Composting and Worm Composting – Often Confused!

An introduction to composting and worm composting

Many of our customers buy worms to introduce into an “ordinary” compost bin, such as those supplied by Councils, particularly the cone shaped one or the one with an access door at the bottom, in the understanding that this is setting up a “worm composting bin” having read or been told that this is the correct way to do it, not strictly correct, you can add worms and it can be beneficial but it will not create a “wormery”.

First some information on the two different systems.

“Ordinary” composting bins or heaps

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 composting is working well, the waste will reduce and you will end up with a good compost BUT it is not a good idea to add worms in the belief they will help even further, the heat being generated will either kill off or drive the worms away. To achieve this situation, i.e. bugs bacteria etc working well, the right conditions have to be in place and this is where most compost bins and heaps fail to work. 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”.

So what can go wrong?

Our predecessors always turned the compost heap over but modern mankind does not bother any more, here begins the problem, without air the bin or heap will become stagnant or anaerobic this is when it begins to smell nasty, often the advice is “to mix in newspaper, stir it up and add worms” our advice is not to bother, the “nasties” created by these conditions are still going to be present and its unlikely that the worms will survive and you will have wasted time and money, do the above, without adding worms and when the nasty smell has gone, use the compost on the garden and start again, however, if a bin or heap has gone cold and inactive and not reached the nasty smelly stage then it may well be worth stirring up and adding worms and it should be beneficial.

“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.

Care Guides