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All Things Garden,  Compost

Worm Castings 101: Benefits to Plants and Soil

Welcome to your crash course in Worm Castings 101! If you’ve poked around our neck of the woods much, you likely know that we’re mega-fans of worm castings here at Homestead and Chill. We use this form of natural fertilizer extensively in our organic gardens – including for seedlings, raised vegetable beds, fruit trees, perennials, and more. If I had to choose just one, I’d say earthworm castings are my top-favorite soil amendment! 

Read along to learn answers to frequently asked questions about worm castings, including what they are, the benefits they offer soil and plants, how and when to use them in the garden, where to get worm castings, and more. If you’re looking for information on how to start your very own worm compost bin at home, see this step-by-step tutorial, followed by this guide on how to harvest worm castings. 

Homemade or store-bought, I know you’ll want to get your hands on some worm castings after hearing all these poo-tastic facts! So let’s dig in.



What are worm castings?


In the simplest terms, worm castings are worm poop. But keeping it that brief is greatly selling them short, because worm poo is extra-special excrement. As worms digest food or other material they consume, they break down complex nutrients into more bioavailable forms then found within the castings. When worm castings are added to soil, it provides valuable nutrition to plants as well as enhances the overall soil quality and structure. 

Because of the vast array of outstanding benefits they offer (described more to follow), earthworm castings are often called “black gold” in the horticulture world. You may also hear them referred to as vermicast or vermicastings. The prefix “vermi” means worm, so the process of composting with worms is known as vermicomposting.


Where do worm castings come from?


Worm castings used for horticulture either come from commercial compost worm farms, or from a personal worm bin that is maintained at home – like we do! All earthworms generate castings, but these specialized compost systems generally utilize a certain species of worms (Eisenia fetida, aka “reg wigglers”) that have a faster metabolism and larger appetite than common earthworms. This makes them a prized choice for vermicompost systems. They can really pump out the poo! We get our compost worms from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.

Depending on the size and type of worm farm, compost worms are kept in containers, bins, large beds or windrows. There, the worms are maintained and fed select food waste and/or green waste. After they work their magic to digest and excrete it all, the castings can be harvested and used or sold. Learn how to harvest worm castings from a home-scale worm bin here (video included). 


Red wriggler compost worms are in a small clump writhing around on the top of some castings.
Red wiggler compost worms amongst worm castings.
A grey tote being used for a worm bin. Holes are drilled into the tote around the top 3 inches of the tote for airflow. The tote contains a mixture of material that makes up the worm bedding, castings, and food. Some brown paper bags are off to the side of the tote which are used to cover the top of the bedding material when not in use.
One of our tote-style worm compost bins. We’ve used this simple and effective system for well over a decade!


What do worm castings look like


To the untrained eye, worm castings look a lot like very rich uniform soil. Worm poops are tiny, oblong, dark brown to black dots (almost like coffee grounds, but soft and without sharp edges). A handful of well-maintained finished castings will be moist but not soggy, similar to the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. When clenched together in your hand, the castings should form a clump that holds together but also easily crumbles back apart. 

Sometimes there are leftover bits of food waste, bedding (e.g. shredded newspaper or dry leaves), worms, other insects, or debris mixed in the castings. That is totally okay and normal, though it’s best if the majority of the material is castings when you apply it to the garden. 


Why use worm castings? A breakdown of the benefits for plants and soil 


  • Worm castings are a gentle, effective, natural fertilizer that provide essential nutrients to plants. Scientific studies show that using worm castings in the garden can help plants grow significantly larger, stronger, and produce more abundant and better-quality flowers, fruit, and vegetables. It can also increase a plant’s resilience to pests, drought, heat, disease, and other stress. 

  • Because they’re slow-release, it’s incredibly difficult to “overdo it” with earthworm castings. But a little also goes a long way!

  • In addition to nutrients, worm poo is loaded with beneficial bacteria and fungi that support other organisms in the soil food web – a very important component of organic gardening.

  • Worm castings also improve soil structure by increasing aeration, improving drainage, and enhancing moisture retention all at the same time!

  • By supporting worm farms or maintaining a worm compost bin at home, you’re also participating in a sustainable closed-loop system. Vermicomposting reduces the amount of garden and food waste going to the landfill and creates stellar free organic fertilizer instead. Talk about a double whammy of awesome. 


So the better question is, why not use worm castings?


A harvest photo amongst several raised garden beds loaded with growing winter greens such as bok choy, mustard greens, tatsoi, chard, and kale. In the foreground, there are five wicker baskets of varying size and design. The back three baskets contain a harvest of mustard greens, chard, bok choy, and tatsoi. The front two baskets contain, persimmons, avocados, passionfruit, and radishes. The background contains the perimeter of the garden area which contains fruit trees, shrubs, vines, and perennial flowers along with Aaron sitting on a wooden bench next to a young sycamore tree.
From seed-starting to transplanting and routine aerated compost tea, I’d say our garden is pretty satisfied with the worm castings it receives!


Are worm castings good for all types of plants?


