Gardening can be a quiet and restful activity. But it is rarely something that we do entirely alone. Sometimes, as a gardener, it is easy to forget about all the help we get from other creatures who share our space. Plentiful small organisms help ensure the success of our gardening endeavours – many working away below the soil in which we grow. Vermiculture is one of the ways that we can harness some of that help to improve the function and fertility of our gardens.
What is Vermiculture?
Vermiculture is the practice of composting with the aid of special composting worms. By keeping worms in a special container, usually called a wormery, we can effectively and efficiently compost the vegetative food scraps that we generate in our homes. The worms help to speed up the composting process, and turn the compostable material into a high-quality growing medium or soil amender.
Why Keep Worms To Help Make Compost?
Composting is always important, as it allows us to eliminate food waste from the waste stream and keep it out of landfill. 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 obviously contributes significantly to global warming. Even where organic waste is burned rather than buried, as it is in many parts of the UK, the sheer volume of food waste we generate can be a problem and there is also the carbon cost of waste transportation to take into account.
What is more, composting allows us to avoid squandering what can be a useful resource. In creating compost, we make full use of the scraps from the things we grow and buy. The compost we create can be used to protect or improve our soil, and avoid the need to buy damaging peat composts or other plastic packaged products from the shops.
Why Vermiculture in Particular?
But why choose to employ worms to help make compost? Well, using worms to aid us in composting can be a great idea. It can increase the speed and efficiency with which the natural processes take place. 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.
Worms live in carbon rich material (like cardboard and paper) in a wormery, and eat their way through the scraps we provide for them. As they delve through the materials in the wormery, they eat their way through the materials, keeping it well aerated which helps to aid aerobic decomposition. As they move, they generate ‘worm castings’ – worm poo – a fine and processed material that enriches the finished product – making it particularly beneficial for soil and plants.
Where to Undertake Vermiculture
Vermiculture systems can be set up inside or outside your home. As long as you can provide temperatures of between around 10 and 25 degrees inside the wormery container, with enough air, not too much moisture and not too little, worms can thrive.
People have successfully set up vermiculture systems in cupboards or under a kitchen sink, in garages or other undercover structures, in a shaded polytunnel or outdoors in a sheltered spot. Depending on the scale of your endeavour, almost anyone can find the space they require to compost in this way.
It is worthwhile considering that vermiculture can also be undertaken as part of an aquaponics system. The worms in this instance are considered to be an additional yield – the worms you breed in the composting system can be used to feed fish, who then fertilise the water in which plants are grown. Scraps from plants that are grown then feed the worms, creating a cyclical and truly sustainable food production system.
Creating a Wormery
When creating or sourcing a wormery, the first thing to decide is whether you are happy to buy one, or would like to make your own wormery. There are plenty of tutorials online which will give instructions to help you make your wormery, should you choose to do so. Often, wormeries have been made using things that gardeners have lying around – old bulk food containers or storage containers, for example, or old bins or lined wooden pallets for a larger system. Before you begin, just bear in mind that worms need to be able to breathe, and require a relatively dark and moist space.
Before you create your wormery, it is a good idea to think about how large it needs to be to cope with the food scraps and other compostable waste that is generated in your home.
It is also a good idea to consider creating a wormery with sections, so that you can more easily remove compost once it is created. 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.
It can also be a good idea to add a tap to the bottom of the container, so that excess fluid can be drained off if the mix inside becomes too wet. The fluid drained from a wormery can be an excellent and extremely nutrient rich liquid feed for your plants.
Preparing Your Wormery
Once you have decided how large your wormery should be and ether bought or constructed it, it is time to prepare for your worms (and order them for delivery). The worms will need to be given some food, and a layer of ‘bedding’ (shredded paper, cardboard). Adding a little soil/compost just at first can also help to make sure the worms have everything they need and give them a place to live when they first move in.
Sourcing Worms for Vermiculture
The worms you need for a wormery are called ‘tiger worms’ and you can order them online from a range of specialist suppliers. 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 worm population in your wormery should roughly double in around 3 months, providing that everything is to their liking.
Using Your Wormery
Once you have set up your vermiculture system and the worms have moved in, you can begin using the system. It is best to add scraps to your wormery little and often. It is important not to add too much matter at one time, since if there is too much food for the worms to handle, it can putrefy and begin to stink, and create an environment that is not suitable for the worms.
What to Add to Your Wormery
As with other types of composting, it is important to add both nitrogen rich (green) and carbon rich (brown) materials in layers.
In a typical wormery, green materials are fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen, while brown materials are shredded cardboard and paper. You can also add things like organic, natural fabrics, as long as harmful dyes or other harmful chemicals were not used when making them. However, it is worthwhile bearing in mind that these things will take longer to break down than kitchen scraps etc..
Human hair can also be added, though again, this will take longer to break down. If you have long hair, it is best to chop it up into smaller lengths before you add it to your compost.
What Not To Add (Or Only Add in Moderation)
Most fruit and vegetable scraps can be added to your wormery composting system. But certain scraps, when added in too high quantities, can cause the mix to become too acidic for the worms. Only add coffee, citrus scraps and onion scraps in moderation. Meat, fish and dairy are best avoided. If you wish to compost these things then using a bokashi fermentation process could be your best option.
Maintaining the Vermiculture System
Just bear in mind that worms will need:
- The right temperatures.
- A space that is well-ventilated, with oxygen to breathe.
- A mix that is not too wet and not too dry. (Drain off excess fluid and add water if the wormery dries out too much.)
- A steady supply of food in the form of fruit and vegetable scraps etc..
- Layers of carbon rich materials to help keep the mix sufficiently dry and aerated.
In order to prevent fruit flies or other insects from infesting the wormery, it is best to make sure that you keep it covered, as well as insuring a good mix of materials.
As long as you meet the basic needs of your worms, your wormery should continue to function well over time.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.