Nobody really knows how many worm species there are (estimates range from 4 500 to 6 000!) but in agriculture and gardening three distinct genera have been studied and described. These worms are distinguished by their habitat in or on the soil. These genera do not interbreed and will not normally be found in each other’s habitat. The three genera are:
- Worms that are found on the surface under damp, decaying organic matter. These are termed epigeic with Eisinia fetida and sub species andreii being most popular amongst vermiculturists in South Africa. These introduced worms are typically not found in ordinary South African soils which are too dry and lack the moist humus environment which they need to survive. Controlled organic waste environments are, however, ideal.
- Worms (termed anecic) that are found from the surface of the soil to a depth of roughly one metre. These worms forage for their food by coming to the surface and dragging damp decaying organic matter down into their burrows. These worms, some indigenous and some introduced, are extremely beneficial as they ‘churn’ the soil and allow good water and air penetration. The more of these species in the soil the better the soil. Lumbricus terrestris is very common in South Africa.
- A third type of worm (termed endogeic) can be found very deep in the soil and very seldom comes to the surface. This type is the only one of the three that actually eats soil as part of its diet. This species plays a small part in the total soil environment.
As soon as any living thing dies – whether it be animal or vegetable – a host of saprophytic micro-organisms including such as bacteria, fungi, moulds, nematodes, actinomycetes, small arthropods begin to devour it. Earthworms then graze on the micro-organisms as feedstock. Some of the decaying matter is also ingested but the main food is the micro-organisms. Worms digest these and the nutrients they have absorbed. Microbial activity increases in the worm’s gut system and the excreted worm faeces are also full of plant nutrients and micro-organisms which not only fertilise the soil, but increase its vitality and ecosystem functioning through the introduction of micro fauna. This results in a far more sustainable growing environment than one which relies on seasonal additions of inorganic fertilisers with their various combinations of carbon, nitrogen and phosphate.
In vermiculture, Eiesenia fetida or similar composting worms like Eudrilus eugeniae worms are kept in captivity and fed decaying organic material. The worm faeces (or “castings”) are collected and used as compost. Many different types of enclosure can be found – ranging from a small box for a household to extremely large concrete pens for large-scale farming. Decaying organic material can be literally anything that was once alive but is now dead: all vegetable matter, paper and cardboard, untreated sawdust, food leftovers and animal manures (with the possible exception of cat litter that can contain pathogens – organisms that can be infectious), rice and pastas etc. Not all of these decay at the same rate or have the same chemical composition and it is best to build up a healthy population of several thousand worms with low acid, cellulose and pathogen feedstock before venturing into more ambitious projects.
When vermicompost is spread on the soil surface, the millions of micro-organisms present become food for any anecic worms in the vicinity. With a plentiful food supply, the anecic worms proliferate and help to keep the soil friable and productive. The life and death activities of the micro-organisms in the soil release continuous plant nutrients and fix elements like nitrogen from the atmosphere.
Both solid composts and compost “teas” can be produced by vermiculture.
Soils treated with vermicompost can contain 5 times more nitrates (i.e. immediately-available nitrogen), 7 times more phosphorus, 11 times more potassium, 2.5 times more magnesium and twice as much calcium as soils non-treated soils.
Source: Ronald Thomson. Patrick Dowling gave the piece considerable thought and contributed suggestions too.
Local business environment
The use of earthworms to improve farming practices, to assist farmers who wish to produce organically or to reduce fertiliser costs, has become established in many parts of the world. Australia in the developed world and India in the developing world are prime examples.
As mentioned earlier, in nature the earthworm converts the wastes of nature into food, growth stimulants and microbes all beneficial to plant growth and survival. We may take advantage of this process by concentrating the waste and the earthworms, and then by applying the resultant products directly to specific areas or plants.
- Wasted Waste. Every day tons of organic waste goes to landfill sites all over the continent. This organic matter, often at source, could be converted with the help of the humble earthworm into plant food.
- Farm Waste. Most farmers have some form of organic material that goes to waste, cattle, horse, pig manure, reject vegetables just to mention a few. All are suitable for conversion.
- Process. The waste should be trenched directly into the soil and layered with other specific waste material and worms then introduced. Planting can take place almost immediately and the soil remains in good shape for some time depending on the depth and quantity of organic material used.
Alternatively a Wormery Unit could be established in which earthworms are fed organic waste and the resultant liquid and casts harvested and applied directly to crops. Neither method is expensive.
Once established, these simple methodologies aid food production and expenses are offset by savings on fertiliser, transport and landfill costs. And just as important – this would result in regenerating depleted soils, thus working towards restoring a healthy environment. There is a challenge to farmers to recycle their wastes to reduce fertiliser costs and reduce methane emission.
Source: Don Blacklaw. Find details at www.wizzardworms.co.za.
The Earthworm Interest Group South Africa (EIGSA) used to be the Southern Africa branch of EIGI (Earthworm Group International). It is currently dormant.
