the root zone. This massive population of microbes depends on the plant to feed them exudates otherwise they cannot all survive. Now the survival of the microbes is directly tied to the health and survival of the plant. The plant is their source of food. It is in the best interest of the microbes to protect and support their source of food. Some of these microbes produce plant growth hormones that boost the plant’s ability to grow and function, increasing the plant’s ability to release more exudates to feed the microbes. It’s a win-win situation, the plant grows better, and the microbes get more food.
Other microbes offer protective services, deterring and out-competing organisms that would look to harm or feed on their plant buddy. Microbes are to plants as a stone wall is to a castle. They are the first and most important line of defense, helping to regulate who does and doesn’t get to the plant.
So where do all these amazing microbes live? The vast majority of them live in the topsoil.
Soils Journey Through Time
The vast majority of microbes live in the topsoil. The topsoil is where 80 percent of a plant’s roots will locate themselves. The roots concentrate here because it is the best place to form relationships with microbes and gather nutrients. Not all soils are created equal and when we disturb our soils with tillage, compaction, grading, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides we are killing many of the helpful microbes that our plants depend on. When we disturb the soil, it is like rewinding a movie. We are sending soil backwards in time, towards conditions that normally don’t favor the plants we are wanting to grow.
Let’s dive into soil succession a little deeper. Let’s use the example of a new neighborhood. In the beginning, a construction crew comes in and removes all the vegetation and grades the landscape down to subsoil for good building foundations and proper water movement through the neighborhood. Streets and new homes are built, then landscaping and yards are installed. The soil community has been totally reset, back to the beginning of succession, where we will begin our journey.
Very Early Succession
Bacteria: Fungi Ratio 1:10000
There is no topsoil or fungi present. Sand, silt, clay, rock are the only components present in the beginning. Bacteria that use the sun to make energy, much like plants, are the first on the scene to colonize this soil. After many cycles of life, reproduction, and death there is enough dead organic matter in the soil for a bacterial decomposer community to move in. Eventually organic matter and soil biology builds to a point where plants can grow, usually grasses and weeds. These plants make up most of the 10% of plants that DO NOT form mycorrhizal relationships. (This is the point in succession where we attempt many of our planting projects)
Bacteria: Fungi Ratio 1:10
The grazing and death of the bacteria in this early succession soil produces nitrogen in the form of nitrate. All plants need nitrogen, but not all plants flourish on nitrate as a source of nitrogen. Grasses, weeds, and annuals prefer nitrate. Most perennial and woody plants do not thrive on nitrate, though they may begrudgingly survive on it. Therefore, these bacteria-adapted plants that prefer nitrate more easily out-compete the woody plants. The pH of this bacterial dominate soil is also very alkaline.
Bacteria: Fungi Ratio 1:1
Over time, as the soil community evolves and succession moves forward, shrubs and other perennials start to get a foothold. Providing woody organics and releasing their own special exudates promoting more fungal growth in the soil. Changing the characteristics of the soil and bringing the soil pH towards neutral.
Bacteria: Fungi Ratio 2:1
As time passes, perennial plants, shrubs, and trees shade out early succession plants and drop their litter, promoting fungal decomposer communities. In this now fungal dominate soil pH is more on the acidic side. Nitrogen in the form of ammonium is now the most prevalent, a form that woody plants and most perennials can now thrive on.
Very Late Succession
Bacteria: Fungi Ratio 10:1
With a Bacteria: Fungi Ratio now in favor of woody species, late succession trees can establish and out-compete plant species that prefer earlier succession soil conditions, continuing to move the Bacteria: Fungi Ratio more towards fungal dominate. Old-growth forest in the pacific northwest can have Bacteria: Fungi Ratios of 1000:1!
Most of the plants that we love in our landscaping and gardens prefer Midsuccession to late-succession soil conditions, yet we insist on planting them in very early succession soils and then wonder why they struggle so much.
(Our plants want to grow in soil on the left but we often plant in soils like the one on the right.)
It takes decades even centuries for succession to naturally play out in a soil! We don’t have that kind of time. This is where our worm castings come in. Our worm castings contain the key components of later succession soils that our desirable plants crave because at Back to Earth, we aren’t worm farmers, we’re microbe farmers. Our recipe is designed to promote massive populations of microbes at a Bacteria: Fungi Ratio that many of our desirable plants prefer. Our recipe also focuses on combating nutrient deficiencies commonly found in our heavily disturbed local soils. When we plant later succession plants in alien, early succession soil our product brings the comforts of their late succession home to them. Creating a happy microhabitat where each plant needs it. Microbes are valuable members of the soil food web and provide so many benefits to the soil and to plants.
