It seems that for some people vermicomposting vs traditional composting is a no brainer. Then there are the many of us who have a compost bin or a pile in the corner of the garden where we throw grass cuttings and other organic waste and hope for the best.

But we don’t tend to give much thought to how the composting process works, in fact a lot of people probably aren’t aware that even the most humble pile of grass and leaves needs attention to make effective compost.  And how exactly do worms fit in with all of this?

This article compares both methods and shows the benefits of working with a highly efficient worm team.

Traditional Composting – How It Works

In this method – which is probably the best known – organic waste is thrown onto a heap or into a compost bin. Grass and plant cuttings, vegetable peelings, tea leaves and coffee grounds (but definitely not the bags they might come in), eggshells and most paper and cardboard are all things that can be included.

Your bin or heap should provide ideal conditions for oxygen-dependent microorganisms which break down the organic matter – a heat-producing process. The heat generated is necessary both to maintain the decomposition, and to kill off bad microbes or pathogens. 

The compost can then be used on flower or vegetable beds as mulch, or spread around shrubs and trees. How nutrient-rich your compost is will depend on you maintaining it well and only adding the correct waste products.

Surely it’s not that easy?

This sounds very straightforward, and in many ways it is. But a common mistake people make is to add waste to their compost heap and simply walk away. They then might wonder why instead of lovely useful fertiliser they end up with a smelly mess.

Like all systems, a compost heap requires maintenance. It will need a good mix of brown and green material, the right moisture and regular turning with a garden fork or spade. This helps to keep the matter aerated, allowing oxygen to circulate, and stops excessive moisture building up in pockets by distributing it more evenly. The oxygen is necessary for microbes to thrive which builds up a desirable heat to kill of weed seeds and pathogens.

Another mistake people make is to add the wrong kind of waste. Avoid meat scraps, eggs, animal fats or anything dairy – these can bring vermin as well as smelling terrible as they rot.

Vermicomposting – How It Works

Unlike traditional composting, vermicomposting can be done outdoors or indoors, and therefore makes composting possible for people with no outdoor space. To get started you will need some form of container – there are many types available to buy, or, if you’re a handy type, you could make your own. Your worms will also need bedding (again this is available to buy if you are not confident in preparing your own).

And of course the most important element is your worm team itself. Common or garden earth worms aren’t suitable, so you will need to source a quantity of the right sort.

More detailed advice on the right kind of worm and setting up your wormery can be found here.

Worms – working hard but staying chilly

Once you have your bin set up with suitable bedding and introduced your first worms, simply add the organic waste and your worm team will begin to tuck in. Wormeries do not produce the high temperatures found in traditional composting. Worms would die in those high temperatures or at least leave the area if they can.

The worms – microbe process is much cooler.

What follows is essentially super-compost – worm poop (more formally known as castings). You may also wish to collect the liquid by-product that drains through your system, commonly known as leachate. And, there are a number of ways to make worm tea, a very potent, organic liquid fertiliser.  

Once you have harvested the worm castings, you can begin the process again. As long as you follow the guidelines for maintaining your worm farm, you will have a regular source of nutrient-rich compost. As with traditional composting, you still need to ensure you only add the correct sort of waste, as well as making sure not to overfeed or overheat your team.

2 weeks in 1 min video Be patient, it seems at first nothing is happening but then it’s worth the wait. Can you spot the turning point?

Watch worms in full action once their fresh food started to decompose. The food (used coffee grounds, carrot and potato peels, celery and carrot leaves, and egg shells) was placed on top of a layer of vermicompost and composting worms.

Vermicomposting vs Traditional Composting Side by Side Overview

In all areas we are looking at normal households, rather than commercial or large-scale operations.

Traditional composting Vermicomposting
Outside Outside and inside
You can add to, and maintain your compost heap all year round, but decomposition may come to a standstill in colder months. All year round – as long as you keep your worm farm at the appropriate temperature you can feed your worms and harvest your compost continually.
Theoretically anyone, but some strength may be needed to effectively turn and harvest your compost. Probably not suitable for young children. Anyone. Even toddlers can get involved in watching and feeding.
Space needed
Outside space is a must. A compost bin, whether bought or home-made can be used in all but the smallest gardens. However, to enable hot composting a certain volume is required. No outside space needed. A worm farm can be as small as a bucket sited in the corner of a kitchen, under the sink or in garage.
The bigger the outside space, the bigger the compost heap you can create. Limited by the size and number of worm bins you can accommodate.
Only limited by the size you make available for your compost pile – you don’t need to regulate the amount beyond that. You need to avoid overfeeding your worms – you can’t just throw everything in and hope for the best.
The more you add, the more compost you can expect to harvest. Your worms will create a continuous supply of fertilizer, although quantities will be smaller.
You must turn your compost regularly to aerate it and to control moisture and temperature. As long as you keep temperatures optimal and do not overfeed, your worms will do their own maintenance!
Not ideal for kitchen waste because it requires a trip outdoors and/or interim storage of waste If kept indoors and close to kitchen great for veg and fruit scraps, so no need to don coats and gloves in winter
Turning compost effectively can be hard work, so some strength might be needed, fun for some, chore for others. You’ll be dealing with smaller containers and quantities so strength not an issue.
Nutrient quality
This will depend on how well you have maintained your compost, monitoring the temperature, moisture and oxygen levels. Very nutrient rich – minimal, sensible maintenance will lead to a consistent quality of harvest.

So we’ve compared the practicalities – what about the pros and cons?

The Upside of Traditional Composting

  • No special equipment required – a corner of the garden is all you need
  • Relatively simple maintenance – regular turning
  • Larger quantity of compost produced

The Downside of Traditional Composting

  • Lengthier process
  • Can only be done outdoors
  • Requires more space
  • A neglected compost heap can smell
  • Maintenance needed – not too hot and not too cold
  • Adding the wrong material can attract vermin
  • If you get it wrong, starting from scratch involves some effort

The Upside Of Vermicomposting

  • Quicker
  • Less chance of smell
  • Smaller space needed
  • Can be done indoors
  • Less maintenance – the worms do most of the work!
  • Higher nutrient fertiliser
  • If you get it wrong, starting again is quicker and easier
  • Perfect to make use of plant based kitchen scraps
  • Cooler process
  • A good way to introduce children to sustainability
  • You will end up with more worms

The Downside Of Vermicomposting

  • Possible initial financial outlay
  • Smaller quantity of fertiliser produced
  • Can’t be used to compost large amounts of waste

So how do you decide?

As you can see, there isn’t really a winner when looking at vermicomposting vs traditional composting. Both have benefits, and any system that reduces landfill, recycles organic waste and replenishes soil and plant nutrients must be worthwhile.

But there are some key differences. If you have limited outdoor space, aren’t a natural outdoors person or perhaps have limited strength or mobility, then vermicomposting is easily the better option, especially if your green waste comes mainly from the kitchen. Controlling your system is simpler, consistent year round and it can be done anywhere. A worm bin is the perfect opportunity for children to learn about recycling. Plus, worms are fun!

So, if you have been sitting on the fence, go and get some worms working for you.

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