Absolutely! Because worm castings are mild yet nutrient-rich, all types of plants will benefit from a little worm poo lovin’. We use them on flowers, veggies, perrenials, houseplants, fruit trees, cannabis, herbs, for starting seedlings and more. 


Are worm castings considered fertilizer?


Yes, worm castings are an organic and 100% natural form of fertilizer… but that’s not all! They’re also a fantastic soil amendment. According to the University of California, “fertilizers improve the supply of nutrients in the soil, directly affecting plant growth”. This includes both chemical or synthetic fertilizers as well as more eco-friendly derived from natural materials. Related yet different, “soil amendments improve a soil’s physical condition (e.g. soil structure, water infiltration), indirectly affecting plant growth.”


Do they contain nitrogen?


Studies show that earthworm castings are rich in a variety of essential nutrients including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) as well as iron, calcium, sulfur, and humic acid. However, because it can be difficult to determine the exact nutrient content of homemade worm castings (and it varies brand-to-brand), we consider them a supplement to our soil amendment routine and also use other natural slow-release fertilizers such as alfalfa meal, kelp meal, neem seed meal – or something like this organic all-purpose fertilizer. And don’t forget the mycorrhizae!



Can worm castings burn seedlings or plants?


Nope! Pure worm castings should not shock or burn seedlings or plants like some high-nitrogen fertilizers can. That’s one of the best things about them: earthworm castings are a gentle, slow-release fertilizer, despite the fact that they contain a higher concentration of nutrients than bulk compost. As food and other material passes through the worm’s digestive system, the castings are coated with a film of mucus that in turn slows the breakdown and release of nutrients in the soil. Like other slow-release fertilizers, you can safely apply a larger volume but less frequently than fast-acting fertilizers. 


DeannaCat is holding a handful of worm castings above a raised garden bed which has two holes dug for two small kale seedlings that are laying on the soil nest to the planting holes.
Adding a handful of worm castings to each seedling planting hole. Castings post no risk of harming the plants, even in direct contact with the roots!


When to add worm castings to garden soil 


There are numerous opportunities to use worm castings in the garden: add some to your seedling start mix, when filling a new raised garden bed with soil, directly in the planting hole when transplanting seedlings into the garden, sprinkled on top of soil (lightly scratched in) after planting, or around the base of established plants like a layer of mulch. We do all of the above!

In addition to using worm castings in their fresh natural form, consider turning them into compost tea! If you aren’t familiar with compost tea, it is exactly what it sounds like: a liquid solution or “tea” created by steeping compost in water. It’s a great way to make a small amount of compost go a lot farther. Once the nutrients in the compost seep into the water, you can feed many plants or garden beds with it. We love to make actively aerated compost tea (as opposed to passive steeping) which also boosts the beneficial microbes in the tea. Learn how to brew compost tea here!


Three 5-gallon buckets of brown liquid. It is compost tea from worm castings. Air lines are running into the buckets from a nearby air pump. Two are more bubbly on top. They have the larger bubbler snakes. The other bucket look barely bubbly at all. It is the one using a smaller air stone.
Brewing 15 gallons of aerated compost tea. The process can be scaled down to just one bucket with a small inexpensive aquarium pump and air stone (right bucket), beefed up a tad with a larger pump and bubblers (left), or even done in much larger containers – like 50 gallon drums or more!
DenanaCat is holding a 2 cup Pyrex measuring cup next to a raised bed of bok choy. Turning worm castings into compost tea is a great way to add microbes to a larger surface area.


How much worm castings do I use?


A small amount of worm castings can make a big impact! Yet again, it won’t harm anyone to add a little extra either, so don’t fret too much about precise measurements. We generally eyeball the following:

  • Filling new pots or seedling containers: mix in about ¼ to ⅕ of the total soil volume in worm castings.
  • Transplanting plants outside: Add a modest handful (about ¼ to ½ cup) per planting hole when transplanting small vegetable seedlings, a cup or two for larger shrubs (in one to three gallon pots), and several cups when planting trees from 5 to 15 gallon containers.
  • Already-potted plants and houseplants: spread one inch of castings on top of the soil. Gently scratch it into the surface and then water it in. Refresh once or twice per year, up to every quarter.  
  • Established garden beds (vegetables, flowers, perennials, and/or shrubs): top dress with 1 to 3 inches and gently incorporate into the top layer of the soil. Repeat in spring and fall. 


Which worm castings are best? Where can I buy them?


I have to admit, I have a soft spot for our homemade worm castings. They can’t get any fresher! Plus, we know the exact inputs to our system including the bedding and what the worms are fed. Since it’s all nutrient-dense and organic, the castings will reflect that in their quality.  

However, I realize not everyone has the ability or time to keep their own worm compost bin at home. Good thing there are plenty of other worthy options out there! Wiggle Worm is a great reputable company that sells pure worm castings online and in stores. They have stellar reviews for freshness, quality, and happy plants! Their worm farm is located in Wisconsin.

Last but not least, check around to see if you happen to have a local worm farm near you. We were fortunate enough to live a short drive from one for many years. It makes for a fun family outing to go pick up castings or worms.


