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Which worm is best for composting?

Different composting worms

At Worms Direct one subject that comes up with our customers time and time again is “which composting worm is best” this question arises due to the amount of confusion that has been generated over the years by companies selling worms and pretending they know all about worms and just repeating what others have written! some will quote scientific studies completely out of context, hopefully we can clear away some of this confusion.
First it is important to understand that different species of worms are not available in different countries, therefor you will often see, particularly on forums, that such and such worm is best, yes it is in their country but may not be applicable elsewhere when other worm species are available, as an example, an Indian Blue is an extremely efficient worm in hot climates but in the UK it will die, secondly, particularly in the UK common names are mostly used and have been applied to different worm species – Tiger worm is a prime example, often this is done by sellers who are not aware of the differences! so lets start from the beginning.

The most talked about worm (using a common name) is “Tiger worm” the latin name for this is Eisenia foetida or Eisenia fetida, this the most commonly used worm in the US also known as Red Wiggler and a lot of worm composting information on the internet comes from the US, it is stripey in appearance.

The most commonly grown worm for composting (and fishing) in the UK is “The Dendrobaena” the latin name is Eisenia hortensis or Dendrobaena veneta, it is also stripey in appearance and has therefore been called “Tiger worm” by many growers.

You now have the situation where 2 different species are being called and sold as “Tiger worms”

Apart from ourselves, we are not aware of anyone who is growing the original Tiger worm (Eisenia foetida) as a clean species, many growers will have them mixed in with their Dendrobaena stock.

You will then see growers claiming “Tiger worms” are best but which one? you will see growers claiming the original Tiger worm (Eisenia foetida) is the best and backing this with findings from scientific trials, I have yet to read of any scientific trials that were carried out in domestic wormeries using household waste by inexperienced people!
The truth is that both worm species work and breed better in different conditions:
E. foetida (original Tiger worm) work better in warmer bins, Dendrobaena prefer it cooler.
E. foetida (original Tiger worm) work better in drier conditions, Dendrobaena prefer it wetter
E. foetida (original Tiger worm) work better in denser populations, Dendrobaena need more space
E. foetida (original Tiger worm) are more delicate, Dendrobaena are generally tougher.
E. foetida (original Tiger worm) breed more quickly than Dendrobaena, yes, when its warmer

So you can see, it all depends on the conditions the worms will experience in your wormery, if you can guarantee the right conditions for one or other species then use that worm, if you cannot then play it safe and use a mix of both species (if you can get them). Do not be taken in by sales blurb.

I truly hope this has gone some way to clearing the confusion.

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What is Composting?

Composting is the means that organic materials break down, decompose and reduce in volume, without it the planet would be miles deep in leaves, let alone anything else! In breaking down this organic matter provides food for millions of different living creatures, from bacteria and fungi, through small bugs, larger bugs up to and including worms, not only is this food provided but once eaten by the worms it has to be deposited back, okay, it’s worm poo but the proper name is worm casts. These casts have now become enriched with nutrients, minerals etc and are then used by the plants that started the decomposition in the first place, a self contained, self supporting, recycling, circle of life.

Types of composting.

There are many different ways to compost organic waste but there are really only two that are of interest to readers and users of this website, these are “aerobic composting” and “vermicomposting”

Aerobic composting.

Starting with “aerobic composting” this simply is the type of composting when a bin or a heap is used to rot it all down. This method relies on the bugs, bacteria, fungi and oxygen present in the waste to decompose the material, in doing so it will generate heat as a by product, if heat is being generated (and this has very little to do with the sun) then the decomposition is working well, the waste will reduce and you will end up with a good compost .To achieve this situation, ie. bugs, bacteria etc working well, the right conditions have to be in place and this is where most compost bins and compost heaps fail to work properly. Like all living things, bugs, bacteria, fungi and micro life need a good balanced diet, in this case it is made up from a mix of nitrogen and carbons found in the waste provided for them in the compost bin along with a good supply of oxygen from the air, the nitrogen comes from all the veggie peelings, the left over table scraps, the grass cuttings etc, these are the “greens” The carbon is provided from, paper, cardboard, leaves etc, these are the “browns” The “green” and “browns” should be half and half, this should all be mixed together which also allows air into the material, not only should this be done when adding these materials but also the older contents should be stirred up to allow in more air, hence the reason for “turning the compost heap over”.

