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Worm Compost and Worm Casts – is there any difference?

This article will hopefully explain the difference between worm compost and worm casts and the use and benefits of both, as the names suggest, both of these are produced by worms.

1. Worm compost

Composting worms live and feed on organic matter that range from fresh to really decomposed! this can be anything from natural heaps of leaves, dead grass and vegetation to the garden and kitchen waste we put in our compost heaps, bins and wormeries, as the material starts to break down it is invaded by a myriad of different bacteria, fungii and 101 different bugs and creatures it is these fungii and bacteria that the worms actually feed on, in doing so they continually move up and down through the layers looking for better food, somewhere to rest up and somewhere to lay cocoons (eggs). To enable them to do this they exude a mucuus allowing them to wriggle through the compost, this mucuus is full of benefits to plant root systems, of course, all the time they are feeding they have to get rid of their waste, basically worm poo and this is left in and eventually all mixed up in the compost, if the worms are removed before they have consumed (several times) all the organic material we then have “worm worked compost.”

2. Worm Casts

Worm casts are a different product entirely from worm compost, casts are essentially the pure poo from worms. When worms are living in a compost, they feed on it, if no more green waste is added they will eventually have eaten all the waste available, continually replacing it with an increasing percentage of casts, as the waste becomes less available they will also feed on the casts themselves, in fact, they can do this many times over (waste not – want not!) eventually all the material left is almost entirely worm poo, this is proper worm casts.

The use and benefits of each.
We can now see that there is a difference between the 2 products and this means there is a difference in the use and benefits of each.

It is easier to understand if we deal with worm casts first, as originally stated, casts are produced only when the whole amount of waste (or near enough) have passed through the worm, in doing so it is ground up into tiny particles and mixed together with different secretions, the resulting casts are not necessarily high in nutrients as often claimed but after they have “matured” they are absolutely jam packed full of hugely beneficial bacteria, fungii and other organisms. these qualities are utilised directly by plants via the root system providing the plants are already planted in soils with good structure, that is the job of the worm!

Now we can see that worm compost, due to its lower levels of processed material is not going to work in the same way as casts directly with plants, however, being a compost, they create a highly beneficial environment regulating air and moisture around the root system of plants particularly where the existing soil structure is not so good this in turn allows the roots to benefit from the casts within the compost. Because there is still compost (uneaten worm food) in and around the plant roots this will encourage worms to stay or even move into the area to feed and in turn they will raise the level of casts for the plants to utilize! As can be seen, it is very important that the right balance of processed and unprocessed material in the compost is achieved otherwise the conditions created for the plant will be wrong.

Whichever you use, worm worked compost or pure worm casts your plants can only benefit.

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Should I Add Composting Worms to a Compost Bin or Heap?

We have many customers who want to add worms either to a composting bin or heap, very often they have purchased composting bins and have been told that by adding worms this will speed up the process, to some extent this is true but problems can be encountered if you are not aware of the conditions that worms need to live in.

Basically, an “ordinary” compost bin or heap works by the waste being continually added, stirred up (or in the case of the heap – turned over) this introduces air, as the bugs, bacteria, fungi and all sorts of other micro life breed and multiply they need this air, as they are multiplying and decaying the waste they produce heat, this is called aerobic composting, when any heap or bin is generating heat in this way it is properly composting, if the heap or bin has gone cold, this means that the population of bugs bacteria etc have used up all the oxygen and are now dying off and effectively the composting has slowed or stopped altogether, very often if everything is stirred up, introducing more air the whole lot will start again. When a composting bin or heap is happily composting away (and generating heat) there is absolutely no point in adding worms to “speed up the process” the heat will either drive them away or simply kill them off!

When a heap or bin has pretty much finished composting and has gone cold and no more fresh waste is being added then your compost is ready to use BUT sometimes it is not as good as you had hoped, it may have unfinished bits, it may be too coarse it may even be a bit smelly, it can even be disappointing, this would be a good time to add worms, the compost should be aerated again (but because it has finished it shouldn’t heat again) and the worms placed on top, if its reasonable compost they should burrow down straight away, they will continue to breed and feed on this compost but what they produce the other end (to their mouth) is a really fine and valuable product much superior to the first lot of compost.

I hope this has been useful, please feel free to copy and download for your own private use. Strictly no commercial use or reproduction without our express, written permission.

