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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.

Overfeeding causes stagnation, when this happens gas is produced which will drive the worms out or evn kill them, it is best to remove all the worms as best as possible and start again with fresh bedding.

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. Do not feed large amounts of green waste at a time, it will have a tendancy to heat up, driving the worms out, do not be tempted to add grass cuttings at all. 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.

Help! my worms are leaving!

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.

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.

If you are using the Worm Colonies then base your calculations on a minimum of 1 colony per 2 square meters surface area.

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.

Related Products

  • Worm Colonies – easy to use box of earthworms suitable for adding to a newly created garden.
  • Loose Earthworms – earthworms suitable for adding to a newly created garden.
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Composting………………….dog poo!

Getting rid of dog poo is something most of us would prefer not to think about too much , however it is a fact of life if you keep dogs, one of the most successful ways to do this is to compost it using worms. Being organic worms will compost it just the same as any other organic waste matter, the method is pretty much the same but there the similarities stop.

So what is the best system? lets face it, dog poo is not something most people would like to have a hands on experience with, to this end some wormery systems are best avoided, in our opinion the stacking tray system is one of these,  the best would be a simple box. To set this up you will need a box, preferably plastic, the typical kerb side recycling box with a lid often used by local councils are ideal, nothing smaller, into this the worms and bedding need to be placed, the small Worm and Bedding Kits as supplied by us are ideal, the dog poo is added and the worms allowed to get on with it, the same advice as to overloading the worms applies, if it is overloaded and the worms cannot cope, you will end up with a bin full of just dog poo, if it is regulated and well managed the worms will process the waste and there will be no smell, when the bin is almost full, stop adding poo until the worms have finished processing the last bits. It is advisable to dispose of the whole lot, worms included (unless you have no objections to sorting the worms out!) and to start again. If the dogs have been wormed, the poo cannot be added until the wormer has cleared the dogs system, give it at least a couple of weeks.

Dog poo compost cannot be used in any growing medium particularly for anything edible! it should not be used as a soil conditioner in vegetable plots or even flower beds, it may be possible to use it under large shrubs or trees but to be safe, children must not have access.

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Should worms be in a lawn?

” My front lawn has been reseeded recently and is not growing properly, could this be due to too much rain or lack of sunlight? could the soil be too compact? I don’t notice any worm casts, so I thought about introducing earthworms into the soil. “

This is not a question simply answered, a lot depends on what the soil was like prior to planting the seed, assuming the soil is up to supporting the growth of grass seed (it would have to be pretty poor not to do so!) and has been prepared properly then you have to look at the conditions, too cold, too wet, too hot and too dry will affect the germination rate, if the light levels are pretty poor such as in a heavily shaded area or under trees then germination could be slow and patchy, add to this that birds may have been feasting then you may have problems, lack of worms at this point will not affect the germination rate so until any problems have been put right it is unlikely that adding earthworms will help much to get things going.

The adding of earthworms to gardens is not something that is readily thought about, unfortunately it is often considered after a lot of work has already been done, adding earthworms should be planned in at a very early stage, taking the lawn as an example, even before adding worms the conditions they need should be carefully prepared, contrary to beliefs worms do need quite a good soil to live in, if the soil is hard, compacted, sandy, very dry etc worms will not suddenly turn it into good soil, they will leave! when the soil is good worms will work and turn this good soil into excellent soil and all plants, including grass will benefit from this. The action of worms in the soil creates burrows where oxygen and water get into the soil around the plants roots, when a worm feeds it leaves behind worm casts, sometimes these are left on the surface, these casts are a bundle of goodness, not necessarily fertilizers but all the other things that plants need to thrive, all this has to be in place before seeding, so the answer to the question “Should worms be in a lawn” is certainly yes! (as long as you don’t mind a few casts on the surface)

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Worms – are they really that important?

The most important workers of the soil are worms, scientific research has shown that a realistic population of earthworms in the soil has a positive effect on plant growth with an increase in crop production of 10% to 25%  compared to soils with no worms, not to mention the positive effect that they have on the plants ability to fight disease and bug attack.

During the growing season, particularly in vegetable gardens, the worms will have been badly disturbed even damaged by the practice of digging over the plot, soils are becoming more and more depleted in worms to the point we sometimes struggle to find any, if this is the case in your garden then it is important to replace them.

As we head into autumn/winter and the busy harvesting period begins to slow we start to think about preparing the veg and flower beds for next year, adding organic matter such as compost, old manure etc is usually high on the list, this is an ideal time to also add those important worms, over the next few months they are the ones that will be working hard to break down and incorporate this organic matter into the soil and whilst they are doing this they are creating a network of tunnels allowing oxygen and moisture deep into the soil, as the worms feed, what goes in must come out, the wonderful casts often referred to as “Black Gold” and with good reason,  they are jam packed with beneficial (to the plants) micro organisms – bacteria, fungii and a host of other benefits, this is worms working hard to prepare your plot!

I was thus led to conclude that all the vegetable mould over the whole country has passed many times through, and will again pass many times through, the intestinal canals of worms. Hence the term “animal mould” would be in some respects more than that commonly used of “vegetable mould” “

Charles Darwin.

That is why worms are so important they make the soil (vegetable mould)!