Worm Castings
Vermicast is probably the best fertiliser you can add to your garden to get the best results. It doesn’t matter what kind of soil you have, by adding vermicast, you can’t go wrong. It is the elite of the elite when it comes to soil conditioning and we will tell you all about it with references to scientific research if that tickles your fancy. Unicorn Cafe is all about the science of how things work and if we cannot explain why then we don’t promote ūüėČ

There is also a case study at the end of this article proving how one farmer benefitted from using vermicast.

Consider the following; Vermicast has been around since the start of time, it is not manmade and it occurs naturally in healthy soil ecosystems. If you dig into the forest floor in the Knysna indigenous forests, you will find earthworms processing the fallen organic material. Consider the health and size of the centuries old trees around you that thrive there without any fertiliser or irrigation from man.

Vermicast is a thick black natural compound produced by earthworms. It is a fundamental part of natures soil building process. Vermicast harbours all the components  necessary to build and develop soil into a physically, chemically and biologically healthy growing medium for plants to thrive.

Vermicast repairs soil structure to significantly reduce¬†irrigation requirements & associated¬†costs.¬†This means that when using vermicast,¬†you will need less water. It stabilises moisture levels within soil so that the water doesn’t completely run through in sandy soils or become waterlogged and rot roots or seeds in clay soils. With stabile moisture levels in the soil, moisture is always available consistantly¬†to the roots which reduces¬†plant stress.

Vermicast reseeds plant beneficial bacteria, which is the crucial gateway between soil and plant roots. This means that vermicast helps roots absorb what they need from the soil.  Worm castings release minerals held within mineral sand for plant availability and repair the  structure of soil, reducing soil erosion risks. When you have worm castings in your soil, the microbes in the castings ensure efficicient uptake of fertiliser additions.

Increased plant beneficial bacteria cultures increase the effective uptake and stabilisation within the soil of  added organic fertiliser. Peaks and troughs in availability leads to plant stress. This means that when plants are exposed to dips and highs of nutrient and moisture availability, they can become more stressed as opposed to a more constant and flatlined availability.
Reduced plant stress means stronger, healthier, more pest resistant plants, producing greater yields.

Vermicast boosts the pest resistant enzyme production in plants repelling insect attack and fungal infection.  Plant growth stimulants and hormones in vermicast encourage both the top growth above the soil, containing the leaf, stem and flower, and the root growth beneath the ground.

Vermicast is¬†particularly effective during seed germination and¬†reduces transplant¬†shock.¬†Vermicast’s¬†beneficial microbes triggers the¬†development of a healthy natural soil-food-web. It seeds¬†and attracts¬†earthworms and other good life¬†into the soil; in turn aerating and conveying¬†microbes and other plant beneficial hormones and plant growth stimulants.

Vermicast also increases the cationic exchange rate. This is the rate at which the cationic soil trace elements can attach themselves to vermicast. Everything in nature has an electrical charge. Some charges are positive (cations) and some are negative (anions). Organic vegetative matter is anionic and, as vermicast is highly concentrated  vegetative matter, it is strongly anionic. Most trace elements are cationic, and thus attracted to vermicast. In simple terms this means that trace elements are attracted to vermicast and readily bond to it in the same way that opposite poles of a magnet attract each other. Plants have a stronger pull than the vermicast and therefore draw the trace elements away from the vermicast and into their roots in a natural exchange system.

You can buy worm castings from us or you can make your own worm farm and harvest your very own worm castings. We published a DIY worm farm last year in October and you can find the article here to make your very own worm farm that you can keep in kitchen.

Various scientific trials & studies by a number of Universities (Cornell, Griffith &
Stellenbosch) on a variety of crops have resulted in the same base conclusion; vermicast (worm castings) are highly beneficial to plant growth, health and yield. Vermicast is a totally natural and organic product created by earthworms.

