Compost is a mixture of decayed organic material used for fertilizing, conditioning land and growing plants. Vermicompost is the compost that is produced by worms after they digest garden and food waste. Vermiculture is the cultivation of worms, to be used for vermicomposting and bait.
Composting (to compost) is the literal aerobic process of producing compost, using high temperatures to decompose organic waste, also known as hot composting. Vermicomposting (to vermicompost) is the literal process of producing vermicompost, by using worms to help speed up decomposition.
But to be more descriptive and explain it more thorough, I will go more in-depth for each one, explain the processes, the pro’s and cons, and then I will explain whether composting or vermicomposting is best:
Composting & Vermicomposting explained
The difference between them both is quite simple: composting is achieved by using heat to decompose organic matter, and vermicomposting is achieved by using worms to do the decomposition process. But the thing is, you shouldn’t intentionally try to do both at the same time.
Composting works better in hotter conditions and vermicomposting works better at cooler temperatures. Although worms and other bugs will naturally be attracted to a compost pile, you shouldn’t throw a bunch of worms onto it, because hot composting will certainly bake them to death. Keep the compost pile worm free and only vermicompost in cooler temperatures.
However, worms can still do a good job within your compost bin, tumbler or pile in the cooler months. They should always be kept in a worm farm and (if you think it’s necessary) you can introduce them when you know they won’t get cooked. Another thing to consider is not overfeeding your worms, doing this will potentially create the conditions for hot composting within your worm farm.
While vermicomposting is the process of worms decomposing organic waste, vermiculture is the word given to cultivating worms. So, if you want to be a vermiculture expert and raise a lot of healthy worms, you must feed them organic waste so they can produce vermicompost.
You get their nutrient-rich poop and your worms get fed, so everyone wins. Unless of course, you are cultivating your worms to be used as fishing bait.
How to Compost
- Composting can either be set up cheaply, by building a square wooden structure or by purchasing a bin or tumbler.
- It is best to place it somewhere out the way, on a level surface, preferably in a corner that is relatively shaded (a place that you won’t always walk past and have no intention of growing anything). If there is a slope, you will ideally want to position it on top (so when you are moving the ready-made compost, you are moving it downhill instead of uphill).
- Start off your pile with a layer of lawn clippings, twigs, leaves, cardboard, and shredded/torn paper.
- Place any garden or kitchen waste into the pile (Not meat, bread, cooked food, dairy, weed roots or weed seeds). Things like fruit or uncooked vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, straw, tree branches, twigs, hay, sawdust, plant cuttings, lawn clippings, leaves, paper, cardboard, etc.
- Aerate the pile, by turning it every 1 or 2 weeks with a fork.
- You can speed up the process by adding manure to the mix.
- If you live somewhere that is always wet, keep the pile covered with cardboard.
- If it’s starting to smell bad, turn the pile, mix in more lawn clippings or dry leaves and cover the top of the pile with shredded paper and/or cardboard.
- If it’s too dry add a little bit of water (but don’t soak) if it’s too wet add sawdust, straw, cardboard or paper.
- When the process has finished, you will need to keep it as dry as possible, by either moving it to a dry place or covering the top.
- Have at least 2 piles (ideally 3), so you have different piles at different stages of the process. While you have 1 pile of ready-made compost that’s ready to be used, you already have a second pile composting, and when the second pile is full, you can start again on the first pile.
- Try to keep a nice balance of nitrogen (food scraps, coffee grounds, lawn clippings, etc) and carbon (dead leaves, straw, hay, sawdust, branches, twigs, etc). If your mix is too one-sided then you will end up with very poor compost, instead of a perfect mixture of both.
- Don’t add dog or cat poop to your compost pile! The number of times I hear people saying they compost their dog or cat poop and it makes me shake my head. The smell of their feces is absolutely disgusting, Toxoplasma parasites and fecal coliform bacteria should be disposed of properly, not composted!
Question: If you wanted to grow something edible, would you rather grow it in composted kitchen and garden waste, or would you rather grow it in smelly parasite and bacteria-infested feces?
How to Vermicompost
- There are many words for the set-up of vermicomposting, such as worm: farm, factory, composting bin or wormery. Whatever you want to call it, they all do the same job and can either be built manually or purchased.