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Liquid Feed From a Wormery

You often read about the merits of the liquid “feed” produced as a by product of a worm composting bin, very often it is praised particularly by the manufacturers of “wormeries” that appear to produce this wonderful liquid, often referred to as “worm tea”, produced like this, worm tea it is most definitely not!
A good quality, well designed wormery will produce very little liquid if it is being managed correctly, this is because worms operate on surface area and allow a good circulation of air into the system, under normal operating conditions the majority of any liquid present will tend to evaporate off, the exception to this is when too much liquid is being added by the owner, this could be in the way of something like wet lettuce leaves, or loads of wet tea bags!

When a wormery is designed on depth and not surface area and is usually constructed out of plastic with no ventilation in the base, it will have very little air circulation and the liquid cannot evaporate, any moisture will condense on the sides of the smooth plastic and run to the bottom, to prevent this from soaking into the bedding and making the whole lot soggy, a grid is usually manufactured into the bin, a few inches above the base, this allows the liquid to drain and collect in this sump, a tap is then conveniently added to allow the liquid to drain off and advised to be used as a plant feed.

Is the liquid any good?

Sometimes it can be beneficial to plants, a lot depends on the maturity of the worm bin, if it has been established long enough for compost and wormcasts to have built up to a reasonable depth and is in good, healthy condition with no nasty smells then the liquid passing through will have dissolved some nutrients present and collected some bugs and bacteria and therefore being added to plants can be beneficial, providing the liquid has been drained regularly and not allowed to collect in the sump and stagnate. If the wormery has not been established long then the liquid being collected is not likely to have much benefit, as there will be no real nutrients and no beneficial bugs and bacteria, a bit like rinsing the waste first and watering the plants after!

Can the liquid be harmful?

Yes it can, if the compost and waste in the worm bin has gone stagnant and smelly this means that anaerobic conditions have set in (anaerobic – without air) this produces a whole lot of different bugs and bacteria (and usually dead worms) and these can be most harmful to plants, this also applies to liquid from a healthy system that has collected in the airless sump for a long time, the advice is to always dilute the liquid and this will lessen the potential harm but does not necessarily eliminate it.

What is the best way to make worm tea?

Proper worm tea is produced in a tea brewer, one of the ingredients being wormcasts or compost and is a subject in itself. A quick but less efficient way is to take a bagful of wormcasts or compost, importantly, collected from a good, healthy system (if it smells offensive in any way – leave it alone) stand the bag in a bucket of water for 24 hours, stir occasionally, drain the
liquid, dilute and use, do not bottle and store.

I hope this has been useful, please feel free to copy and download for your own private use. Strictly no commercial use or reproduction without our express, written permission.

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Composting and Worm Composting – Often Confused!

An introduction to composting and worm composting

Having acquired an ordinary compost bin from either a retailer or the local council many people believe that by adding worms it becomes a wormery, this is not the case, they are two different systems, read on to find out why!

First some information on the two different systems.

“Ordinary” composting bins or heaps

This method relies on the microbes and air present to break down the waste, if heat is being generated the composting is working well and the waste will reduce into good compost.                                                                                Because it is warm or even hot it is not a good idea to add worms believing they will help, the heat will kill or drive the worms away. For composting to work well, like all living things the microbes in the compost need a good balanced diet, this is a mix of green waste (kitchen scraps, a little cut grass etc) and brown waste (dead leaves, paper, cardboard etc) with a good supply of air, this mix should be about half and half, mixing this all together allows air into the waste, regular stirring up introduces more air and allows the compost to continue working, hence the reason for “turning the compost heap over”.

So what can go wrong?

Compost bins usually fail because they are not regularly turned over, they then become stagnant and can even smell, this is not good compost, the compost bin should be started again and the old contents spread on the garden and dug in at a later date.

