A Way with Worms

VWC President's Environmental Challenge Grant recipient Dr. Philip Rock unveils his first batch of "black gold," composted soil generated by the College's very own "worm farm"

By Leona Baker March 31, 2011

To refer to a person as a “worm” is not particularly flattering. On the contrary, it means you think that person is a pathetic, contemptible wretch. But what did worms—the wriggling kind—ever do to deserve such a reputation? It turns out we have worms to thank for the very ground we walk on and even the food we eat.

EARTH ANGELS: Worms turn food waste into nutrient-rich soil, says Dr. Rock, shown here with handful of his squirming friends.

Certain kinds of worms help decompose plant materials and aerate the soil we count on to grow things. Their role in agriculture is so important that Cleopatra declared them sacred and made their removal from Egypt punishable by death. Darwin even wrote a book on the wondrous work of worms: The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.

“Every year worms are turning over the entire surface of the earth; it’s incredible to think about that,” says Dr. Philip Rock, Associate Professor of Biology at Virginia Wesleyan College.

Last year, Rock was awarded the annual President's Environmental Challenge Grant for his proposal to establish a “worm farm” at VWC, and he’s happy to report that his nascent assemblage of Red Wigglers and European Night Crawlers—two of the best species for worm farming—are thriving. They’re busy doing what they do best: eating, pooping and making baby worms.

Why should we care? Well, worms can process about half of their body weight in food every day, Rock explains. In a matter of a couple of months they can transform a bucket of vegetable waste and other natural materials into “black gold,” an incredibly nutrient-rich and chemical-free soil much sought-after by organic farmers and anyone looking to best their neighbor with the fattest, juiciest summer tomato on the block.

Vermicomposting, as it’s called, is much faster than traditional composting—which can take as long as six months to produce usable material. The resulting soil also has many advantages including increased healthy microbial activity, improved water holding capability and decreased susceptibility to pests and disease. Plus, worm farming is a fairly inexpensive, low-tech process.

Dr. Rock began his worm collection several months ago with about 50 wigglers. He now estimates he has between 700 and 800 worms (apparently rabbits have nothing on worms) in a series of stacked 15-gallon plastic bins— “worm condominiums”—housed in a subterranean storage area beneath Blocker auditorium on the VWC campus. The location is just right, says Rock.

“It’s ideal for worm composting because it always stays about the right temperature—not too hot, not too cold—and it’s dark.”

A college campus also turns out to be a great place for worm food.

alt“The dining hall is always producing food waste,” Rock says. “They eat potato peels, baby corn, celery, tomatoes, sometimes noodles, as long as it’s fairly finely chopped. These worms eat better than I do.”

He starts his bins off with a mixture of food waste, bedding material like shredded paper or cardboard, and dried leaves collected from around campus. He lets that sit for a while before adding the worms. The wormy mixture has to be stirred and drained occasionally. After a couple of months, the worm castings, AKA soil, can be scraped off and the worms returned to a new batch of waste.

The idea is to use the resulting soil in the flower beds and gardens on the VWC campus as an environmentally friendly and less costly alternative to traditional fertilizers. In general, composting helps reduce food and yard waste, which accounts for sixty percent of household waste. It also combats the loss of topsoil, a primary environmental concern.

“It’s all for the sake of recycling and composting,” says Rock.

Rock hopes his initial success with the VWC Worm Farm will lead to an expansion of the program. He has recently enlisted a student assistant, junior biology major Megan Cunningham, to help.

The first VWC President's Environmental Challenge Grant was awarded in 2007, part of a larger campus sustainability initiative, designed to heighten awareness of environmental issues among Virginia Wesleyan's faculty, staff and students and to make Virginia Wesleyan a more environmentally friendly place.