Joshi and Kelkar (1952) reported that earthworm casts contained greater percentage of finer fractions like silt and clay than in the surrounding soils. This change in mechanical composition of soil was probably due to the grinding action of earthworm gizzard. The chemical analysis of Vermicasts revealed that they were richer in soluble salts, neutral or alkaline in reaction and had higher percentage of exchangeable Na, K and Mg but a lower exchangeable Ca than in corresponding soil.

Earthworm casts also contained greater amounts of Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K). The Vermicasts contained higher amounts of nitrate nitrogen and possessed a greater nitrifying power than the corresponding soils. Vermicast also contained Mg, Ca, Fe, B, Mo and Zn in addition to some of the plant growth promoters and beneficial microflora. Several valuable compounds were also produced through the earthworm ‚Äď microfloral interaction, which included vitamins such as B12 and plant growth hormones such as gibberellins.

This important concept, that Vermicompost includes plant-growth regulators which increase growth and yield, has been cited and is being further investigated by several researchers (Canellas et al, 2002). Earthworms increase the amount of mineralised nitrogen from organic matter in soil.
The microbial composition changes qualitatively and quantitatively during passage through the earthworm intestine (Pedersen & Hendriksen, 1993)
Vermicast is coated with mucopolysaccharides and enriched with nutrients. The cellulolytic, nitrifying and nitrogen fixing microbes are found established in the worm cast (Kale et al., 1988). Earthworms directly cycle the nitrogen by excretion in the casts, urine and mucoprotein and through the turnover of earthworm tissues (Lee, 1985) Barois et al., (1987) observed an activation of N mineralization, with the casts having 270 percent more ammonia than the bulk soil. Within a year of application of vermiculture technology to the saline soil, 37 percent more N, 67 percent more P2O5 and 10 percent more K2O were recorded as compared to chemical fertilizer (Phule, 1993).
Plant Growth Stimulants
Atiyeh at al (2002) conducted an extensive review. The authors stated that: ‚ÄúThese¬†investigations have demonstrated consistently that vermicomposted organic wastes¬†have beneficial effects on plant growth independent of nutritional transformations and¬†availability. Whether they are used as soil additives or as components of horticultural¬†soil less media, vermicomposts have consistently improved seed germination, enhanced¬†seedling growth and development, and increased plant productivity much more than¬†would be possible from the mere conversion of mineral nutrients into more¬† plantavailable¬†forms.‚ÄĚ

Atiyeh et al. (2000) found that compost was higher in ammonium, while¬† Vermicompost¬†tended to be higher in nitrates, which is the more plant- available form of nitrogen.¬†Vermicast’s are excellent media for harbouring N-fixing bacteria (Bhole, 1992).
Earthworms have multiple, interactive effects on rates and patterns of  nitrogen mineralization and immobilisation in natural and managed ecosystems (Edwards and Lofty, 1977; Lee, 1983; Lavelle and Martin, 1992; Blair et al., 1995).