The Ohio State University tested the effects of worm castings on bell peppers at different concentrations in Metro Mix 360 growth media (MM360). MM360 is a very common growth media in commercial greenhouses. They found that a potting mixture of 40% worm castings and 60% MM360 growth media yielded 45% higher pepper weights and had 17% greater numbers of peppers per plant, on average, than those grown in 100% MM360. Wow, that is a big difference in yield! They found significant increases in pepper weight and number in just 10% worm castings and 90% MM360 as well. A little bit can go a long way! Similar studies have been done on all sorts of different plants.
It is no wonder than the utilization of worm castings has increased rapidly in the horticultural industry since the publication of multiple studies that have measured these benefits provided by worm castings. Growers are seeing much greater economic returns, due to faster and more successful germination, earlier flowering, larger yields, and better-quality crops.
We have done some experimenting with our own worm castings. The good folks at BroxonBerry Farms in Markle, IN became hooked after our worm castings turned their germination success rate of 75% into 96% for many of their leafy greens. They were kind enough to do a growth experiment with lettuces. Comparing the lettuce head weights of lettuces grown in 5 different soils, with and without our worm castings.
“Overall, it can be determined vermicastings improved growth in the lettuces. Only one variety of the five performed worse than with vermicastings, with only a mere 1.35% difference. Since the conclusion of the trial, all lettuce starting soil on the farm has been prepared with compost and vermicastings. I have theorized the lettuce starts are developing larger root systems early on, which allow for more explosive growth in its later stages. If this theory holds true, it stands to reason vermicastings is a viable option for many plant starts to get well established early on for better late-stage growth and potentially larger harvests.”
-This trial was performed by Justin Miller on the BroxonBerry farm using Back to Earth Vermicastings
Disclaimer:All these application rates are based off science, research, and good old experience. If you don’t use them at the recommended rates, it will not be the end of the world. You can see significant results at lower rates. A little can go a long way, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Remember, the more contact your plant's roots have with the castings, the stronger your results will be. We do not recommend ever planting in 100% vermicastings. A high-quality vermicast contains natural plant growth hormones, which can harm plants if the levels are too high. There really is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Any company that claims that you should plant in 100% vermicastings is either selling a poor-quality worm casting, trying to boost their sales, or both!
TREES and SHRUBS:
For Ball n Burlap Transplants follow the two illustrations below. For all other tree and shurb transplanting types, dig your transplant hole double the root ball diameter. Place transplant into the hole and mix worm castings in with the native backfill material (10-20% worm castings, 80-90% native backfill). Apply an additional layer of worm castings 1 inch deep on top of the transplant root ball extending out to the edge of the transplant hole. Then apply mulch like you normally would, but 1 inch thinner to account for the 1 inch of worm castings you applied. Water like you would a normal transplant.
Apply a thin layer of vermicastings (1 inch deep) at the bottom of the hole before planting. Place transplant into the hole, backfill the hole with a mix of worm castings (≈25%) and excavated soil (≈75%). Apply an additional layer of worm castings (1/2 inch deep) on top of the root ball before the final covering with excavated soil, like you would a normal transplant. Water often and well, but do not overwater.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES:
Studies have shown that there are significant increases in health and yield at lower concentrations of worm castings, down to about 10% worm castings to 90% your favorite growth media. We believe the most cost-effective ratio is around a concentration of 15-20% worm castings. For best results, most common fruits and vegetables produce their maximum yield at 35%-40% worm castings 60%-65% your favorite growth media.
If you are making your own potting mix from scratch, we recommend mixing 1 part vermicastings with 2 parts your favorite growth media.
Scratch away the soil above the rootzone of your plant as deep as you can without disturbing the root system, apply a thin layer of worm castings directly to the bottom, then mix worm castings with the backfill you scratched away at a ratio of 1 part worm castings to 3 parts backfill. Reapply the new, mixed backfill above the rootzone, lightly pack and water.
If seeding a new lawn, put on about 10 lbs. of worm castings per 100 sq. ft. of lawn. Work it into the top few inches of topsoil before spreading grass seed. After your grass seed is down, cover with straw and water. If you have an established lawn, use 8 lbs. per 100 sq. ft. of lawn as a top dressing the day before your next lawn mowing. For either new or old lawns, make sure to water well once after application. This will lead to a greener and lusher lawn that is more resilient to drought than your neighbors’.
Darker grass areas in the picture represent the areas that received heavy application of vermicastings.