Vermicomposting (Worm composting)

Next we come to “vermicomposting” or worm composting, in this system we use the worms to do the work, instead of letting the waste heat up we keep it cold and this is done by putting it onto the worms in thin layers instead of piling it up as you would in a compost bin or compost heap, when it is in thin layers like this, the bugs and bacteria still get to work but any heat produced escapes and is not trapped in the waste, this is good for the worms because they feed on all of this and don’t get burnt doing it! Naturally, as they feed, what goes in must come out and this is known as “casts”, these casts and the mix of compost that is left behind are very beneficial to plant growth (I wonder why we have worms in the soil, living all around the plant roots?) So there we have the two main methods of composting.

But why should we compost?

If you have a garden, an allotment or even a farm you will know why, as said before it is a very simple and effective way of producing something that your plants will thrive on and the added bonus is you get rid of your green waste but if you live in a flat or house with no garden, why compost? You can always use it in tubs, baskets and troughs but is that enough?
Global warming, climate change, the planet is heating up etc are all fairly new buzz words and everybody is trying to use these buzz words to jump on the band wagon, from turning your washing machine down to buying car insurance where they will plant a tree for you!
One of the most genuinely useful ways of “doing your bit” is to first to cut down on the amount of organic waste you produce by trying not to buy so much, remember organic waste includes all sorts of things not only your kitchen and garden waste but think of the amount of paper and cardboard thrown out, certainly you can recycle it through kerbside collections but wouldn’t it be better if the dustcart didn’t have to collect it? A few facts to think on, something like 75% of all waste still sent to landfill is compostable, “ordinary” composting would reduce this waste by about 50% vermicomposting or worm composting would reduce it by up to 80%! Even if you had no option but to put the finished compost out for the dustcart to take to landfill, it would be a lot less dustcart trips and plants could grow in it once it was there, got to be worth a bit of effort.

I hope this has been of some help and I hope you now feel that composting is worth a go.

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The Different Types of Wormery

There are many different types of wormery on the market and several different means of working (or not, as the case may be!) The following advice sheets are designed to help you choose the right one if it is your first time or to offer advice on how to improve on a “difficult” one if you already own one and are struggling.

The simple box

A simple box is a very good starting point, ideally it would be of wood but often plastic can be more practical, to be efficient it would need to be no smaller than the kerbside recycling box as supplied by your local council, with a lid.The main considerations for any wormery are surface area and a really good air supply, drainage holes in the base will be necessary, particularly with a plastic box.

The single tray

This the next step up from a box, constructed from plastics, it consists of a base box with a “working” tray that sits just inside the base box, the lower box acts as a drip catcher and usually has a spout or tap to drain off any excess liquid that may be produced. The working tray has a perforated bottom to allow any excess moisture to drain away.

The multiple tray

The multiple tray wormery is the next step up from the single tray, the idea is that when the first tray is full a second tray with a perforated base is placed on top of the full one and waste is added to this second tray, the theory being that the worms will move from the first (now full) tray, via the perforations up into the second tray to continue feeding. There are also systems with 3 or more trays. An example of this system is the Worm Cafe as sold on this web site http://www.wormsdirectuk.co.uk/product/worm-cafe-kit/

The Flow Through

The flow through system is considered to be the Rolls Royce of worm composting systems, it is usually based on a wooden box but the bottom is replaced by a riddle mechanism, this mechanism, usually produced out of galvanized steel allows the operator to riddle the finished worm casts/compost from the bottom, settling the contents and creating more space for adding waste feed, the theory being a continuous cycle of feeding, riddling and feeding removing the need to separate worms and compost when the bin is full.

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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.