Earthworms not only disperse microorganisms important in food production but also associated with mycorrhizae and other root symbionts, biocontrol  agents and microbial antagonists of plant pathogens as well as microorganisms that act as pests (Edwards and Bohlen, 1996).
Several researchers have demonstrated the ability of earthworms to promote the dispersal of beneficial soil microorganisms through castings, including pseudomonads, rhizobia and mycorrhizal fungi (Edwards and Bohlen, 1996; Buckalew et al., 1982; Doube et al., 1994a; Doube et al., 1994b; Madsen and Alexander, 1982; Reddell and Spain, 1991; Rouelle, 1983; Stephens et al., 1994).
Earthworm casts are enriched in terms of available nutrients and microbial numbers and biomass, relative to the surrounding soil (Shaw and Pawluk, 1986; Lavelle and Martin, 1992)
Soil Benevolent Biota
Earthworms reject significant amounts of nutrients in their casts. In part these losses result from the intense microbial activity in their gut, and from their own metabolic activity. E.g. The elimination of N due to fast turnover of this element in microbial biomass. A significant proportion of C assimilated by earthworms is secreted as intestinal and cutaneous mucus with greater C:N ratios than those of the resource used (Lavelle et al., 1983; Cortez and Bouche, 1987).
Kale (1991) has attributed the improved growth in pastures and in other crops like rye and barley to the chemical exudates of the worms and the microbes associated with them.
Tomati et al., (1983) related the beneficial influence of worm cast to the biological factors like gibberellins, cytokinins and auxins released due to metabolic activity of the microbes harboured in the cast.
It has also been indicated that the chemical exudates of worms and those of microbes in the cast, influence the rooting or shoots of layers. In a field trial Kale and Bano (1986) observed that the seedling growth of rice in nursery increased significantly due to Vermicompost application, and transplanting of seedlings could be made one or two days earlier than the usual practice. After transplanting the growth of seedlings in the main field was more favourably influenced by worm castings than chemical fertilisers This was attributed to higher availability of nitrogen for plant growth. The improved growth was also attributed to the release of plant growth promoting compounds from vermicast, which in their opinion could easily replace the chemical fertilizers at nursery level.
Similarly, work at NSAC by Hammermeister et al. (2004) indicated that¬†‚ÄúVermicomposted manure has higher N availability than conventionally composted¬†manure on a weight basis‚ÄĚ. The latter study also showed that the supply rate of several¬†nutrients, including P, K, S and Mg, were increased by vermicomposting as compared¬†with conventional composting.¬† These results are typical of what other researchers have found (Short et al., 1999; Saradha, 1997, Sudha and Kapoor, 2000).
It appears that the process of vermicomposting tends to result in higher levels of plant-availability of most nutrients than does the conventional composting process. The literature has less information on this subject than on nutrient availability, yet it is widely believed that vermicast greatly exceeds conventional compost with respect to the levels of beneficial microbial activity. Much of the work on this subject has been done at Ohio State University, led by Dr. Clive Edwards (Subler et al., 1998).
In an interview (Edwards, 1999), he stated that Vermicompost may be as much as 1000 times as microbially active as conventional compost, although that figure is not always achieved. Regulators which are relatively transient may become adsorbed on to humates and act in conjunction with them to influence plant growth‚ÄĚ.¬†¬†Moreover, he went on to say that ‚Äú‚Ķthese are microbes which are much better at transforming nutrients into forms readily taken up by plants than you find in compost ‚Äď because we‚Äôre talking about thermophillic microbes in compost ‚Äď so that the microbial spectrum is quite different and also much more beneficial in a vermicompost. I mean, I will stick by what I have said a number of times that a vermicompost is much, much preferable to a compost if you‚Äôre going in for a plant-growth medium.‚ÄĚ
Many researchers have found that vermicast stimulates further plant growth even when the plants are already receiving optimal nutrition.
Atiyeh et al further speculate that the growth responses observed may be due to hormone-like activity associated with the high levels of humic acids and humates in vermicast: ‚Äú‚Ķthere seems a strong possibility that ‚Ķplant-growth regulators which are relatively transient may become adsorbed on to humates and act in conjunction with¬†them to influence plant growth‚ÄĚ.
There has been considerable anecdotal evidence in recent years regarding the ability of vermicast to protect plants against various diseases. The theory is that the high levels¬†of beneficial microorganisms in vermicast protect plants by out-competing pathogens¬†for available resources (starving them, so to speak), while also blocking their access to¬†plant roots by occupying all the available sites.¬†This analysis is based on the concept of the ‚Äúsoil foodweb‚ÄĚ, a soil-ecology-based¬†approach pioneered by Dr. Elaine Ingham of Corvallis, Oregon (see her website athttp://www.soilfoodweb.com for more details).
Work on this attribute of vermicast is still in its infancy, but research by both Dr. Ingham’s labs and the Ohio State Soil Ecology Laboratory are very promising. Soil Benevolent Biota At the Ohio State Soil Ecology Lab, Edwards and Arancon (2004) report that “…we have researched the effects of relatively small applications of commercially-produced vermicomposts, on attacks by Pythium on cucumbers, Rhizoctonia on radishes in the greenhouse, and by Verticillium on strawberries and Phomopsis and Sphaerotheca fulginae on grapes in the field.
In all of these experiments, the Vermicompost applications suppressed the incidence of the disease significantly.‚ÄĚ The authors go on to say that the pathogen suppression disappeared when the vermicast was sterilized,¬†indicating that the mechanism involved was microbial antagonism.¬†In addition, Edwards and Arancon (2004) report statistically significant decreases in¬†arthropod (aphid, mealy bug, spider mite) populations, and subsequent reductions in¬†plant damage, in tomato, pepper, and cabbage trials with 20% and 40% Vermicompost¬†additions to Metro Mix 360 (the control).
They also found statistically  significant suppression of plant-parasitic nematodes in field trials with peppers, tomatoes, strawberries, and grapes. Moreover, the authors go on to state a finding that others have also reported (e.g., Arancon, 2004), that maximum benefit from vermicast is obtained when it constitutes between 10% and 40% of the growing medium. Further research is required, however, before vermicast can be considered as an alternative to pesticides or an alternative, non-toxic method of pest control, but these initial studies are highly encouraging.