“Wormery” composting or vermicomposting

As its name suggests this is done in a wormery and is distinctly different from ordinary compost bins despite much of the information available and most of this comes from retailers of such bins!
Worms work on surface area and not depth of bin so in most cases, anything over about 2 feet deep is wasted space and in fact, if used can create the “anaerobic” conditions talked about above. One of the most important factors that affects composting worms, their survival and success is the availability of air within their working environment, therefore the wormery must provide this in the form of good ventilation, the tall, upright plastic bins do not provide this. Once a suitable wormery is acquired, the worms must be installed in a bedding material, this is distinct from the food materials (waste) that is added after.
The bedding material is the area that the worms live in at the start, if conditions in the wormery are a bit off, they will seek refuge in this safe area, it is also treated as food which is why it is usually slow for the worms to process the new food you have given them, after all, they are surrounded by food!
Bedding can be made up of a variety of materials, a mix is best, some more commonly used materials are damp paper/cardboard, well rotted garden compost, well rotted manures, leaf mould, Moss peat, although there are ethical questions in using this and the moss you rake out of the lawn, do not use bagged potting composts from the local garden centre. The bedding in any wormery needs to be at least 8 inches deep up to about a foot.
Once the worms and bedding are installed, feed the first food layer, cover half the surface area to a depth of about a couple of inches, next cover this directly with a piece of black plastic even if the wormery has a lid. After about a week, check and see if the worms are feeding on the food layer, if they are nicely active feed the same amount again, if they are not active DO NOT feed, most problems are caused by continually adding food, creating anaerobic conditions and killing off the worms. Slowly build up the levels of feed according to the activity of the worms, what you see is far better than what you have read. You should now have a healthy, active wormery.

So, what can go wrong?

Number one problem has to be overloading with waste food, creating the anaerobic conditions above.
If the worms have insufficient air in the system they will do their best for as long as they can but then as the conditions become intolerable they will leave the bin (some bin manufacturers have overcome this problem by sealing and clamping the lid!) worms have a really good mechanism for crawling up the smoothest of plastics and this is why you find them all over the inside of the lid in their desperation to escape, if they cannot leave they will die. If you have one of these bins and wish to start again, it must be drilled full of holes – as many as you can without it collapsing and no the worms will not leave through the holes UNLESS the conditions inside have gone wrong, give them good conditions and they have no reason to leave.

Some waste foods are not suitable and even harmful to worms, raw citrus fruit skin, raw onions and members of the onion family such as garlic, all fermenting products and this includes warm damp bread in large quantities, some less obvious things such as using fly spray in the bin or any other chemicals.

Migrating worms

You have set up the wormery exactly as advised and yet the worms are crawling up the sides and out of the lid, why? Worms can be unsettled by many things, a constant vibration (nearby air conditioner) unsettled weather particularly low pressure, rain and storm conditions or the most common reason – they just do not like the bedding you have given them, if this is the case and you find the worms are wandering then leave the bin with the lid open under a low level light at night, just for 2 or 3 nights this forces them to stay and then they should settle, its also a good idea to place a wet cloth under the bin whilst doing this to catch any stragglers.
At Worms Direct we supply a worm and bedding kit, the bedding has been actively used by the worms and is home from home and they will settle much quicker.

I hope this has been useful, please feel free to copy and download for your own private use. Strictly no commercial use or reproduction without our express, written permission.

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Establishing a wormery

Siting your wormery

If you are siting your wormery outside, it must be in the shade for the summer months, worms hate being heated up! In the winter, it should be in an area where it will not freeze, a bit of frost and ice is not a problem but heavy freezing will again, cause problems for the worms.

Other considerations, how far do you want to carry your waste to add it to the wormery? If it drips will it stain your new patio slabs? When its full, it will be heavy, are you going to need to move it when it comes to emptying? In the summer, the little fruit flies can be a nuisance.

Wormeries can also be sited indoors in a garage or shed, this can have a lot of advantages, the temperatures are more stable and the worms will tend to be more efficient.

Setting up your wormery

Once you have sited your wormery, the next step is installing the worms, all worms need to be put into a bedding material this is not the waste you are feeding them, it is a layer below, this applies to all wormeries irrespective of the make or type.

The bedding material is where the worms will live, they do not appreciate being forced to live in neat waste food! Wormery manufacturers and suppliers recommend a whole range of “suitable” materials but most are far from ideal, these recommendations and often supplied with the wormery are materials such as shredded newspaper, torn up cardboard, moss peat and coir in brick or blocks.

The reason why worms are unhappy in taking to this type of bedding is because it is alien to them, it will have none of the beneficial bugs, bacteria and fungi that worms need to survive, ie to them- no food! so they tend to leave to find better conditions elsewhere. By far the best bedding is compost that the worms have been living in, it is home from home, it will have high levels of the bugs, bacteria and fungi, i.e. food already present and unlike the sterile ingredients above, will inoculate the new food waste to get the whole system off to a flying start. This bedding needs to be 8 inches deep or more.

The worms, there is much written about the “right” type of worms, there are many different common names given to the same worms, there are many suppliers who are supplying worms with the wrong names, there are many suppliers who actually don’t know what worms they are supplying! Basically the worms that are used in a wormery have to be composting or litter worms not soil dwelling worms such as Lumbricus terrestris or Lob worm.