Training and research
- Enviro Edu School Outings http://enviroedu.co.za/
- Good Bugs www.goodbugs.co.za Charl Pienaar utilises his earthworm knowledge to teach farmers about Low External Input Sustainable Agricultural (LEISA) techniques. The instruction manual, GoodBugs Little Workers is available from Good Bugs.
- KwaZulu-Natal Museum Tel: 033 345 1404 www.nmsa.org.za Dr Danuta Plisko (retired) can be contacted for information about earthworms.
- North-West University Prof Mark Maboeta Unit for Environmental Sciences Tel: 018 299 2501 Mark.Maboeta [at] nwu.ac.za www.nwu.ac.za
- PEDI Urban Agriculture Academy Tel: 021 371 9824 http://pedi.org.za
- Soil For Life Tel: 021 794 4982 http://soilforlife.co.za
- Stellenbosch University Department of Soil Science Dr Eduard Hoffmann Tel: 021 808 4789 www.sun.ac.za/soil
- University of the Free State Agricultural Management (a division within the Agricultural Economics Department) Tel: 051 401 3551 Tel: 051 435 2902/3 www.ufs.ac.za/agriman
- Western Cape Department of Agriculture Tel: 044 803 3700 philips [at] elsenburg.com
- Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) Patrick Dowling Tel: 087 354 9072 http://wessa.org.za
- African Rose Tel: 012 841 4027 www.africanrose.co.za
- AgriGroomers Tel: 073 634 1698 www.facebook.com/agrigroomers/ Farming worms for profit
- C’est La Vie Worm Farm Tel: 044 876 0162 / 082 404 9539 http://cestlavie.yolasite.com
- Clan Leslie Estate Mike Leslie – 058 622 3232 An apple producer in the Free State who switched to vermicompost and worm-casting tea because of stricter export regulations. Incorporating earthworms increased yields from 50t/ha in Pink Lady apples, and by 15t/ha in other varieties.
- Closing the Loop Tel: 073 228 8513 www.closingtheloop.co.za
- Earth Probiotic Recycling Solutions Tel: 011 783 3380 http://earthprobiotic.co.za
- Earthchild Tel: 021 462 2218 www.earthchildproject.org An NGO working with children which includes worm farming
- Earthlinx www.earthlinx.co.za
- Earthworm Buddies Tel: 011 789 1546 / 072 533 0304 www.earthwormbuddies.net
- Earthworm Organic Mediums Tel: 087 151 3374 www.earthworm.co.za
- Eco Worm Farms Tel: 021 715 0191 http://ecowormfarms.co.za
- Ecolife Vermikompos Tel: 018 298 1462 / 072 391 3803
- Farming By Nature Tel: 083 459 3944 http://earthwormpower.yolasite.com
- FullCycle Tel: 021 789 2922 / 074 528 6300 www.fullcycle.co.za [Website not working, 18 April 2018]
- Global Worming Tel: 084 210 6234 http://globalworming.co.za/
- Mother Earthworms Tel: 044 388 4835
- Planner Bee Plant Care Tel: 083 255 5828 www.fertilis.co.za
- Soil For Life Tel: 021 794 4982 http://soilforlife.co.za
- Suburban Earthworms Tel: 021 510 0329 / 072 516 7722
- Talborne Organics Tel: 013 933 3172 www.talborne.co.za
- Waste-to-food Tel: 073 228 8513 www.waste-to-food.co.za Vermicompost and compost
- Wizzard Worms Tel: 033 413 1837 / 076 875 0266 www.wizzardworms.co.za Breeders and countrywide distributor of worms and wormerys.
- Worm-Farm Tel: 082 851 9585 / 082 906 4909 www.worm-farm.co.za
- Wurmboer Tel: 082 578 8782
Websites and publications
Visit the websites mentioned earlier on this page.
- Write to Carmen [at] livingearth.co.za for the following material, available from Planner Bee Plant Care: (i) SA Organic Grower, a 31 booklet set (an ideal reference manual for SA) (ii) The Earthmill System for Organic Market Gardens, a must-have book for people wishing to earn a living growing veggies organically (iii) Permaculture articles in booklet form.
- Find the notes on worm farming at www.ru.ac.za/environment/resources/wormfarming/
- Murphy, D. 2015. Organic Growing With Worms. Find the book at www.brightsunpublishing.com.
- Phillips L. 2020 January 13. “Earthworms to the rescue on degraded sugar cane land”. Farmer’s Weekly. Available at www.farmersweekly.co.za/crops/field-crops/earthworms-to-the-rescue-on-degraded-sugar-cane-land/
- Reporter. 2019, April 20. “Keep earthworms to improve soil quality”. Farmer’s Weekly. Available at www.farmersweekly.co.za/farm-basics/how-to-crop/keep-earthworms-to-improve-soil-quality/
- Find other articles in Farmer’s Weekly like “The role of earthworms in boosting soil quality” and “Earthworms: the farmer’s best friend“.
- Read the article “Waste to Food: PnP cutting down on food waste through innovative project” (2017, June) at www.bizcommunity.com.
Thanks to Pieter Swanepoel, Patrick Dowling and Ken Reid (EIGSA) for feedback on the draft chapter
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