Worms for food

2008-07-31 00:00

“Wizzard Worms @ Work” declared the sign. The smaller one next to it was rather more cryptic: “Wizzard Worms Wondrous Wee”. They were both by the entrance gate to a farm near Rietvlei about 40 kilometres from Mooi River where the worms were busy working in a demonstration garden, dramatically green amid the winter dryness with small plots of cabbage, cauliflower, red cabbage, lettuce, carrots, spinach, leeks and beetroot.

The affable Don Blacklaw has been running the half-hectare garden for four years to demonstrate the inexpensive system he has developed in which worms convert or recycle waste into vermicompost — wormcasts — and worm leachate — that’s the “Wondrous Wee”. The latter is a plant food which promotes the production of healthy, well-flavoured organic crops. It is also thought to reduce disease and insect damage.

Blacklaw and his family originally farmed vegetables further north — “I introduced the English Cucumber to Kenya” — before moving to South Africa in the early seventies and settling in Greytown.

Blacklaw got the idea of farming worms when he began investigating methods of dealing with raw sewage. “In Scandinavia they use worms to recycle sewage waste — whole cities recycle sewage using worms. That was a bit out of my league but the gardening aspect was one thing I could develop without capital.”

In the Wizzard (“there are two zs to make it a bit different”) Worms demonstration garden Blacklaw explains the construction of the wormery he calls the “ideal garden unit”, a small, square, fort-like construction. “You can make it out of any material that comes to hand — we’ve used breeze blocks. It is built on a slope — the bottom surface must slope so the worm wee can drain out. It’s insulated on top with underfelt and beneath with black plastic sheeting. The worm wee drains through a special filter into a container.”

In the darkness beneath the underfelt lay assorted rotting vegetable matter. “Nothing green goes out of this garden unless it’s destined for stomachs,” says Blacklaw. “Weeds, diseased plants, everything is put back here.”

Beneath the top layer of vegetable matter worms were at work, eating and breeding. Their tiny egg capsules contain upwards of 20 embryonic worms. “There are six-and-a-half-thousand different types of worm,” says Blacklaw, “but only a few will do this job without any soil. The majority need soil in the gut to aid digestion. I call this an international commercial worm — it’s Latin name is Eisensia foetida. In soil there is insufficient organic matter for it to survive.”

As long as it’s organic the worms aren’t that fussy about what they eat — “they will chomp on reeds, sisal and cow manure, and we intend trying out the invasive alien Chromolaena odorata”. They will also process cardboard in the form of cereal boxes, egg boxes and tea cartons.

“This is the nearest you can get to perpetual motion,” says Blacklaw. “Once you’ve started off the wormery you just keep adding garden waste and the worms chomp it to create an organic fertiliser which you use on the garden and then you give leaves and waste back to the worms.”

In the demonstration garden a tank filled with water and worm wee conveys the liquid to the various vegetable plots via a network of pipes. “We work on the basis of a 30-to-one ratio in terms of water to worm wee,” says Blacklaw.

The garden is also the site of various ongoing trials. In one, spinach and lettuce plants in plastic pots — three plants per pot — stand in rows. They are fed with various combinations of water, wormcasts and worm wee. “Those with water and worm wee have two more leaves than those with just water,” says Blacklaw. “This is the type of trial we are doing all the time.”

“We” being the eight people who make up Wizzard Worms, among them Blacklaw’s daughter Tammy Varty, project manager Matthew van Rooyen and team leader Hlosile Shezi.

Blacklaw is particularly excited about his latest trial success using a vegetable tunnel made with shadecloth and supplied by an NGO which is currently using such structures for growing vegetables hydroponically, using sawdust instead of soil and feeding the plants water laced with chemicals. “Instead I’ve used soil mixed with wormcasts and had great results,” says Blacklaw. “It has also dramatically reduced the quantity of water required.”

Wizzard Worms produces various worm units, varying in size from one you could use in a flat to commercial size units suitable for market gardeners, community gardens, hotels, schools and various institutions.

The domestic unit is priced at R635 and you get two boxes of worms and instructions. “They produce two litres of worm wee after three months,” according to Varty, who says the Wondrous Wee can also be used to dramatic effect for growing roses if you stand the rose cuttings in it for five minutes.

The worms for sale with the units are bred in six-metre trenches constructed along similar lines to the garden unit — underfelt above, plastic sheeting beneath. If you do one of the day courses run by Wizzard Worms and aimed at farmers and NGOs you will find out how to make them. “It’s a hands-on course,” says Blacklaw. “We get them to do it all: make trenches, handle the worms, show them the egg capsules, and plant vegetables.”

Blacklaw emphasises how the use of wormcasts and worm wee can help those unable to afford fertiliser, to recycle waste or improve the soil and produce organic crops. “You can grow highly nutritious vegetables even under conditions of poor soil, little water, little space or animal incursion.”

With high food prices and food shortages this is something worth looking at; it’s cheap and it works.”

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