For the last 15-20 years I’ve been gradually moving towards a vermicomposting/vermiculture model and overall philosophy that’s a fair bit different than what you will normally read about in worm composting how-to guides.
One that’s far less focused on worms as isolated units – and far more focused on the entire vermicomposting ecosystem.
One that’s less about getting worms to “work” for us, and more about us helping them (along with the other key players).
This model/philosophy is what I’m now referring to as “Natural Worm Farming” (NWF) – but like all my different “names for things”, I’m urging you not to get overly attached to the words themselves.
I’ve decided to start using the term simply to help organize a collection of concepts/ideas/methods (written about here and elsewhere over the years) together in a somewhat-cohesive whole.
Also please don’t assume that if someone else is using (or has used) the same term, that it refers to the exact same thing – unless they are literally referencing something of mine.
You know the drill by now (hopefully) – it’s the same thing with “castings” and “manure” and any number of other worm farming terms. They don’t ever refer to just one thing – it’s the specifics and context that are always the key.
The Quick and Dirty Backtory…
Part of my NWF influence comes from being a lifelong nature nut, and then majoring in biology/ecology in school. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about and observing natural ecosystems and have always found them fascinating.
When I first got started with vermicomposting I followed the usual instructions:
1) Get a plastic bin – drill holes
2) Add sterile bedding + food scraps
3) Stock with + 1 lb+ of Red Worms
4) Watch as these amazing creatures turn your garbage into black gold!
But, like many other newbies, I ran into trouble quickly – restless, roaming worms, some of them dying, wastes piling up and stinking, population explosions of creatures other than composting worms etc.
I knew something was missing.
Via trial and error, I did figure out that more bedding, more air flow, less food (and better optimized food), and just mellowing out helped things to go a lot more smoothly, and resulted in a sort of “balance” over time…
…but (weirdly enough) it wasn’t until I started spending time digging around in old heaps of horse poop that I had my first major “ahah” moment.
A close family friend of our has always kept horses at boarding stables near where she lives. Those boarding stables have always had outdoor manure heaps. Those outdoor manure heaps have always had thriving populations of Red Worms!
[This is not to say that ALL outdoor manure heaps have thriving populations of Red Worms – I’ve found plenty that don’t. They just seem to be widely distributed in her region]
This sort of unmanaged, outdoor heap is likely as close as you’re going to come to a “natural habitat” (at least a productive natural habitat) for Red Worms. Other than the usual actively managed vermicomposting systems we’re all familiar with, the only really-rich, thriving populations of Red Worms you are going to find in the “wild” are in deposits of organic wastes closely associated with human activity.
As a sidenote – this is a key part of why any sort of “Red Worms as invasive worms” argument is unfounded. Yes there are absolutely invasive earthworms species that can have a negative impact on natural ecosystems – no, Eisenia Red Worms are not one of them. They can survive in various natural ecosystems – but they aren’t going to thrive (and greatly alter) any of them.
Getting back to horse poop…
What I discovered was that these old heaps of manure were unlike anything I had seen in a managed system.
-> They were absolutely loaded with vigorous, healthy (often BIG) Red Worms.
-> They were absolutely loaded with cocoons and tiny juveniles – especially at certain times of year
-> They were absolutely loaded with so many other organisms – far more than I had ever seen in a worm bin.
An incredible diversity of organisms (huge populations of many of them) – but all living in harmony and balance.
It quickly became apparent that I would be far better off trying to mimic these old heaps of manure (with my own systems) than relying on much of what I had read in the vermicomposting how-to literature.
To this day, the Red Worm populations in some of these unmanaged old manure heaps have remained among the most productive of any I have ever encountered.
We could just as easily call NWF “The Manure Heap Model” of vermicomposting – that’s how important an influence these habitats have been for me. Looking back, it’s easy to see that all of this has had a major impact on the different directions I’ve headed with my own vermicomposting and vermiculture methods, and what I written and talked about online.
Concepts like “Living Material“, “Homemade Manure“, “Worm Mix“…even Vermicomposting Trenches, were all heavily influenced by this productive-natural-system model.
What Natural Worm Farming Is/Isn’t – And Why You Should Care
So, what’s the point here? How is NWF relevant for the average vermicomposter?
One of my big core goals is to motivate more people to really learn about – and develop a deep respect for – the biology/ecology at work in their vermicomposting systems. It’s as simple as that. Getting to know the different organisms involved – their natural history, their roles, and what their absence/presence/abundance can tell us about things are going – is a big step in the right direction.
The entrenched worm-centric stance that’s been the go-to model for years is limiting at best – but ineffective or downright harmful when you go too far with it.
It’s important to emphasize that this isn’t about any sort of ego trip, bragging rights or shiny red honor badge. There won’t be an expensive NWF certification program.
I’ll be the first the voice dismay about how the term “natural” (“nature” etc) has been exploited, twisted and abused over the years in the name of marketing. And I certainly don’t have any plans to add to this!
In some ways NWF is almost the opposite. Like nature itself, it’s meant to be humble and flexible.
–> It’s about developing a better understanding, and deeper respect/appreciation for the natural processes at work.
–> It’s about helping these processes, but also stepping back a bit more and allowing them to operate without micro-management.
