If you’re into your gardening, you’ve probably heard of compost, and have a basic understanding of how it works. But what about vermicompost? For a lot of people, vermicompost sounds like a foreign language. Here’s our basic run-down to help you understand the difference between compost and vermicompost.
Compost and Vermicompost: How Are They Different?
When it comes to the difference between compost and vermicompost, the very first thing we need to know is some basic information about each. Here are some simple definitions of each:
|Compost – “a mixture of ingredients used to fertilize and improve the soil. It is commonly prepared by decomposing plant and food waste and recycling organic materials”||Vermicompost – “is the product and decomposition process using various species of worms…to create a mixture of decomposing vegetable or food waste, bedding materials, and vermicast.”|
So simply put, the difference comes down to the intentional use of worms to recycle organic material into a usable garden product. More complicated though, how compost and vermicompost go about achieving their final product is also completely different, and really does separate the two apart.
The main areas of difference between compost and vermicompost are:
The Materials That Can Be Composted
Traditional composts can decompose any type of organic waste. This can include lawn and garden clippings, food scraps, fallen leaves, and certain animal wastes. Basically, anything organic can be broken down through the process of composting.
Vermicompost will only consist of decomposed products that the worms can use as food or as bedding material. The term decomposed isn’t even really accurate. It’s better described as digested.
Difference in Compost and Vermicompost Temperature
Compost piles get hot when they decompose organic matter. The process of microorganisms breaking down organic matter generates gases and a lot of heat that raises quickly when concentrated in a small heap.
Vermiculture bins on the other hand need to stay at a steady temperature that worms can survive within. The process of worms consuming food doesn’t create as much heat as a traditional compost pile. The temperature of the pile is more influenced by external weather conditions and how much insulation the the bedding and container provides.
Time to Break Down the Organic Matter
Breaking down compost by microorganisms is slow, most often taking at least six months to break down a pile into a usable product. This is simply due to the natural processes, and can’t really be accelerated. Vermicompost is much quicker because the worms are eating to food. It can be accelerated as your worm population grows, or by adding more worms.
A healthy worm farm can produce a usable amount of castings within a couple of months.
The Amount of Work Required
Compost piles need to be turned regularly so that all the material in them can be decomposed. Lifting and turning also help keep the process aerobic (i.e. working in the presence of oxygen). Anaerobic decomposition occurs when there isn’t enough oxygen and uses a different group of microorganisms and conditions. Anaerobic decomposition produces methane which is a very pungent, and potent greenhouse gas.
Vermiculture setups will have the worms do all the hard work to break down the material for you. All you need to do is provide the food and good quality bedding. Occasionally you may need to aerate the container, but this is far less taxing than turning a compost pile.
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Compost and Vermicompost: The Final Product
Another difference between compost and vermicompost comes in the product they produce. Composting will produce a product that contains a lot of organic matter that can provide structure and good microbes to the soil. Compost also contains some nutrients which can be used by plants and some that need further interaction with micro-organisms to become available. These materials are the result of the decomposition of organic matter by microorganisms in the compost pile.
Vermicomposting will produce a product with a mix of readily available nutrients for plants to use. It will also provide beneficial soil microbes and helps improve soil structure simply because of its size and shape. The final product contains organic material and nutrients that have been ground down by the worms’ digestive system. It also contains the enzymes they used to extract the food they needed, but other than that it is unchanged from what went in. This means that the nutrients that come out can be richer and more readily available compared to regular compost products.
Can I Add Worms to a Compost Pile?
Yes and no.
As mentioned previously, compost piles can get hot, and worms may not be able to survive the conditions. If you compost in a stand-alone bin or tumbling container, worms might not survive and it’s a waste to add them. Unless you can precisely control the conditions in your containers so that you know the worms you add will survive, it’s probably best not to add them.
Compost piles on the ground or in containers with open bottoms are much better suited to worms. In fact, you’ll probably find that worms have naturally found their way in there and are already helping out. Having worms in your compost piles can help keep it aerated as they tunnel around searching for food. Aeration keeps your composting aerobic and can mean you need to do less turning of the soil. You also get the benefit of worm castings accumulating in the compost as they digest the food they find.
Worms aren’t absolutely necessary, but they can be a good inclusion. Though, you need to be reasonable in your expectations. Worms will only move to areas that are suitable and will only consume food that they can eat. This means they might only be working in a small area of your pile.
What’s the difference between compost and vermicompost? Primarily it’s the use of worms in the process. There are also differences in the conditions required for each process to occur, and how the organic matter is being broken down.
Vermicompost is a quicker and better-quality product for use in your garden but only processes what worms can eat. Normal compost is a slower process and the final product has fewer nutrients but has better soil microorganisms. The process can use a range of different organic wastes from your home and yard that worms just can’t handle.
To improve a regular compost pile you can encourage worms to get involved. Using open-bottomed containers or by placings piles on the bare ground lets earthworms enter naturally and helps get the best of both worlds.
Let us know if you prefer to use traditional compost or vermicompost at home. If you do want to start vermicomposting, feel free to check out some of our other pages on how to get started.
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