We first met Richard Thomas at world famous music festival Big Day Out many years ago. He was part of the team responsible for the ambience and stage at the infamous Lilyworld. He is an artist, curator and environmentalist - responsible for many ecological artworks and worm lovers!
You have been in the worm business for 12 years – tell us how you've seen this area shift in the last couple of years?
When I started “Wormlovers”, worm-farming was a niche market with a few backyard operators, and you had to be a worm nerd to be a worm farmer. Now people are become aware of the incredible power of the mighty worm, and things are changing fast. Composting is cool again. We are now doing worm farming initiatives with councils, businesses, restaurants, factories, schools and organisations of all sizes. Everyone loves a nice worm and if you love your worms you love the world!
But there are also imperatives around the big issue of waste management that is driving change, as the cost of inaction begins to out-weigh that of taking action. Returning organic waste back to create productive soils is now urgent, as we begin to run out of productive soils, nutrients and water. A big realisation is that food waste is not actually “waste”; it's an unused resource. Half of the food grown in Australia is not eaten, and most of that is chucked out. When you consider the amount of money, energy and work that goes into growing food, we are actually doing something very dumb by sending all that energy, money, nutrients and effort into landfill to create toxic methane producing sludge. On the other hand if we can ramp up worm farming and composting at every level from the household to the industrial, we could up-cycle all those wasted nutrients back to food production and reduce water, fertiliser and fossil fuel usage at the same time. We urgently need to change from the linear economy, where we dig shit up at one end use it once and bury it at the other end, to the circular economy, where we value everything we use and return it for re-use elsewhere. I read somewhere that food production creates more greenhouse gasses than transport, so we need to change fast….
One of the biggest shifts I’m seeing is around the new generation composters and worm farms. In New Zealand Ben Bell spent 6 years designing the amazing new Hungry Bin Worm farm, which is not only highly efficient and functional it looks cool too. It is fully scale-able and works from domestic right up to industrial scale. Wormlovers supply the Hungry Bin and ship them all over Australia, with worms. We want to see worm farms in every home and workplace, just like you see wheelie bins everywhere now, we need to see worm farms and compost bins everywhere within a few years.
How do you hope this renewed education and spirit for sustainability will inspire not only in cities but also people’s own personal homes?
On a practical level, there’s nothing scary or difficult about making a difference. It’s actually much harder to keep fucking things up once that switch is turned. One of the quickest ways to change your environmental impact is to grow or buy locally grown food and then compost the scraps with a worm farm.
The biggest part of living sustainably is living consciously. Not in some cosmic new age way but acting ethically; being responsible for your actions. You soon realize that every action has an environmental effect and the power to change is in your hands. Once that happens the rest is logical and unfolds naturally. Once people start thinking consciously they automatically start living sustainably.
It's a massive turn on to start understanding the profound natural cycles that have created the world of which we are a tiny part. Everything makes sense. The crystalline matrix of the natural continuum is creating and transforming everything all around us ceaselesly, in a cosmic web of interconnectedness, from the microscopic scale to the planetary. There is nothing more intensely alive than a worm farm; in a teaspoon of good worm castings are more living organisms than humans on the planet. The processes in a worm farm/ compost heap are some of the most ancient interactions on the planet and are essential to all life on earth. The earthworm is probably the most important species on earth, as they created all the fertile soil on earth. No worms, no soil, no plants, no us!
What are your top 3 sustainability tips for those @ home?
Grow your own food. Start a worm farm. Stop buying crap. Walk. Take responsibility for the planet.
The newest project has been the rooftop garden you have built in Melbourne for Mesa Verde – tell us how that came about? Tell us how the whole Garden to restaurant to worm farm to garden works/ operates?
This is a very ambitious project to build a sustainable hub over 2 floors of the iconic Curtin House in the CBD. I pitched the idea of a rooftop garden and worm farm to the very enlightened owners, Tim Peach and Eric Firth, as part of redeveloping level 5 to accommodate a new restaurant, “Mesa Verde” and accompanying utility upgrades for the building.
It was obvious that this was an amazing opportunity to create something really groundbreaking, notwithstanding the mindboggling challenges of engineering, cost, access, safety and exposure issues. We spent over 18 months on the planning and engineering, which was very difficult (and expensive!). The building is a heritage listed high profile site which contains the well known Rooftop Bar, Cookie, and Toff in Town. This building and has been credited with kick starting both the “vertical laneway” and rooftop bar scene in Melbourne. The jewel in the crown of the building is now the rooftop garden growing herbs and specialist crops for Mesa Verde, which is just a few metres away.
