Russell Publications

northern Illinois, April 17, 2008



 How worms can save us


by Regina Nuttall


GEORGE BLACKMAN, of Stelle, demonstrates how to double dig a garden plot during a presentation called Vermiculture and the Art of Soil Building, March 29 at the Stelle Community Center. Blackman has been involved in organic gardening for 35 years. He suggests using a pitchfork instead of a shovel to loosen soil.

-photo by Regina Nuttall

PARTICIPANTS AT the vermiculture event discuss the presentation among themselves. 'It's estimated that Nature undisturbed would take 2,000 years to make six inches of fertile soil (humus) on her own,' George Blackman said. However, humans can speed up that process by changing their methods of gardening and farming and using worms to accelerate the process of creating topsoil.

-photo by Regina Nuttall



     “A Global crisis is taking place under our feet and it is as serious as global warming. We’re losing about 1 percent of our top soil every year to erosion, most of this caused by agriculture,” George Blackman said in a presentation called Vermiculture and the Art of Soil Building, March 29 at the Community Center in Stelle.

       The Center for Sustainable Community (CSC) in Stelle sponsored Blackman’s talk to a group of farmers and gardeners from the surrounding area that are interested in environmentally friendly agriculture. Blackman has been involved in organic gardening for 35 years and has lived in Stelle for 30 years.

He sells his produce at the oldest Farmer's Market in Illinois, in Evanston.

     Blackman’s mission is to teach people how they can grow healthy food in a sustainable manner without using chemicals. His primary techniques involve double digging the garden beds, proper use of compost and most of all worms.



     The National Academy of Sciences has calculated that topsoil on cropland in United States is being lost at least 10 times as quickly as it can be replaced.

“If we continue with our current modern mechanized, chemical and organic practices, by the year 2014 we will be unable to properly feed 60 percent of the world’s people- those who will be living in developing countries. What happens when we come to rely on just few crops for our food? “ Blackman’s questioned rhetorically..

     “Every time we in the United States eat one pound of food that has been grown by U.S. mechanized, commercial agriculture techniques, six pounds of farmable soil are lost due to wind and water erosion. The average food item in the United States travels approximately 1,400 miles to reach our plates”.

       Blackman presented startling statistics to the audience. “Is it better to grow foods locally? Did you know that our food imports have risen by 50 percent in the last ten years? One third of the fruit and 12 percent of the vegetables consumed in the U.S. come from other countries. What is more useful- fuel or food?  A field full of just one one plant type is a disaster waiting to happen, having the potential to be destroyed by a single predator or diseases. Yields on eroded agricultural land have been from 20 to 65 percent lower than would otherwise be possible.

     “It’s estimated, that Nature undisturbed would take 2,000 years to make six inches of fertile soil (humus) on her own”,  Blackman says.

     However, humans can greatly speed up that process by changing their methods of gardening and farming and using worms to accelerate the process of creating topsoil.

     Worms benefit soil in several ways. They transform organic materials in the soil into the form that can be easily absorbed by plants. Their tunnels keep the soil loose to allow proper circulation of water and gasses. Soil with a high level of organic material and lots of worms produces fantastically rich vegetation, he said.

     When gardeners apply chemicals to the soil for fertilizing and pest control they kill the microbes that break down organic material and they kill the worms that transform it.           After a period of time the soil is no longer healthy enough to grow plants on its own. You’ll need more and more chemicals and the soil will get poorer and poorer.

     The gardener needs to choose, Blackman said. Does he want to create healthy soil that grows healthy plants year after year or does he want to use chemicals that will help grow plants today but will impoverish the soil for the future?

     “An acre today takes more fertilizer to give fewer yields than that same acre did forty years ago,” Blackman said. “Modern tilling is destroying soil life. The dust blowing in the wind behind the tillers is the dead soil community. Not a sustainable practice”.

     This, in a nutshell, is what sustainability is about, he said. The soil is a treasure we need to pass to future generations. It isn’t something to use and to throw away.

     Blackman focuses on one thing- feeding the soil and making the soil healthy so it will grow healthy plants. Worms do this by turning compost into nutrients that are more readily available for plants to absorb. Healthy plants are stronger, provide more nutrients and resist insects without the use of insecticides.

     Twenty years ago George bought 50 pounds of worms and truckloads of horse manure. He let the worms turn the horse manure compost into the best humus you can find.

     The combination of double digging and vermiculture (use of worms) allows gardeners and farmers to grow more and healthier plants in much smaller spaces than conventional gardening techniques that depend on chemical fertilizers and insecticides.

     Double digging is a technique George learned from French gardeners, which involves loosening the soil as much as 2 feet from the surface. This allows plant roots to grow down instead of spreading out.

     The gardener can plant his plants much closer together and to get unbelievable harvest from the small space. The double digging also helps to protect the worms in the wintertime.

     Blackman likes to use red wiggler worms because they multiply so quickly but they do not easily survive Illinois winters. When the soil is loosened to this depth, worms can burrow deeper and protect themselves from the cold.

     Ironically, our common night crawlers are not native to North America. They were brought by European settlers hundreds of years ago. George prefers not to use these worms because they multiply very slowly.

     Introducing worms into your garden isn’t a simple thing. Worms like to eat well-composted organic material. The compost feeds the worms and the worms feed the soil.          People commonly will have compost containing leaves and lawn clippings. You can also incorporate household waste such as vegetable and fruit peelings. Do not, however, put in any meat scraps or bones if you want to get good compost.

     A compost heap generates heat while the organic material is decomposing. Do not put your worms into the composting heap because the heat will kill them. Worms should be in your garden soil and finished compost is added to the garden soil to feed the worms.

     If you have never made compost before, here are some tips.

     **Make the pile at least 3 x 3 x 3 feet. Smaller amounts will decompose eventually but a pile of this size or larger will generate more heat and will decompose more quickly.

      Keep the pile moist like a sponge. The bacteria that perform the decomposition need water to live.

      *They also need air. Be sure your pile has access to air and turn the material often.

      *Feel free to alternate layers of fresh green material and older dry brown material.

      *If your pile is new, adding some topsoil can help start the decomposition process.

      *When the pile no longer generates heat and the organic material has turned into a rich dark brown substance it is finished and ready to apply to your garden.


                                                                 IN SUM

     We’re losing topsoil at a great rate. That means that over the last 200 years we have lost most of the topsoil that once existed in the Midwest.  Our current practices of commercial agriculture depend on chemical fertilizers to provide nutrition to the plants and chemical pesticides to repel insects but they do nothing to replenish the soil.

      The Center for Sustainable Community is dedicated to the idea that everyone involved in agriculture either as a provider or as a customer must pay attention to the way our current agricultural practices are effecting future generations.

     Things will not change over night but if everyone does their small piece we all can make things better together and leave the world a better place.

                                                              * * *

     For more information on the Center of Sustainable Community, write to 123 Crescent Lane, Stelle,  IL 60919; call 815-256-2204, email, or see their Website at