If you’re just dipping your toes into the composting world, you might be looking to learn the difference between composting and vermicomposting, and trying to decide which method is right for you.
Both methods will produce rich compost for you to use on your garden, and they are a great way to reduce the amount of food waste you put into landfill, so both are eco-friendly methods you can explore.
However, vermicomposting and composting have some significant differences, both in terms of process and end product. Let’s explore composting vs. vermicomposting: (What’s The Difference)?
What Is Composting?
Composting is the process of breaking organic material down into soil. This is usually done by microbes and microorganisms that live in the soil, and slowly digest the contents of your compost bin.
Regular composting does tend to attract worms as well (unless you’re hot composting, which may reach temperatures that worms can’t easily handle), but it isn’t specifically about using worms to compost your food waste.
Traditional composting can be done in the open air or in bins, and it is just about getting organic matter to break down into fertilizer that can then be used on your garden.
While the end product of vermicomposting is somewhat similar, it is a very different process and requires a very different approach.
What Is Vermicomposting?
Vermicomposting is done using worms. It tends to be done at a cooler temperature than composting, for the sake of the worms, and it usually involves less waste (though a faster turnaround time) being processed at any one time.
Vermicomposting will still result in an end product that is rich in nutrients and can be used on a garden, and it still processes and recycles kitchen scraps or garden waste – so it does have a lot in common with composting.
What Are The Advantages Of Composting?
Composting can be done in as great a quantity as you have space for.
That said, very large compost heaps can be difficult to manage, but you can have several heaps at once, and allow one to process while another is being actively added to.
Composting doesn’t require very much input (although if you want to make it highly efficient, you will need to do more work), and if you get a good temperature in it, it will kill weed seeds and pathogens that might be lingering in the waste.
The other advantage of composting is that it doesn’t require very much setup. In its simplest form, you just need to pick a space outside, and start piling up food waste.
Admittedly, you may want to contain it in some way, but you can build a compost area out of almost any scrap material, or buy a dedicated bin easily.
So, composting is great if you have plenty of space, a lot of waste material, and you want low setup costs.
What Are The Advantages Of Vermicomposting?
Vermicomposting can be done indoors, in a very small space. The worms need plenty of surface area, but not much depth, so you can stack multiple containers on top of each other if necessary.
Vermicomposting does not smell bad (when done correctly), and so it’s a great method for people who have no outdoor space to deal with food waste.
It is also faster than traditional composting, and you may see compost produced in as little as 2 months.
Wormeries do not need you to turn the contents to aerate it – the worms do that for you.
They will tunnel around and keep moving the contents about, ensuring it has a good supply of oxygen at all times.
Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of vermicomposting, however, is that it produces richer soil.
Why Is Vermicompost Better Than Regular Compost?
Vermicompost is considered a vastly superior product because of the benefits it provides when used.
Of course, remember that regular compost bins often have worms in (provided they are not too hot), and will get some of these benefits, though usually in reduced quantities.
Some of the benefits include:
- Increased phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium, which are all important for growing healthy plants.
- Beneficial soil microorganisms that will enrich your garden.
- Plenty of micronutrients for your plants to enjoy.
- Lots of plant growth hormones and plant enzymes that will promote quick and healthy growth in the garden.
Vermicompost also holds onto its nutrients for longer than traditional compost, so your garden will continue enjoying the benefits for longer periods, and you will have to do less work in terms of fertilizing and feeding your garden.
What Are The Disadvantages Of Composting?
One of the biggest disadvantages of composting is its space requirement; you need an outdoor area that is a few feet wide, and preferably not too close to your buildings.
While compost heaps rarely smell bad, you probably don’t want them right in your lounging area.
Next, traditional compost often requires you to be more hands-on.
You don’t have to turn and aerate them constantly, but they will take longer to produce compost if they aren’t regularly attended to, and they may become anaerobic (oxygen-deprived), in which case you will have to intervene.
If you are disabled or even if you just aren’t very physically fit or don’t fancy mucking around with the compost, you won’t enjoy having to get in there with the garden fork to start digging and shifting the compost.
You do also have to transfer the ingredients to the outside bin, which involves trekking outdoors with kitchen scraps on a regular basis – especially in the summer, when you don’t want a compost bucket making your kitchen smell bad.