DeannaCat's hand is suspended over a tote of freshly harvested worm castings holding a handful of the castings for closer viewing. It is rich, dark black in color, with a spongy texture.

Cheers to Black Gold!


Well, if you came to this post because you were curious about earthworm castings, I hope you’re leaving EXCITED about them – and with all of your questions answered! Please drop a comment below if there is something I didn’t cover. All in all, whether you make your own or buy worm casting, your plants and soil will thank you with bountiful growth in return. If you found the information in this article to be useful, please spread the worm poo love by pinning and sharing this post!


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DeannaCat signature, keep on growing

13 Comments

  • Laura

    Hello there. I love your website and garden advice. I built a bin in March, and it is getting really wet. I have tried adding in more dry material, but am struggling to get the amount of food/bedding mix just right. My plan is to do a thorough harvest of the wet material, and use that as a dressing in my veggie garden. Then do a complete refresh of new bedding. My concern is: will this shock my little red wrigglers or will they be ok? And is the wet material ok to use in the garden? Thanks for any advice.

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hi Laura, if your worm bin is getting too wet it is best to avoid feeding them any food and just try adding more sources of brown material (shredded newspaper, shredded cardboard, shredded dried leaves etc.). Your worms shouldn’t be shocked by you harvesting the castings, check out How to Harvest Worm Castings from a Simple Worm Compost Bin if you haven’t already. The wet material can become anaerobic which typically isn’t great in general, however, if you thoroughly screen the material, it should be just fine for top dressing garden beds or fruit trees. I have also found that trying to keep the food that you give the worms more on the dry side helps with maintaining a better moisture ratio in the worm bin. I give them coffee grounds but make sure that there is little to no moisture left in the grounds before giving it to them. Hope that helps and good luck!

  • LeAnn Bruckman

    I started my bin about a month ago and I have noticed some very small bugs crawling around the top of the bin. Aphids? How do I get rid of them without harming the worms?

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hi LeAnn, when you start a worm bin there are other bugs and insects that may work their way into your bin as well, however, most of them are not harmful to your worms. Springtails, potworms, and mites are common tiny insects that will show up and most of them feed on the same material as your worms. As long as the population doesn’t explode you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Congrats on starting your worm bin and reach out if you have any questions in the future, good luck!

  • Theresa

    Hi. Thanks for this great article (and everything else on here and on Instagram). One question–do worm castings have worm eggs? I recently added worm castings to my raised beds and have been finding clusters of tiny worms that I never noticed before and that I’m hoping came from the castings.

    Side note: The raccoons seem to love the worms too, which I’m not pleased about because they’re digging into my beds. So if you have any tips for keeping raccoons away, I’d welcome those!

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hi Theresa, thank you so much for the kind words and support! Worms do repopulate rather quickly under good conditions and they do produce eggs which are called cocoons that can usually be found throughout their castings. Raccoons can be tricky as they are quite resourceful. Aside from taking the normal measures which are commonly described on keeping raccoons out of desired areas. Laying something like hardware cloth over the top of your raised beds may inhibit the raccoons from reaching into your soil for worms or other insects as the mesh openings are quite small. We have had experience with different wild life causing issues, however, they usually move on to other things and it doesn’t become a pervasive problem. Let’s hope the raccoons in your area decide to do the same. Good luck!

  • Dawn Birdsong

    I started my worm compoist bin with European Nightcrawlers…..I thought I was buying Red Wigglers but not. Oops!
    I have discovered that the NC stay down pretty deep in my bin. Can I add RW to the same bin? Don’t they stay up toward the top of the soil?

    Dawn

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hi Dawn, you are correct that the European Nightcrawlers will stay towards the bottom and the red wrigglers will stay towards the top so in essence, you can keep the two together. However, red wrigglers are much more active and reproduce at a greater rate so they may overtake your nightcrawlers and not allow them to live their “best life” just by sheer numbers. Red wrigglers eat more and will produce more castings so if your intention is to create worm castings for your garden, it is a good idea to get some red worms either way. Good luck!

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hi Renee, the quality of the castings will likely be of good quality however it may not be the most economical for what you get. Most soil and compost is best to acquire locally as most shipping prices will make the price that much higher. Starting your own worm bin is the most cost effective option while producing high quality vermicompost. Don’t forget to check locally in your area as there may be someone who is vermicomposting on a large scale. Hope that helps and good luck!

      • Brian

        Thank you for ALL you do!

        When you say “top dress” to established beds, is it necessary or best practice to pull back mulch before putting down castings? Or is it fine to just throw castings on top of the mulch?

        also, what do you do with the left over castings after making vermicompost tea?

        again– thanks for all you do. so helpful

        • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

          Hi Brian, when top dressing established beds we usually just put it down on top of the mulch and water it all in. You could pull away mulch around the plants and put the castings around each plant before covering it back up with mulch as well. With the leftover castings from a tea you can either add to your garden beds, trees, potted plants, or anything else that you want to give a little extra attention to. Thank you for your support and have fun gardening!

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