–> It’s about using more natural and “living” materials to augment our efforts – but this doesn’t mean we can’t use “normal” materials and methods too.
I’m in no way suggesting that everyone needs to drop what they are doing and adopt a completely “natural” approach (whatever that even means) – not at all!
Like I said, I’ve been writing/talking about all of this – without giving it an official name – for many years now. Cherry picking individual strategies (eg Living Material, Homemade Manure) that resonate with you is – and has always been – a great place to start!
I simply saw the value in finally tying everything together – and think it will provide a good foundation for where I’ll be heading from here!
As always, your thoughts, questions, concerns (lol) are more than welcome.
Stay tuned for explorations of other related topics soon!
“Ask not what your worms can do for you, but what you can do for your worms (and the ecosystem as a whole)!”
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Ask not what your worms can do for you, but what you can do for your worms (and the ecosystem as a whole)!”
~ Bentley “Compost Guy” Christie
Bentley, I wish I had found these resources 20 years ago when I bought my Can O Worms. I still have it, and it is more productive than ever. The ONLY reason for it being more productive is the guidance and insights i have gathered on this website over the past 4 months or so. In this time my vermicomposting activities have transformed from a single Can O Worms being a sloppy, goopy overfed system, to 4 different systems all humming along and producing vermicompost and worms. I gifted a system to my niece this weekend and she is thrilled! So glad to be able to give back a bit, keep up the good work Bentley, always looking forward to your posts.
That’s fantastic, Matt – glad my info has helped!
How are you using the worm castings in the garden and landscape?
I’m glad I stumbled into your RWC domain!
Situated in South Western Australia, on the coastal limestone plains around Mandurah, I turned to vermicomposting in association with permacultural practices.
Trials aplenty in the late 90s pointed me in similar directions to what you describe here.
My latest worm bin complements a carbon-cycle that my wife and I are establishing to support experimental dragon-fruit production.
So, the concept is chokos from our vines + animal manures + paper –> worm bin –> establishing layering castings & worms around the limestone-enslosed dragon-fruit plantings.
I make use of straw hay and lettuce-broccoli-cauliflower leaves to build a moist regulating and well-aerated worm bin, making full use of the strong southerly summer breezes.
Over our recent summer period, I stimulated prolific pumpkin production in our garden by using worms to break down manures in-situ.
Seems like we have a wee bit in common in our vermicultural journey, Bentley. Happy to send over some garden pics to better show our endeavours once these storms blow over!
Kind regards, Stephen & Joanne Lane
Thanks for stopping by, Stephen & Joanne! All sounds great, and I would for sure be interested in more info and images. Don’t hesitate to drop me an email any time!
I’ve had a Plastic bucket worm bin for almost a year. I collect worm tea from the bottom, and it seems like a great ecosystem (lots of worms, no smell.) but I can’t figure out how to separate the worms from the compost. So I just keep adding stuff but I haven’t gotten anything out of it. Also, it never seems quite “done.” If I somehow remove the compost “dirt” from the worms,
Should I let it sit another few weeks (months) to become more soil-like? Thank you!
Hi Kathleen – plastic buckets aren’t the best bins for vermicomposting since they don’t have a lot of open surface area, and continuing to add typical kitchen scraps you will tend to end up with really wet contents that takes a long time to finish. Just generally with bins (and fairly wet stuff) the best approach for separating the worms from the compost is some form of light harvesting. Basically dump out into a plastic tray or bigger bin, shine a bright light over top (sunlight works well too) and gradually scrape off the material. The worms will continue to dive down away from the light and vibration.
Yes this is exactly what I’ve been looking for! Artificial systems can be made but generally become more complex as they are riddled with issues. My worm factory360 has been stalled out for over a year, I keep trying different things add more food/less food/more bedding. But it could just be not the ideal system for the worms. Seems the best approach is to just have a pile of manure in the yard (if you have the space) & leave it alone. Not as convenient for those looking to sell packaged castings, but for gardeners, you could just add a scoop to your beds.
After reading this it made me think of a dream I had about 40 years ago or so, give or take 10 years or so… LOL I dreamt I bought this farm with a barn that had a litter carrier for cleaning the gutters… then I saw these sand domes the highways use for putting salt in for road safety. I thought this dome would be great for for a cover for the manure. Then after a year or so of aging add worms to break everything down and sell worm castings and worms… There was a lot more to this dream than this, but I think this is enough for you to get the idea… At 72 years old now I don’t think this would ever come to reality… Back in the day I heard of rabbit farmers using worms to sanitize the litter boxes under the cages… the possibilities for worms are endless… I’m so happy I found your red worm site…
Linh – Glad you found it interesting! Using the old manure heap more as a model than as a system to actually set up is likely more practical for most people. What I like about the NWF approach is that you are taking the great aspects of the natural manure heap and combining them with the optimization/management of a more traditional system. That said, I agree there are some bins that were designed more for humans than for worms! I’ve always felt it is a shame they are so popular! 😉
Hi John – that is a really interesting idea! There are definitely some perks to having the manure exposed to the elements…but then again, also some limitations (especially if you want some really nice castings). Anyway, I’m confident that even if this dream doesn’t come to fruition, you are still going to have a LOT more fun with worms in the months and years ahead. And needless to say, I’m very glad you found the site as well! 😎