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      1            WORMING IN


1.1 Introduction
Over the past couple of years more and more gardeners and farmers have realised the benefit
of using compost to improve the soil. Fertile soil contains lots of humus and micro-organisms, but
the humus content needs to be periodically replenished so that the soil micro-organisms will
continue to flourish. No better way than by using vermicompost!
Increasing numbers of gardeners worldwide are successfully using vermicompost as an excellent
soil conditioner. All over South Africa people are venturing into “worm farming” thanks to the
television programmes Carte Blanche and Pasella, who featured vermicomposting operations in
their programmes. Articles in gardening magazines also made more people aware of the world
of earthworms – our little workers. Some people have been inspired by family and friends who
experienced amazing results after using vermicompost and worm tea in their gardens. Vermi-
composting is, however, still a relatively new technique for large-scale organic waste
management, although it has gained considerable ground among those concerned about the
negative effect of waste on the environment.
The publication of this book was inspired by the experiences of the main author, Charl Pienaar
from Supertill CC (trading as GoodBugs) in Paarl, Western Cape Province. His views and
experience on vermiculture, which initially appeared in two articles in Go Farming (Volumes
1(3):22-23 and 1(4):20-21), are included in this document to provide the African-farmer-who-
cares-for-the-environment with knowledge, tools and skills on how to employ earthworms and
their buddies as his/her little workers.
During a short course on vermiculture presented by Charl Pienaar at the University of the Free
State Mangaung Community Partnership Programme (MUCPP) in Bloemfontein in November
2007, the co-author, Dora du Plessis, was inspired to venture into vermicomposting in her
backyard. Her views and experience focus mainly on worm farming on a smaller scale, namely
where earthworms are housed in worm bins with the purpose to recycle kitchen waste to
produce vermicompost for town gardening purposes.
Information used to compile this document is mentioned in the list of references at the end of
the document. To ease reading and because many of the documents on the Internet provide
more or less the same information, the sources will only be quoted in the text when used




Using Earthworms to Make Super Vermicompost                                                  Page 1
verbatum. Except where otherwise mentioned, all photos are those of the authors taken at
various projects they have been involved in.

Our special thanks to:

Mr Ken Reid of the Earthworm Interest Group of South Africa (EIGSA) for correcting some English
language flaws, and for promoting the book through EIGSA.

Shorty Maema of MUCPP, Bloemfontein (in memoriam), for being a real inspiration and super
collaborator.

Tina Pienaar, for her excellent work to set up the GoodBugs website and to sort out any technical
glitches.




1.2 Why bother with earthworms?
                                                                                  – Charl Pienaar
Some (well, probably most) people would think it is a crazy idea for anybody to spend their
weekends playing around with earthworms, vermicompost and worm tea.
My fascination (fixation?) with earthworms started with my dad (now 84 years old), who used
to have a corner in the garden where he dumped all the grass clippings and other organic waste
from his garden. He used to water this spot from time to time with a hosepipe and thereby
encouraged local earthworms to populate the space. The organic waste from the kitchen got
dumped in a trench, later to be filled with soil and this became the vegetable patch (I still hate
rhubarb, which grew in absolute abundance).
Through research I did a couple of years ago on LEISA (Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture)
principles for emerging farmers, my interest in earthworm composting techniques got stimulated
once again. The idea of producing good quality compost with the
help of earthworms by converting inexpensive raw materials into
"black gold" was (and still is) very appealing, since I am also
involved in a small wholesale desert plant nursery for which I
constantly need good quality compost as bedding material.
Since then I have become very much involved in earthworm work
(some call me an earthwormaholic) for my own pleasure and
enjoyment, and also to produce the high quality compost my
desert plant nursery needs all the time. Furthermore, I've become
a proponent of the extremely important role that earthworms play
in keeping our planet and our soils healthy, extending even to
keeping me personally healthy not only in body but also in soul.
I've spread this message far and wide, to emerging farmers, health
                                                                                Cleopatra




Using Earthworms to Make Super Vermicompost                                                 Page 2
professionals, prison authorities, food processors, home food gardeners, restaurants, housewives,
school children ... basically anybody who shows interest and wishes to "dirty their hands".
If Queen Cleopatra of Egypt (69–30 BC) could recognize the earthworm's contribution to the
ancient Egyptian agriculture by declaring this animal sacred, I cannot be all wrong, right?




1.3 Becoming a small-scale city farmer
                                                                                  – Dora du Plessis
I've always had an interest in “growing things”, but to be honest, I've never actually dedicated
myself to becoming a real gardener. Since I started working at the Centre for Agricultural
Management at the University of the Free State I soon became involved in the Centre's
community service projects, especially food gardening. It didn't take me long to start growing my
own veggies.
Then I heard about raising earthworms which could reduce my kitchen waste as part of reducing
my carbon footprints. I read Charl's articles in Go Farming and immediately called on Charl to tell
me more. Well, the result was that Charl expressed his willingness to come to Bloemfontein to
present a short course on vermicomposting.
Soon after the course I started my worm farm with the handful of worms I got from Charl. Well,
today I see myself as an “emerging small-scale city farmer”, operating from within the four walls
of my very, very small backyard garden at our townhouse in Bloemfontein.
A city farmer? Yes – I care for my little workers daily, I see to it that they have enough moisture,
enough food, that they don't catch a cold ( in the cold Free State winters, that
they don't burn out in the very hot summers. I even count them on a regular
basis to see how big my “flock” has grown (haha!) and often spoil them by
feeding them the food they like the most.
My initial interest has now become my new hobby: that
of farming with earthworms, and I would like to
see more people developing the habit (hobby) of
recycling, reducing and re-using as much of
our organic waste as possible, and at the
same time restoring our soils with the
use of vermicompost.




