'Vermiculture' literally means worm growing or worm farming. When earthworms are used primarily for the production of compost, the practice is referred to as vermicomposting.
Why all the excitement about earthworms?
Earthworms are truly amazing creatures that hold vast potential for addressing many of our current ecological concerns, including climate change and food security. Perhaps surprisingly, this is not breaking news.
After writing The Origin of Species Charles Darwin devoted much of the rest of his life to the study of earthworms.Â In his book The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Actions of Worms with Observations on their Habits Darwin wrote â€œThe plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man's inventions, but long before he existed, the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be ploughed by earthworms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organised creatures.
Earthworms aerate, till and fertilize the soil, breaking down organic waste into plant-available forms, improving the soil structure and nutrient and water-holding qualities of soil. In the past 50 years in particular, the use of chemical fertilizers, over-tillage of the soil and the use of pesticides have killed earthworms and other beneficial organisms, leading to poor soil fertility, loss of soil structure and soil erosion. At the same time, rotting organic waste dumped in landfills is polluting our underground water supply and releasing vast amounts of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.
Earthworms eat organic waste and give us healthy soil and organic fertilizer in return. Put simply, it is a deal that humanity cannot afford to pass up.
Some earthworm facts
As worms move through soil and decaying organic matter, they ingest (eat) and aerate it, depositing castings as they go. These castings are rich in nutrients and beneficial soil organisms. Inside the gut of one worm there are enzymes and masses of bacteria and microbes. Everything that passes through the gut of an earthworm is coated with these beneficial microbes and bacteria.
While fertile soil has in the region of 5-million microbes per gram, worm castings have been found to contain up to 100-million microbes per gram - up to 20 times more! In the soil, these microbes continue to break down organic matter into plant-available forms, thereby enabling plant roots to take up nutrients that would otherwise have stayed bound in the soil. These beneficial organisms also suppress the growth of pathogens, which means healthy soil and healthy plants.
Not surprisingly, it is these very microbes that play a major role in determining soil fertility, so it is ironic that earthworms are the very creatures that are killed by inorganic fertilizer applications. While we have been taught that bacteria are 'bad', the vast majority of bacteria are not pathogenic to humans, in fact many are beneficial and essential to sustaining the processes of life.
As long as the decaying organic matter is maintained at the correct pH and prevented from becoming anaerobic (when there is too little oxygen), no foul odours are created, pests are not attracted and the process remains hygienic. It is only when the pH is out of balance or the decaying organic material becomes anaerobic that pathogens and toxin-producing bacteria begin to proliferate, and pests are more likely to be attracted.
Researchers have identified and named thousands of distinct species of earthworm, but to date only around six have been identified as useful in vermiculture systems. These species have the ability to tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions and fluctuations and they are not adversely affected by handling and disruption of their habitat. Other qualities that make these species suitable include relatively short life spans, and rapid growth and reproductive rates.
Eisenia fetida, its close relative, Eisenia andrei, and Lumbricus rubellus are the earthworm species most commonly used in vermiculture. They are referred to by a variety of common names, including red worms, red wigglers, tiger worms, brandling worms, and manure worms. They are often raised together and are difficult to tell apart.
What is FullCycle's interest in vermiculture?
Earthworm systems are typically managed for one of three reasons; waste management, production of worm biomass and production of castings (vermicomposting). FullCycle's interest in vermiculture primarily has to do with the promotion of environmentally sound waste management practices, but also the beneficial re-use of waste/resources through the production of solid (vermicompost) and liquid fertilizer (vermi-tea or worm tea).
FullCycle sells Can-O-Worms and Worm Factory, among the most popular domestic worm bins worldwide. FullCycle aslo designs, commissions and manages modular vermiculture systems for on-site organic waste management at hotels and businesses. At these commercial installations, maintenence schedules and the health of the system can be monitored via an SMS system called EMON, which stores data in a database for later analysis on-line. The system automatically warns managers by SMS if the data received is outside pre-defined parameters, or if there are problems requiring attention.
Our goal is to supply, develop and in certain cases maintain well-run systems that meet the stringent requirements of our clients, providing both exceptional service and environmental quality.