As an organic gardener, one of the most important jobs is making compost. Composting is crucial. It allows us to take organic matter from the garden, kitchen scraps and biodegradable household waste and return their nutrients to the natural system. This can help us to grow our plants, and keeps the soil ecosystem healthy and functioning well. Vermiculture is an awesome alternative to ordinary cold composting, hot composting or composting in place. Learn all about how worms can help you create compost in this beginner’s guide.
What is Vermiculture?
Vermiculture is the word used to describe keeping worms. The worms in question are special types which are specialists in their field. They are incredibly good at turning waste, organic matter and other organic materials into a friable, fertile compost that can be used in your garden. Vermiculture involves keeping these worms in a special container, usually referred to as a wormery.
As with regular composting, the contents of a wormery include both green (nitrogen rich) and brown (carbon rich) materials. These materials break down over time. However, in vermiculture, the process of decomposition is aided by the worms.
Why Vermiculture is a Good Idea
Enlisting worms to help with your composting can speed up the process and break down of the materials more efficiently. As the worms eat through the matter, they aerate it as they make their tunnels through it. This aids aerobic decomposition. They also enrich the mix with their excrement, which is an excellent soil amender. Worm poop or worm castings enhance the finished compost and make it particularly beneficial for soil and plants.
Since you can choose large or small scale wormery systems, vermiculture is an option that can work well no matter how much space you have at your disposal. It can allow composting to take place even in small gardens – and even when a household has no garden at all. As long as the worms have the right conditions, a vermiculture system can potentially be set up inside or outside your home.
Vermiculture Helps Tackle Food Waste
Since vermiculture makes composting easier, wherever you live, it can be a great thing for our planet. Composting not only allows us to grow our own food and take care of the natural environment around us, it also allows us to reduce the waste we send to landfill, or for processing outside of our homes.
Food waste sent to landfill can be a huge problem, since it generates methane as it anaerobically decomposes. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, which contributes significantly to global warming. Even where organic waste or organic materials are burned rather than buried, the sheer volume of food waste we generate can be a problem and there is also the carbon cost of food waste transportation to take into account. Domestic vermiculture is one solution we can employ to tackle this problem.
More Vermiculture Benefits: Additional Yield
A vermiculture system has numerous benefits. The main focus of a vermiculture composting system is the compost it creates, but vermiculture can also be a way to breed the worms themselves. And those worms themselves can become an additional yield.
Some people who start a wormery decide to do so in order to breed worms for feeding fish – for example, those that are kept in an aquaponics system. Worms can also be bred as an additional food source for other domestic animals – such as backyard chickens, while worm poop or worm castings can be great fertilizer.
Creating a Wormery
When creating a wormery in which to house your worms, the first decision to make it whether you will buy it, or make it. There are a range of ready-made wormeries available online – though some are better than others. It is important to make the right choice, since worms that are unhappy may try to leave – and in the worst case scenario, may even die if you get it wrong.
Remember, worms are living creatures. As such, they need to be able to breathe. Whether you buy or make your wormery, it is important to make sure that it is not airtight, and that there is adequate airflow. The wormery or worm composting system should also be able to maintain a fairly constant temperature, wherever it is placed, and not get too hot or too cold. The worm bin needs to remain moist, but not too wet, and be reasonably dark.
Sourcing Organic Materials to Make a Wormery
There are plenty of tutorials online which will give instructions to help you make your wormery, should you choose to do so. A wormery can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. You can often make one using materials that may otherwise be thrown out, or which you already have lying around. For example, there are plenty of instances of old food or storage containers being used for the purpose. Larger wormeries can be constructed from old barrels or bins, or made using old wooden pallets or other scrap wood with some sort of lining placed inside.
When designing and building your own wormery, there are a few important things to bear in mind. In addition to considering the basic needs of the worms themselves, you should also think about how easy the bin is to use, maintain and empty of the compost once it is ready without losing your worms.
A lid that is easy to open is essential so that you can add food scraps and other materials in small quantities on a regular basis. It can also be a good idea to add a faucet close to the bottom of the container, so that excess fluid can be drained off if the mix inside becomes too wet. (The fluid that you drain off will also serve a purpose – it is a great, nutrient-rich, liquid plant feed that supports plant growth.)
It is also a good idea to think about creating a wormery that has more than one section. The sections should stack one above another. They will make it easier to retrieve your finished compost once the worms have done their work. Once the lower section is full and composted, an upper section can be added. As you add scraps to the upper section, the worms will slowly migrate up through holes to the top section and after a time, the lower section can be removed and you can use the worm-free compost in your garden.
Determining the Appropriate Size for Your Wormery
Another thing to think about when designing your wormery is how much food waste you typically generate in your home. A single person will generally require a much smaller wormery, while if you have a large family, there will obviously be far more to compost – you will require more worms and therefore a bigger wormery. Common sense, as always, is a good place to begin. If in doubt, it is probably better to start with a smaller wormery and then create a bigger one if one is required, once you have got used to the vermiculture process, and what is involved.