Using Earthworms to Make Super Vermicompost                                                   Page 3
1.4 Getting to know the concepts
~ Organic matter “... is defined as a grouping of carbon containing compounds which have
  originated from living beings and been deposited on or within the earth's structural
  components. Soil organic matter includes the remains of all plant and animal bodies which
  have fallen on the earth's surface ... A fertile soil should contain from 2-8 percent organic
  matter; most soils contain less than 2%.”
   (Pettit, 2004).
~ Humus is the organic component of soil, formed by the
  decomposition of leaves and other plant material. “Humus
  is defined as a brown to black complex variable of carbon
  containing compounds not recognized under a light
  microscope as possessing cellular organization in the form
  of plant and animal bodies” (Pettit, 2004).
~ Vermes is the Latin term for worms.
~ Vermiculture means worm growing or worm farming. The
  “culture of worms” is the process of raising and breeding
  earthworms, with the emphasis on producing the maximum
  level of worm growth, worm reproduction and worm                         Vermicompost
  health. People are farming with worms either to expand a
  vermicomposting operation or sell it to customers.
   Vermicast (also called worm castings, worm casts) is pure
   worm poop (faeces). “Vermicast is 98% extracted PURE
   poops, after a three-month cycle of worms processing
   vermicompost. It is a total soil food source, packed
   with microbes, bacteria, elements, minerals, enzymes and
   TOTALLY organic” (Mother Earthworms).
~ Vermicompost is an earthy-smelling, nutrient-rich humus.
  It is also called worm compost, worm humus or worm
  manure. “Vermicompost refers to organic manure produced
  by earthworms. It is a mixture of worm castings (faecal
                                                                            Red worms
  excretions), organic material including humus, live
  e a r t h w o rm s, th e ir co co on s a n d o t h er o rg a ni s m s”
  (Ecoscience Research Foundation).
   “Vermicomposting is defined as the practice of using
   concentrations of earthworms to convert organic materials
   into usable vermicompost or worm castings. These systems
   focus on the waste material and managing it so that it can
   be successfully and efficiently processed in a worm system”
   (Vermiculture Canada).                                                   W orm poop




Using Earthworms to Make Super Vermicompost                                               Page 4
~ The process of producing vermicompost is called vermicomposting. It can be called an
  ecosystem teamwork where earthworms play the most visible part with lots of help from
  bacteria, microscopic fungi, protozoa and lots of other living organisms in the composting
  system.

          Vermiculture and vermicomposting are regarded as similar, but also
          different concepts. “If your goal is to produce vermicompost, you will want
          to have your maximum worm population density all of the time. If your goal
          is to produce worms, you will want to keep the population density low
          enough that reproductive rates are optimized.”
                                                                      Munroe (p. 1).



~ Vermiliquid (or leachate) is a combination of the oily
  excretions produced by worms and the liquids of
  organic matter breaking down, which normally leaches
  out when too much water is added to a worm bin. (See
  also 7.4.3.)
~ Vermicompost tea (also known as worm tea, vermitea)
  is a cold brew made from vermicast or vermicompost.
  The aim of the compost-tea brewing process is to
                                                                         Vermiliquid
  extract beneficial microbes from the compost, followed
  by growing these populations of microbes during the
  24-hour brewing period (Attra, 2002).
   Attra (2002) distinguishes between compost teas and compost extracts. They call it compost
   extract when compost is suspended in water for a period, and when it is aerated, it is called
   compost tea.
~ Worm farming is used as a general term for the production and use of earthworms for various
  purposes, of which the most important purpose is to
  decompose organic food waste, turning the waste into
  a nutrient-rich material which will be capable of
  supplying necessary nutrients to the soil to help sustain
  plant growth.
~ A worm farm is any kind of container in which people
  keep earthworms. Organic matter, especially fruit and
  vegetable scraps, are added weekly to the container for
  the earthworms to eat. They then excrete a substance
  called castings which is a rich fertiliser containing more
  nitrogen than topsoil as well as high amounts of
                                                                    Container with worms
  potassium and phosphate. Worm farms use earthworms
  t hat t hri ve i n the dark, warm, food-rich, moist
  environment of the worm farm.

   The best earthworm to use is Eisenia fetida, also called the red worm or red wiggler.