Case Study

Apple Farming at Clan Leslie, Harrismith, Free State
Farmers Weekly 21 October 2010 – Hayden Green
By incorporating vermicomposting and worm-casting tea in its apple production system, Clan Leslie Estate has improved its fruit quality, reduced input costs and improved the soil and tree health in its orchards. Hayden Green visited Mike Leslie to find out more. Mike Leslie farms in partnership with his father Nick and brother Graham on the Clan Leslie Estate near Harrismith in the Free State. Mike‚Äôs farming philosophy is to keep things simple, but pay attention to detail. He‚Äôs passionate about apple production¬† and about where sustainability is taking the enterprise. He combines technology with¬†applicable management and biological farming techniques to produce fruit that looks¬†good, is healthy and nutritious, and exceeds export quality requirements. To achieve¬†quality and production goals, Mike also partners with nature‚Äôs prime recycler ‚Äď the¬†humble earthworm.
Vermiculture ‚Äď earthworm farming¬†To branch out into exports, Clan Leslie established its apple production division in 1996.¬†Five years ago, they decided to integrate vermiculture into the operation because of changing export regulations, specifically for chemical residue levels. ‚ÄúOur list of¬†suitable chemicals was and still is shrinking due to global regulations and the green
movement,‚ÄĚ Mike says. ‚ÄúConsumers are looking for residue-free fruit, and we had to¬†find a different way of doing things.‚ÄĚ Fruit destined for export is batch-tested five days¬†before picking, and Mike felt that moving to natural pest and disease control in the¬†form of ‚Äúworm tea‚ÄĚ would minimise the risk of residue on the fruit, increase its¬†nutritional value, and reduce chemical use and withholding periods. He contacted¬†private consultant Hennie Eksteen for advice on vermiculture, and partnered with¬†vermiculture specialist Poerie Coetzee to manage it. This left Mike himself free to¬†concentrate on orchard management.