- You will need a composting bin/tray (usually made of plastic, but can be wooden).
- If your bottom tray has holes, place a layer of damp newspaper inside to stop them from escaping.
- Place bedding inside, which can be anything like shredded paper, cardboard, leaves or coconut coir.
- Add a couple of handfuls of garden soil/compost.
- Add about 1lb of worms (red wigglers are better than standard earthworms).
- Feed them with kitchen and garden waste, with a 50/50 split of food scraps and paper/cardboard. They can eat more than half their body weight every day, but feed them little and often, rather than piling up their food unnecessarily. Each time you feed them, cover them up with the bedding and soil.
- Cover the tray with damp newspaper and place a second tray on top, with a layer of shredded newspaper.
- When the first tray has been fully processed, start feeding them in the second tray and cover it with damp newspaper (the bottom of the tray has holes, to circulate air and so the worms move up to the fresh food).
- Keep repeating the process.
- The trays fill up with vermicompost and the nutrient-rich moisture will filter down to the spigot (if you purchase a worm farm).
- They need to be kept at temperatures of around 45-75 degrees Fahrenheit and are at risk of dying above 80 (a thermometer is a good idea to monitor). They like a moist and dark living area but can’t get too wet (only add water if their living conditions get too dry).
- Your worms will reproduce, and will probably double within 3 or 4 months.
What to feed them
Fruit, vegetables, bread, pasta, paper, cardboard, crushed eggshells, leaves, flowers, coffee grounds, and much more. All food must be given to them in small chunks, and remember 50% scraps 50% paper.
What not to feed them
Dairy, meat, citrus, bones, spicy food, processed food, overly moldy food, garlic, salt, insecticides, pesticides, poisonous plants, and much more.
Cost of setting up
Whether you build your own or purchase the equipment needed, both methods are quite inexpensive and cost about the same, depending on the quality of course. Everything you need can cost well under 100 or multiple hundreds, but once again it depends on quality. Obviously, building your own is much cheaper, but purchasing the right equipment can save time and effort.
Compost & Vermicompost
It’s food for whatever you are growing. Whenever you plant anything in this humus-rich material, the plant will benefit from all the nutrients and micro-nutrients that are packed in it. It helps with the fertility of the soil and helps plants to grow larger, faster and healthier when added.
Compost can contain nitrogen, potassium, manganese, phosphorus, iron, copper, and zinc. These nutrients are good for creating rich moist soil, avoids the need for chemicals, creates better growing conditions for plants and helps to prevent plants from diseases and being attacked by pests.
Vermicompost can contain nitrogen, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium. These nutrients are a good fertilizer that creates rich moist soil, avoids the need for chemicals, increases microbes that help condition soil, creates better growing conditions for plants and helps prevent plants from diseases.
Composting vs Vermicomposting: Which is better?
Composting can reach temperatures of over 150 degrees Fahrenheit and vermicomposting usually averages around half that. This means composting is much better at killing off pathogens in organic waste. Vermicompost has more microorganisms from worms, but compost has more mineral nutrients.
Composting is easier to do because it will do the work naturally after its set up. With vermicomposting, you need to be sure that you keep your worms alive, by keeping them fed and at the correct temperature. Worms easily win in the cooler months though.
Vermicomposting is faster at decomposing organic waste and can take around 8 weeks to half a year, depending on the number of worms you have and what exactly you’re feeding them. Composting can take anything from 12 weeks to a couple of years, depending on how much and the depth of the organic waste.
But compost can be produced in larger quantities and vermicompost can only produce a much smaller amount because worms are obviously small and can only digest a certain amount of waste at a time.
Whether you use heat or worms to do the process, they both have their pro’s and cons. Standard composting is better at killing off pathogens and can be done in larger quantities, but worms will keep doing the job throughout the year.
My verdict: If you have space do them both, but if you don’t have space use a worm farm. Either set up your own makeshift pile or purchase a compost bin/tumbler and have a go at hot composting. Purchase or build your own worm farm and give vermicomposting a try.
There are a lot of people out there that are really nerdy with vermiculture because it’s a fun project to do. It can also be a good educational way to teach young kids, showing them how you look after worms, feed them scraps, and explain to them what they produce at the end.