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PDC Blog: Day 7

Jump to: Understanding vermiculture, Benefits of vermicompost, Worm composting toilets, a team concert

The day dawned bright and sunny, and we all woke up filled with enthusiasm for our first field trip.

After a farmhouse breakfast, which was the typical English breakfast (I ate hash browns and baked beans) we grouped up into 3 cars/4x4s and hit the road.

Farmhouse breakfast

I hitched a ride with Irshaa, Nizreen, Sharon and Hazel, who provided a fascinating commentary of all the farmers on the route, as well as some history of her life on Wild Olive.

Hazel’s story is an inspiring one. She tells us how she started a welcoming service to get holiday homes ready for their owners, always adding a personal touch such as sprigs of jasmine on their pillows. From this successful business, she began the restaurant, started offering accommodation on the farm, and initiated the permaculture garden.

Diversity being a key part of her success, she also sold pickled products like onions and peppadews (piquante peppers), amongst others. Faced with adversity, such as when her business partner left with everything, she prevailed with the help of the local farming community, who had become friends (and couldn’t face not eating her home-cooked meals).

Visiting the local farmers market

We arrived in Riversdale, and went to visit the local farmer’s market. Much to my disappointment, there was no fresh produce to be found, with the only food to be found being koeksisters, a typically South African syrup-coated doughnut, and various arts and crafts.

Local farmer's market, Stillbay

Browsing arts and crafts

We wandered around, some of us purchasing odds and ends, while my mom and I discovered an avocado tree outside, and entertained ourselves trying to knock them off the branches. Meanwhile Irshaad considered buying himself a stylish apron...

Irhaad and Nizreen Desai

Understanding vermiculture (farming with earthworms)

Vermiculture is the culturing of earthworms to produce vermicompost that can be used as fertilizers to bring soil back to life. Prolonged used of vermicompost increases soil life and fertility and is often regarded as "nature's perfect organic fertilizer".

Nick Bartlett's vermiculture farm

The day’s real purpose was to visit the local earthworm expert, a vermicuture farmer named Nick Bartlett.

We met up with him at his worm farm, which was in a massive shed.

Sitting on straw bales, we listened to his gripping tale of getting started with vermiculture.


Nick explained how vermiculture is the process of producing vermicompost through the culturing of earthworms.

Vermicompost brings soil back to life, increasing its fertility.

Coming from an agricultural background, Nick told us how his father farmed organically, giving him his first veggie patch at the age of six.

Self-taught, Nick’s interest in earthworms began with trying to make the best compost.

Lecture on vermiculture

He related how Darwin was the first to do a comprehensive study on earthworms, one of his quotes being:

“Humus can be defined as earth which has been passed through the digestive tract of earthworms and converted”.

Nick uses biodynamic preps, getting his manure from a neighbouring dairy farm, and cleans it weekly himself to ensure its extremely hygienic.

He started in containers, and found that the worms would double nearly every three months. Before he knew it, he was selling vermicompost and worm kits.

Some facts about earthworms

We learnt some fascinating information about earthworms, a creature I can’t say I’d thought much about prior to Nick’s presentation. The humble earthworm does not eat living plants or roots, but consumes earth containing micro-organisms. Though blind, earthworms are sensitive to light.

They like humidity, but not wetness, and are happiest in temperatures from 18-30 degrees Centigrade. What’s more, they’re extremely strong, moving 50-60 times their own weight.

Nick tells us that the best worms for composting are red wrigglers. They are somewhat different to the earthworms you usually find in the ground, and thrive in confinement. They can eat more than their own body weight every day.

The role of earthworms

We learnt that earthworms don’t produce nutrients themselves but continually convert and break down nutrients already present in the soil. Their castings are water soluble and the minerals are immediately available to plants.

Benefits of vermicompost

Soil created by earthworms resists erosion, while earthworm tunnels assist aerobic bacteria in breaking down organic matter in the soil. Earthworm tunnels assist in water retention, in root growth, and lead to high stability of soil crumbs, while considerable amounts of nitrogen are released even after their death.

What’s more, earthworms accelerate the final stages of compost making, work for you for free, and are a reliable indication of soil fertility.

Compost or vermicompost?

One factor worth considering (when choosing between compost and vermicompost) is that as worms deposit their castings, their mucous slows the release of nutrients, which prevents them from being washed away while watering. Hot or cold composting methods lack this mucous component.

However, we learn that worm compost is more concentrated than most other composts because worms digest food wastes and break them down into simple plant nutrients. Nick explains that, for best results, you should use sparingly on your plants, mixing it in to the top inch of your soil to supplement to what is already there.

As you water, you will slowly wash the nutrients down to the roots. Another advantage, Nick says that vermicompost takes very little room and has no odour, thus it's easily done inside the home.