Using Earthworms to Make Super Vermicompost                                                Page 5
Worm farms use earthworms that thrive in the dark, warm, food-rich, moist environment of the
worm farm. Light coloured bins are less efficient than dark coloured ones, as earthworms are
sensitive to light and would tend to work away from any light source.




1.5 Benefits of using vermicompost
1.5.1     Benefits for the housewife and home gardener
~ Vermicomposting allows the housewife to recycle
  food scraps and garden waste into compost.
~ It is not expensive to start a home worm farm and
  there are no real overhead costs to budget for.
~ No need to buy any food for the worms because
  kitchen left-overs are always available.
~ Vermicomposting is ideal for townhouses with little
  or no yard space.                                                 Recycling food scraps




1.5.2     Benefits for the soil
~ Vermicompost contains the highest grade          "Earthworms are the pulse of the soil; the
  of humus available.                              healthier the pulse, the healthier the soil."
                                                               Ecoscience Research Foundation.
~ Vermicompost adds beneficial micro-
  organisms, nutrients and minerals to the
  soil that sustain healthy plant life and vital plant growth.
~ It improves the nutrient status of soil – both macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients.
~ It does not have any adverse effect on soil, plants and the environment.
~ It improves soil aeration, structure and tilth, thereby reducing soil compaction.
~ It improves the water retention capacity of soil because of its high organic matter content.
~ Adding vermicompost to the soil will attract deep-burrowing earthworms already present in
  the soil.



 “The casts are also rich in humic acids, which condition the soil, have a perfect pH balance, and
 contain plant growth factors similar to those found in seaweed. There's nothing better to put
 in your garden!”                                                            Journey to Forever.




Using Earthworms to Make Super Vermicompost                                                   Page 6
1.5.3     Benefits for plants                      “ Extensive  research at The Ohio State
                                                   University has demonstrated time and time
~ Vermicompost is mild enough to use in growth
                                                   again that there is something extra in
  medium mixtures.
                                                   vermicompost that helps to boost plant
~ Vermicompost can be used as tea to provide a     growth and overall health, above and
  natural liquid fertiliser for use on plants.     beyond that provided by nutrients.”
                                                                               Compost Guy.
~ Vermicompost is a great soil conditioner for
  indoor plants.
~ It promotes better root growth and nutrient absorption by plants.
~ It enhances germination and plant growth.
~ Vermicompost tea increases both plant size and yield due to interaction of the tea microbes
  with the soil microbes and protozoa, soil particles and the roots of the plant itself.
~ Vermicompost tea can be used as a natural pest
  repellent, and worm castings contain agents that can
  control plant diseases.
~ Micro-organisms in the vermicompost help break
  down organic matter and convert nutrients into a
  more available food form for plants. Plants will grow
  stronger and have deeper root systems for better
  drought tolerance and disease resistance.
~ Research done by Edwards et al. (2007) showed that
  vermicompost and vermicompost tea can suppress                     Adult red worms
  root-knot nematodes in the field as well as in
  greenhouses.
~ According to Edwards et al. (2007) vermicompost also suppresses red spider mite, mealy bug
  and aphid populations in the field. Vermicompost tea was also tested in a greenhouse
  environment which proved that 5%, 10% and 20% dilutions of aerated vermicompost tea
  suppressed red spider mite and aphid populations.
~ Research done by the University of Georgia showed that “... tomato plants grown in
  earthworm castings grew on average 126% from their original height” (Carver & Christie,
  2008).

1.5.4     Benefits for the environment
~ Vermicomposting does not produce bad smells and greenhouse gases.
~ Vermicomposting of kitchen and garden waste reduces waste sent to landfill sites, and reduces
  the amount of methane emissions from these sites.
~ Vermicompost is a nutritious and environmentally friendly alternative to chemical fertilisers.
  It saves you money on fertilisers, soil conditioners and insecticides.
~ Vermicomposting is an appropriate cost-effective and efficient recycling technique for the
  disposal of organic waste.


Using Earthworms to Make Super Vermicompost                                                Page 7
 “In 1996, citizens in nearly 9000 cities could participate in recycling just by taking their
 recyclables to the curb. Recycling has become so commonplace that over 100 million people in
 the United States recycle. According to the Grassroots Recycling Network, more people recycle
 than vote!”
                                               Mary Applehoff, Worms eat my garbage (1997).



1.5.5     Other benefits and uses
~ Everybody can make a difference to the environment by using vermicompost in their home
  gardens, community and school gardens, for urban landscaping, and in agriculture and
  forestry.
~ Worm castings can be sold to other farmers and gardeners, and anglers know the benefit of
  red worms because they make great fish bait.
~ Worms can be used for animal feed, or as food for chickens, birds and koi fish.




                         Fish bait                 Children picking worms from the
                                                               compost



~ Children are fascinated by worms. Worm farming is a great way for them to learn about
  organic recycling and responsible waste disposal, while at the same time learning to care for
  the little workers.
~ Children can use a vermicompost project for tasks and exhibitions at school.
~ Vermicomposting can be incorporated in the outcomes-based school curriculum.




Using Earthworms to Make Super Vermicompost                                               Page 8

				
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