Positioning Your Wormery
Once you have bought or built your wormery, it is time to think about where it should go. You will, of course, be limited by the space you have available. You will also be restricted, to an extent, by the climate and general conditions where you live.
When deciding where to place your wormery, it is important to think about both the needs of the worms and your own needs and wishes.
Positioning Your Wormery To Keep the Worms Happy
Worms will do best in temperatures that remain between 10 and 25 degrees C. At colder and warmer temperatures, they can slow down, and may even die if extreme temperatures are reached. However, they will keep going (if less efficiently) down to around zero degrees. This is something to bear in mind when deciding where to position your wormery.
While a small wormery can quite happily be placed within a cupboard or in a utility space in your home, some people just cannot get used to the idea of the worms wriggling away inside. A wormery could also be placed in a garage, shed, or outbuilding to keep it warm enough in cooler climes, or be placed outside in a sheltered spot and/or with adequate insulation. If you position your wormery outside in a warmer climate, or indoors in a heated space, remember to pay attention to shade/ cooling ventilation and make sure things won’t get too hot in your chosen location either.
Positioning Your Wormery To Make Things Easier For You
In addition to thinking about keeping the worms happy and healthy in your chosen location, you should also think about practicality and logistics. Think about positioning your wormery so it is quick and convenient for you to add food scraps and other compostable waste to it. Since you will have to add the matter little and often, avoid placing the wormery too far away or you could quickly become fed up with trekking back and forth most days.
You may also like to think about how convenient it will be to take the yields from your vermiculture system (compost, liquid feed, worms) to where they are needed. Thinking about the routes you take around your home and garden can help you to determine where all the elements are best positioned.
The worms you need for a wormery are called ‘tiger worms‘ and you can order them online from a range of specialist suppliers. These are not the same type of worms that you will find in the soil in your garden. Usually, two species of worms are used – either Eisenia hortensis or Eisenia foetida, sometimes also called the red wiggler.
It may seem rather odd receiving worms through the post, but once you have received your worms, they will multiply in your wormery and you should have no need to buy any more. The red wiggler or worm population in your wormery should roughly double in around 3 months, providing that everything is to their liking.
How many worms to get will depend on the size of the wormery. However, many who turn to vermiculture start with a 0.5kg pack of worms, which is suitable for the average sized wormery. If you have a small wormery, you could begin with half this weight, but it is best, in order to establish a viable red wiggler or worm population, not to order less than this amount.
Preparing Your Wormery
Before the worms move in, you will have to get your wormery ready. The worms will need some bedding material in which to live. Worms can make do with bedding of shredded newspaper or torn up cardboard. However, this is not the best option and worms will do much better if you provide them with ‘bedding’ of garden compost. Not only is this preferable for the worms, it also gives the composting system a head start. Compost will be full of beneficial soil biota – bacteria and fungi – and these will get everything started nicely. The bedding in your wormery should ideally be at least 8 inches deep.
Using Your Wormery
Once the wormery is ready, and the worms have moved into and established their colony in the bedding, it is time to start feeding your worms – which basically just means adding your compostable scraps to the system.
It is best to add your food scraps in small amounts (making layers of no more than 3-4cm in depth). If you add too much waste at one time there is a risk that the food scraps will begin to compost on its own. This will generate heat, which is bad for the worms. Remember, vermiculture involves aerobic, cold composting and cannot be allowed to become an anaerobic hot composting system.
As with all composting, it is important to get the right mix of green (nitrogen rich) and brown (carbon rich) materials. These should be added in thin alternate layers for best results. Each time you add kitchen scraps, it is good practice to add a similar quantity of brown materials. These might be paper and card, or dead leaves, for example.
What NOT to Add to Your Wormery
Certain things should not be added to your wormery. In addition to things that you would not place in any composting system, you should also avoid tough or particularly woody material, as this will rake too long for worms to deal with. Onions and other alliums can be added, but only in moderation and in small amounts. You should also avoid putting citrus skins in the wormery, and incorporate only small quantities of citrus fruits. Also, avoid dairy products, meat or anything oily. Worms can’t digest protein, so they will not be able to process any dairy products like milk, cheese or yogurt. The worms will avoid the dairy products.
Keep adding to your wormery until it is full, then, when composting is complete, add another section above, providing access for the worms to migrate into the new section. Then simply keep adding your materials as before, and once the worms have had time to migrate, retrieve the compost from the bottom section and put it to use around your garden.
Elizabeth Waddington is a smallholder, permaculture designer and environmental consultant. When not designing food producing systems or advising growers around the world, she is to be found in her own garden. On her 1/3 of an acre patch of land she has a walled forest garden orchard (home to rescue chickens), a polyculture vegetable plot, a polytunnel, wildlife pond, wild woodland garden and more and is working every day towards greater self-sufficiency. She is passionate about sustainability and loves to inspire others about the wonderful things home gardeners can do for people and planet.