Feeding earthworms

Nick tells us that most people over-feed their worms, himself included (in the beginning at least). Worms can eat pretty much what human’s eat, but don’t like acidic foods, onions, garlic or meat. You should also avoid anything that contains chemicals or detergents.

Visit the following site on vermiculture for more information about farming with earthworms and how to create your own worm bins.

Nick then lifted the burlap sacks covering his worm farm, and revealed millions of earthworms, dazed in the light. The soil is dark and crumbly, clearly with a high-humus content and thus the ideal fertilizer.

Inspecting worm farm

Worm Composting toilets

After Nick’s lecture, we visited his home, where he has a thriving permaculture garden.

Before permaculture

Thriving with permaculture and vermicompost

Nick Bartlett in permaculture garden

He also has a nursery where he grows and sells trees of all kinds. He tells us that he has his own version of a worm composting toilet or bucket system, which is fed to the worms and enriches his soil.

Basically, he uses an ice-cream container with a bit of straw in the bottom for his human waste, which is then thrown into the worm bin and becomes vermicompost.

Avice Hindmarch demonstrates simple humanure composting

Bin for humanure to be processed by worms

Some of the group were somewhat horrified, with human waste seen as something repellant. However, I took a more stoical approach, as after all the worm processes and digests it, and its casings go into the soil.

It’s pretty natural, though I imagine if one's diet would affect the end result. A simple, plant-based diet being the optimal for humanure, for obvious reasons.

Horrified? Or curious? Either way, I cannot recommend enough that you read this article about humanure composting where the author talks about how people find it okay to spray incredibly toxic chemicals but are disgusted at the thought of a composting toilet.

It really relates the advantages of using a composting toilet, as well as how this is the most sustainable, and energy-efficient option.

An excerpt:

“The fundamental (so to speak) error in the way we have thought about human wastes for a couple of centuries is to think of them as waste at all, i.e. as dross or discard, a substance with no value — or a substance with extreme negative value (dirty, pathogenic, icky).

The collection of humanure and urine into centralised processing centres to be biocidally or biotically neutralised and then dumped into bodies of water means that we have interrupted the nutrient cycle, turned what should be a circular energy diagram into a linear one.”

Enough on that subject! We started dispersing, but not before John and Hazel shopped for plants. They were literally like kids in a candy store around the fruit trees, buying a few to plant back home.

Collection of fruit trees

Purchasing a fruit tree

And then it was time to head back to the farm as by that time we were all starving. I made the mistake of eating a fried chip (not usually something I would consider, but desperation struck) and was punished with severe stomach cramps on the ride home, doubling up in pain. Lesson learnt.

Back at the farm everyone had a picnic, and I rested until dinner time. That evening was to be our ‘concert’, essentially we’d been told to put on some kind of concert performance, either solo or group. So we met up to discuss and somehow came up with the idea of singing John Lennon’s classic, "Imagine", not the easiest of songs.

Making music

We printed out the lyrics and decided that each person would create their own instrument. We set off to be creative...

Getting creative with pizzas

Dinner was homemade pizza, where we were told to design our own pizza’s. The toppings mimicked companion planting (what works best with what?), while the tomato base was our compost and the cheese, our mulch. With an array of butternut, spinach, fresh tomato paste, onion, mushroom, olives, avocado and various other toppings, we were spoilt for choice.

Homemade pizzas

A pizza

Three of us decided to make a veggie bake instead and it was so delicious, I made two.

A team concert

And then it was time for our concert. Our instruments ranged from home-made rattles, didgeridoos made from plastic pipes, some plastic drums, a makeshift tambourine and a wooden percussion (frog scraper). Disorganised, discordant and completely disruptive, we launched (I wish I could say simultaneously) into a very bad rendition of John Lennon’s "Imagine".

Our PDC group sings Imagine by John Lennon

However, we sang with heart, which counts for something. After our, hopefully amusing, attempt, we tried our hands at more simple songs, like Kumbaya. Definitely an improvement.

PDC group concert

The team spirit was really with us, so after our concert, we lingered on feeling social and playing (not singing) music from Nizreen’s playlist. Much to the amusement of everyone, Leon really outdid himself on the ‘dance’ floor, letting loose with some crazy dance moves accompanied by wild swinging of his didgeridoo. Which brought to mind Billy Idol’s song, Dancing with Myself – “Well there’s nothing to lose and there’s nothing to prove, and I’m dancing with myself”.

PDC group hits the dance floor

Reluctant to relinquish our instruments which we used to keep time with the beat, we stayed up fairly late dancing and chatting, before heading off to bed.

Go to PDC Blog: Day 8

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