There are really only two types that are offered in any quantity by suppliers for wormeries and these are Dendrobaena (Eisenia hortensis) by far the easiest to buy and Brandlings (Eisenia foetida). Dendrobaena are grown in huge quantities mainly for the fishing trade but often unwittingly passed of as Brandlings, a common name for Brandlings is Tiger worms hence you have a lot of Tiger worms for sale which are actually Dendrobaena, doesn’t help when the Dendrobaena are stripey, similar to the Tiger or Brandling worm! In our opinion, it makes very little difference which worm is used, both have “fors and against” and I am sure the arguments will continue for some years to come. At Worms Direct we supply a mix so you can have the best of both worms.

The quantity of worms to start with does really depend on the size of wormery, usually the minimum to start with is about 0.25kg around 250 worms, for the average size wormery 0.5kg would be a better start. If you try to put in too many worms they will feel overcrowded even though this is not the optimum population of the wormery, when they feel overcrowded the worms have a natural tendency to disperse.

Feeding your wormery (Vermicomposting waste)

Feeding your worms is the same as vermicomposting your kitchen waste, simply put, it is putting your kitchen waste onto the worms who will then feed on it and pass it out as worm casts. When the worms are established in their bedding material, the first layer of kitchen waste is put on top, this should only be a couple of inches thick, if it were any more it is in danger of composting on its own and producing heat, its the production of this heat that we want to avoid.

When the food waste is in contact with proper, active bedding it will be inoculated by all the bugs, bacteria and fungi in the bedding, this will then start the waste to decay and the worms will move in to feed, as it decays and is being eaten, more waste is added, a couple of inches at a time, it is crucial that the worms are given time to really get stuck into the kitchen waste before adding the next layer lest it should all start to heat up!

Over a period of many months you will notice that the layers are turning into compost and the worms are moving up to the fresher layer, at the same time they will be breeding and increasing the population. There are a few points that should be noted with the feeding. Green waste, i.e. kitchen scraps should not be the only food, added to this should be an equal amount of paper, cardboard and/or dead leaves, this makes a balanced diet for the worms. Tough woody or straw based waste takes a long time for worms to deal with and is best left out along with bones, meat, fish, oil and fats. Certain green wastes should also be avoided and these are raw onions and members of the onion family, citrus fruit skin and not too much citrus fruit itself. The ideal condition of the kitchen waste should be chopped up, but don’t waste too much time and well mixed up before adding to the wormery.

Harvesting the compost

At some point your wormery will need emptying of the compost that has built up, with the flow through system this has been a continual process since it was set up. For the multiple tray systems the theory is that the worms will have moved up to successive trays allowing you to empty the compost from the lower tray – not always the case! see article on “problems”.

For the simple box, single tray or a worm bed in the ground you have no option but to clean out the compost. There are several ways this can be done from feeding them on one side to encourage the worms to move over to up ending the lot and sorting by hand. You can just put the whole lot into the garden, worms and all and start from fresh, this is probably the easiest way but some people like to get their hands dirty and save every last worm!

The best way is as follows: A few day before harvesting is necessary feed plenty of the favourite food (you should know this by now) but any soft fruit always encourages the worms, after a couple of days, choose a bright day, quickly remove all the uneaten food waste, including worms from the surface and put to one side in a bucket, on a clean sheet either on the ground or preferably on a large table up end the box or if its too big, carefully dig out all the compost and pile it into a pyramid, you will notice the worms will burrow away from the light towards the centre of the pyramid, carefully remove as much compost from around the pyramid until you come to worms, leave it for 30 minutes or so and repeat, do this as many times as necessary until you are left with a large lump of worms and compost ready to go back into the wormery and start again, you will not need new bedding just use as much of the harvested compost as necessary and that’s it! it really is the best way and technology has not helped much in this case.

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Introducing Worms to a Newly Created Garden

Many gardens today are newly created, often this means that the topsoil, turf, shrubs and trees etc have all been brought in and an almost instant garden created, even if this is not the case and the garden has been created from an already existing but neglected plot then this will have usually involved a great deal of mechanical work and suffered through the use of chemicals whether its sprays or so called “composts”.

Worms do not like disturbance, therefore if the soil has been imported or mechanically dug and moved on site many of the worms will have moved or been killed off, the end result being a nice looking garden (but unhealthy) and no worms!

Do we need worms, are they that important?