The entire design process and implementation was very holistic and integrated. It really is like a functioning urban micro farm; it's an eco-system where all elements are interconnected and complement each other. As well as a rooftop garden and what is probably the first rooftop worm farm in Australia, we capture rainwater and use that to water the plants. The garden contains a highly efficient semi automatic wick-watering system which helps the plants survive the extreme heat island effects of the site. It also provides passive cooling to the highly efficient cool-room below. The garden produces food for the restaurant, and the waste from the restaurant goes to feed the worm farm. The worm farm provides nutrients to feed the garden. The garden enhances the aesthetics and amenity of the building for staff and patrons of the bar. And so on. We are now planning the next stages of the project which will include plantings on other levels and vertical gardens; further down the track we plan to install solar panels to light the garden and power the pumps.
The project also incorporates a suspended burnt out log from an ancient redgum tree from the Grampians mountains. The tree it came from must be several hundred years old and was probably growing even before Columbus and other dudes left Europe to go out and explore and exploit the world beyond. It adds a sculptural element and is an intervention from the landscape to add some “gravitas” and nature to the urban context - maybe a reminder of the harsh realities of the landscape out beyond the hipster horizon.
"The biggest part of living sustainably is living consciously. Not in some cosmic new age way but acting ethically; being responsible for your actions. You soon realize that every action has an environmental effect and the power to change is in your hands."
What do you have growing in the garden?
We decided to focus on herbs and harder to get and unusual plantings such as tomadillos, episode, cola plant, Mexican sour gherkin, and watermelon radish, and also stuff that works well in the micro-climate. We worked together with Mesa Verde chef Kath Reed and the Alless who lives in the building and works on the garden every day, to work out the best plantings for the menu. The barmen in Mesa Verde have also worked up some amazing cocktails using herbs and garnishes from the garden. We have some unusual varieties of hops growing up the cyclone fences which we will use in some home brews later in the year. We also have climbing tomatoes which get used to make amazing sauces for the rooftop burger hut.
How does the weight of the soil in this rooftop garden impact the building?
One of the really big challenges was designing a retro-fit around the constraints of a 100 year old building that was not designed to take the weight of the whole 2 story garden-coolroom etc structure. The engineering was very complex, and we had to reinforce the floor below with steel columns, as well as build a steel raft and cantilevers out to the perimeter wall below. The crane access and steel frame assembly was also difficult. We also developed our own growing medium for the wicking beds, as soil would have been too heavy, so we made a lightweight blend which includes perlite, rock dust, worm castings and vermiculite, which is half the weight of soil, lessening the total load by around 5 tonnes.
Why is the soil from your worms more nutritious than normal soil? How does this impact the plants you grow on the roof?
We use 1/3 worm castings in the growing medium. Worm castings are the best plant food and soil conditioner anywhere on the planet. It is like super food for plants.The reason they work so well is that worm castings are alive with beneficial microbes, which continue to work in the growing medium, releasing nutrients to the plants over long periods. The worms secrete all sorts of goodies that provide most of the nutrients and energy plants need, plus naturally occurring hormones and enzymes which basically keep the soil healthy. Healthy soil… healthy plants…. healthy humans. The nutricious highly mineralized growing medium combined with the watering system means we don't use any fertilisers, and we can grow most vegies and plants within our climate zone. And the plants generally are healthier, more disease and pest resistant and taste better.
If people want a worm farm at home what are your top 5 tips for its upkeep?
1. Keep it simple. Don't get overwhelmed by too many rules at the start. Jump in and have a crack. A well functioning worm farm is easy to achieve.
2. Don't overfeed. Give them another feed when half the previous feed is gone. Never have a layer more than 2-3 cm deep of fresh food.
3. Keep it out of the sun; during heat waves place a frozen bottle of water in the worm farm to keep em cool
4. Balance green foods (nitrogen) with brown (carbon); add lime once a week
5. Buy a brilliant Hungry Bin worm farm from Wormlovers; they really are the easiest and best worm farm on the planet!
Photos + interview produced by thebharanieffect - our talented photographer is Maclay Heriot.