Vermicast tea is basically a liquid version of vermicastings. Because many of the nutrients and natural plant growth hormones are water-soluble, and a large portion of the microbes can live in water, you’ll see many of the benefits of solid vermicastings in a liquid version. Vermicast tea can easily be applied directly to your plants’ foliage via a backpack sprayer. Studies have shown that vermicast teas are effective at kickstarting seed germination and early growth stages. They also deter many pests that would very much like to damage your plants; common pests like aphids, two-spotted spider mites, and others.
Having problems with pests on your fruit trees? Doss them in a coat of vermicast tea and prevent future damage while maintaining safe, chemical-free fruits for you and your family to enjoy!
Aphid investastion before Vermicast Tea applications.
Aphid investastion after 3 Vermicast Tea applications in 5 days.
MAKING VERMICAST TEA:
Making vermicast tea is incredibly easy. Put vermicastings in a mesh bag and soak it in a bucket with either air stones or a little aquarium air pump for 24 hours. Pour the tea into a clean backpack sprayer or squirt bottle and – BAM! – you have a liquid version of vermicastings ready to apply directly to your plants. For best results, use air stones or an air pump. These methods agitate the water and add oxygen to it, which is important for your microbe populations.
Air pumps are available on Amazon for as little at $7.00.
Mesh bags are available on Amazon for as little as $3.00 (Camco 51031 19”x22” Nylon Mesh Bag).
Best plant responses have been observed when using a ratio of vermicastings to water of between 1:10 and 1:20. To get a ratio of 1:10 use 1 ½ cup vermicastings for every one gallon of water and for a ratio of 1:20 use ¾ cup of vermicastings for every one gallon of water.
Spray early in the day before it gets too hot, and if possible, spray on cloudy days to reduce microbe exposure to UV rays.
At Back to Earth Vermicastings, we go a long way to ensure that you get a top-notch product. Unlike most vermicasting producers, all our vermicastings production takes place indoors, allowing us to better control pest, weed seed contamination, moisture, and exposure to the elements. We monitor all the growth parameters inside each of our worm bins with sensors linked to a custom-built software, to ensure that we maintain healthy populations, produce outstanding castings, and consistent quality. So that way the vermicastings your neighbor gets preform just as well as yours.
Our process starts with landfill diverted fruit and vegetable waste collected from the local community. We mix this food waste with other organic materials which then goes through a pre-composting phase to kill pathogens and weed seeds before moving into our building. Once in the building, we mix it with a few natural ingredients to boost micronutrient and microbial counts before systemically feeding it to our worm. This multi-stage process ensures a top-notch product that produces as consistently for you and your plants as it does for your neighbor.
“By reducing wasted food in landfills, we cut harmful methane emissions that fuel climate change, conserve our natural resources, and protect our planet for future generations.”
The largest waste stream to be landfilled in 2015 was food waste. It made up 22% of the landfilled material, equating to 32.4 million tons. Only 5% of the food waste we generated was composted.
When food waste is taken to the landfill, they bury it which deprives it of oxygen. Since the food waste doesn’t have access to oxygen it begins to decompose anaerobically. A biproduct of this anaerobic decomposition is methane, which a large portion of escapes into our atmosphere, as a gas. Methane gas is a greenhouse gas just like carbon dioxide, except it is 23x more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Every 1 pound of methane gas released into the atmosphere has the same effect as 23 pounds of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.
When food waste is vermicomposted it is fed to worms whose digestive system grinds up, greatly increasing the surface area. This allows for many more microorganisms to inhabit it, which in turn allows it to decompose much quicker than normal composting. This decomposition process takes place in the presence of oxygen which means that there is no harmful methane biproduct. The end product is worm castings (vermicastings). We talk about how vermicastings help store carbon in the next section.
This 27’x27’x27’ cube represents one metric ton (MT) of carbon dioxide, which is how much an average American produces in two weeks. The person on the bottom right is to show scale.
One MT of landfilled food waste PRODUCES 0.82 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. One MT of vermicomposted food waste STORES approximately 0.17 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
Diverting 1 MT of food waste from a landfill and to a vermicomposting facility equates to a positive change of 0.99 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
When you buy Back to Earth Vermicastings, you aren’t only giving your plants the best food and home for their health, you are shrinking your own carbon cube(footprint) at the same time!
Fort Wayne Trees
7195 East State Road 14
Columbia City, IN 46725
(Available ONLY with purchase of tree or shrub)
5359 W 700 N
Markle, IN 46770
5867 Lake Ave
Fort Wayne, IN 46815