The answer is undoubtedly a resounding yes. Worms create the very soil that the plants live in, they do this by digesting all the organic matter left on the surface through dead plants, leaves etc (without them doing this the planet would now be miles deep in decaying vegetation!). As this matter is digested it is then deposited back as “casts” (actually worm poo!) this, when added to the ground up rocks and stones gives us soil.

This soil when it has not been interfered with my man is naturally rich in nutrients and all the micro life that plants need to grow and flourish, it also gives the plants the ability to fight of insect and disease attack, a good reason for the worms existence, if that was not enough, the worm has also been designed to burrow around in the soil, particularly in the vicinity of plant roots, creating tunnels that allow moisture and air into the soil for plants to use, a pretty convincing argument for their existence.

If there are no worms in the newly created garden then the plants will not have the benefit of the worms existence and will certainly need the intervention by man in the form of adding nutrients, sprays, digging etc. think of how a typical modern wheat field is managed.

Can we just then add worms?

Yes we can but it does have to be done with some thought and preparation, if you just toss on a few handfuls of worms and hope for the best it is likely to fail. We often hear that the soil is compacted and the customer hopes that the worms will break this up along with getting rid of the rubble and concrete also buried! unfortunately worms will not do this,  any potential site for adding worms to will need to have any compaction broken up, rubbish including rubble etc must be removed the  worms need food, this is the organic matter they would find naturally, in a new garden it must be provided by incorporating it into the soil BEFORE adding worms, it can be in the form of well rotted manure, garden compost or leaf mould or similar materials of a non chemical nature, we recommend this should then be left for a year to settle down and mature, during this period, where possible, a good layer of mulch and or compost should be put on the surface making sure the soil is damp and retains this moisture, then consider adding worms.

Flower and shrub beds

Wherever possible, a “no dig” policy should be established, worms do not like to be disturbed, in shrub and flower beds this is not usually difficult and any subsequent digging to plant would not be a problem, for the worms to thrive it is essential that the mulching continues. Sprays and chemicals are all detrimental to worms and should be avoided.

Vegetable plot

This is not always so easy, we still have this traditional need to dig but if this is kept to a minimum then the worms will be fine, the more worms the less need to dig except maybe when actually planting. The incorporation of organic compost and manures (old) is still essential, not only for the worms but for the health of the plot and its plants, again, chemical sprays and liquids must be avoided.

“Planting” Worms

When the plots are ready to receive the worms, they must be added by planting, if they are just spread on the surface, many if not most will be lost, the birds will have a field day! Worms are reluctant to burrow down into unknown territories, they don’t know what they might meet so they tend to stay on the surface and head for any dark or damp spots possibly where you do not want them.

If they are on the surface too long the ultra violet light in daylight and sun can severely damage and eventually kill them therefore it is essential they are “planted”. To do this, calculate the area in square meters or yards, work on 3 or 4 holes per yard/meter, dig out a trowel depth hole, add a bit of water and compost, pop in a pinch or so of worms, roughly dividing up the weight or quantity of worms purchased by the number of holes dug, always then cover over the hole with the soil.

Worm colonies are recommended for several reasons, they do not have to be planted immediately on arrival, they make the number of holes to be dug much less (one per 1 or 2 square metres) thereby saving time and effort, the worms are not suddenly introduced to a new environment that they are unfamiliar with, the colony container gives them a safe and secure environment until they are happy to venture forth, job done!

What quantity and species should be planted?

Sadly there are very few species of worms available commercially, many are not available simply because there is no demand, the ones that are available are Lumbricus terrestris, our largest worm, Eisenia hortensis a soil dwelling/compost dwelling worm, Eisenia foetida and Eisenia andrii both being mainly compost worms, all of these worms will live in soil but the “composting” worms will need good volumes of organic matter (which should be incorporated in to soils anyway) to thrive.

The quantity of worms required is not an exact science, as a rough guide you should be aiming for the following:

Introducing Lumbricus terrestris – this would be around 5 worms per square metre minimum, this is a guide only and the quantities can be varied according to budget, however, it should be noted that too few are likely to fail, these are the deep burrowing worms.

Introducing Eisenia hortensis, Eisenia foetida and Eisenia andreii (usually supplied as a mix) these should be planted at around 10 – 20 per square metre as a minimum, there are roughly 1000 per kilo for pricing purposes.

The quantities are governed by surface area NOT depth.

I hope this has been useful, please feel free to copy and download for your own private use. Strictly no commercial use or reproduction without our express, written permission.

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  • Worm Colonies – easy to use box of earthworms suitable for adding to a newly created garden.
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