‚ÄúI was initially concerned that salmonella and E. coli contamination from feedlot¬†manure and chicken litter we used as compost base came through in¬† the testing,‚ÄĚ he¬†admits. ‚ÄúBut we tried the worm tea in selected apple blocks and the results were¬†perfect. The earthworms destroyed all pathogens in the manure, giving us the¬†confidence to freely use compost tea.‚ÄĚ
Foliar and soil-feed teas¬†‚ÄúFoliar-feed tea requires an anaerobic process,‚ÄĚ explains Mike. ‚ÄúWe mix the earthworm¬†castings with water, molasses, ground Lucerne and fishmeal, and brew the mixture in 1¬†000√Ę vats for three weeks. When it‚Äôs ready, we dilute the tea with water and use it as¬†a foliar feed, sprayed at 80√Ę/ha.‚ÄĚ Likewise, converting the solid material in worm¬†castings into a liquid enables a practical, accurate and uniform application of soil-feed
tea throughout the orchard. Soil-feed tea is made aerobically by pumping a large¬†volume of air through it for up to 24 hours. Once the correct microbe population is¬†reached (established by microscopic examination), the tea must be applied undiluted at¬†200√Ę/ha within a few hours before the aerobic bacteria die from a lack of oxygen.¬†Follow-up irrigation further washes the tea into the soil. The total cost of foliar and¬†soil-feed tea production and application is around R12 625/ha per season. This will¬†decline in time as the orchard health improves and less spraying is needed.¬†Mulching ‚Äď retaining a natural balance
‚ÄúIn nature, fruiting trees are part of a complicated ecological system, existing in¬†symbiotic relationships with the fauna and other flora to sustain a healthy fruiting¬†cycle,‚ÄĚ says Mike. He‚Äôs concerned about the consequences and economic sustainability¬†of a system of constant harvesting, with synthetic chemicals as the only inputs. So,¬†mimicking nature, he scatters tree pruning clippings and other plant residue around the¬†base of the trees to eventually decompose and form mulch. ‚ÄúWe use nine 1,5mdiameter¬†round bales of wheat residue to every 200m of tree row,‚ÄĚ he explains. ‚ÄúThis¬†equates to 104 bales, or 26t of dry plant material, per hectare, and lasts for three to four years. Nothing is wasted.‚ÄĚ The mulch, besides retaining moisture, feeds the bacterial processes stimulated by the soil-feed worm tea. Mike points to the contrast¬†between mineral soil and the rich organic matter resulting from earthworm activity.¬†‚ÄúThe earthworms manage the environment for me,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúThe soil is moving towards a natural state of balance (homeostasis) without chemical fertiliser.‚ÄĚ He¬†estimates that this production system needs one-third less irrigation water. ‚ÄúThe savings¬†are significant.‚ÄĚ Mike was astonished when he first saw the increase in root growth as a result of the mulch and soil feed. ‚ÄúThis increased nutrient uptake has resulted in healthier, stronger apple trees.‚Ä̬†A competitive advantage ‚ÄúQuality counts. The market is prepared to pay for an apple that tastes better and,¬†more importantly, lasts longer,‚ÄĚ says Mike. Mulching with worm tea had precisely this¬†effect, increasing demand for Clan Leslie apples from clients in Africa, where the cold supply chain isn‚Äôt as advanced as other export markets. ‚ÄúThe local informal market is¬†massive, and is prepared to pay premium prices for quality fruit that will last,‚ÄĚ he¬†explains. Although being situated in the south-eastern Free State gives Clan Leslie a¬†three-week harvesting advantage over its Cape competitors, the unseasonal heavy¬†frosts are a problem. Mike warns that worm tea is no silver bullet, and that balancing¬†the soil is a slow process. Over the last five years, he has recorded an average increase¬†from 8 Brix to 12 Brix in his plants, correlating directly to frost resilience. An SMS early¬†warning system notifies him to irrigate when air temperature drops below 5¬įC.
Incorporating earthworms has increased yields from 50t/ha to 75t/ha in Pink Lady¬†apples, and by 15t/ha in other varieties.¬†The path towards more sustainable production on the 66ha apple orchard constantly¬†challenges Mike. ‚ÄúIn the future I would define myself increasingly as a carbon farmer¬†who produces apples,‚ÄĚ he says. Based on the success of the worm tea in the¬† orchards,¬†he aims to produce low-carbon-footprint apples with a superior nutritional value. Worm¬†tea has been so successful in the apple orchards that he intends to expand it to the¬†other Clan Leslie enterprises.
Contact Mike Leslie on 082 770 0306 or e-mail mike@clanleslie.co.za.

Written by Aimee Hoppe