Composting is also slower; it can take about 6 months to see usable compost from a traditional compost bin, and that’s an optimistic estimate.
Depending on your conditions and the ingredients you add, compost can take a long time to break down.
What Are The Disadvantages Of Vermicomposting?
One of the biggest disadvantages of vermicomposting is that you have to look after the worms – and if you don’t, you’ll lose your vermicomposter.
You need to recognize and meet their needs.
A vermicomposter that is too wet will result in drowned worms. One that is too dry or too hot could result in baked worms. Adding large amounts of citrus could kill the worms as well.
You also need to spend more time processing the food.
While traditional compost heaps benefit from scraps being cut up, vermicomposters really need you to do this if the worms are going to handle the waste efficiently.
You should cut scraps up into small pieces and bury them in the vermicomposter.
You also can’t add too much of any one thing, or too much food waste overall.
If your worms end up overwhelmed by the influx of food, the bin may start to turn acidic, and the worms could die if you don’t take action.
This means having to store extra food scraps or throw them in landfill if your wormery can’t keep up.
Adding large quantities of nitrogen-rich ingredients can overwhelm the worms, so if you have grass clippings, it’s not a great solution for you.
Your vermicomposter is also unlikely to kill off any seeds from weeds or any pathogens that might be lingering in the food.
If you plan on using the compost for food crops, it’s a good idea to be more careful what you add.
While traditional composters aren’t guaranteed to kill these things off, the heat has a higher chance.
Vermicomposters also require a bit more equipment (depending on what you would buy for a traditional composter, of course). You will need a worm bin of some sort, and the worms themselves.
Wormeries are often set up in trays or shallow boxes with trays underneath. Piercing holes allows any excess liquid to drain off, which the tray can then catch.
You may have something you can repurpose, but if you need to buy something, this will be an upfront cost in addition to the price of the worms.
Getting a wormery to operate well involves a more careful setup.
They need bedding, such as shredded newspaper, and a ready source of food (your kitchen scraps). It can take a while to get the balances of what to add and what not to add right.
Finally, a potential disadvantage of a vermicomposter is that if your worms aren’t happy, they will leave – and that could result in worms all over the house!
Of course, this isn’t likely if you’re careful, but it’s something that you should consider before installing a vermicomposter.
Which Method Is Better?
This totally depends on your requirements and what you want to get out of your compost bin.
If you are looking for a way to turn large amounts of organic waste into compost with minimal effort, low risks, and little outlay, a traditional composter will be the best option for you.
However, if you want a fast turnaround of a relatively small amount of waste, and much richer compost, a vermicomposter is perfect.
You should also bear in mind that vermicompost is significantly more valuable than regular compost, so if you have excess to sell, you are looking at a product that is about ten times more expensive (or even higher).
You may not be thinking of selling vermicompost, but this is worth considering.
There is no reason that you can’t undertake both forms of composting if you have sufficient space.
Build yourself an outdoor compost heap and then get a vermicomposter going in the kitchen (or outdoors; the worms will be fine, provided they don’t get waterlogged or overheated).
Try both methods, and see which one suits you best; every household is different, and what you love, another person will find a chore.
How Do I Make A Vermicomposter?
Making a compost heap is fairly straightforward, but a vermicomposter may feel a little more daunting, so we’re going to have a quick look at how to set one up.
You’re going to need:
- A container, about 7-12 inches deep. You can buy this or repurpose an old container if you have something suitable. It needs to be reasonably wide so that the worms have space, as most feed near the surface. However, make sure it fits your apartment if you’re short on space; you won’t use it if it’s inconvenient.
- A tray that your container can stand in.
- Bedding. This ensures the vermicomposter doesn’t get compacted and will give the worms a place to live.
- It can also help with moisture retention. You can use a mixture (or just one) of any of the following: shredded paper/card, commercial worm bedding, peat moss, coconut coir, etc.
- Composting worms. These are not regular earthworms; do not just dig some worms up from the garden. Get some from a friend who composts/vermicomposts, or buy some from a reputable supplier. You want red wigglers ideally, though there are other types of composting worm.
- Drill some holes in the bottom of your container and stand it in the tray.
- Wet the bedding, squeeze out the excess water, and put it in the wormery.
- Add worms and some chopped kitchen waste, and let it get going. Feed it kitchen scraps regularly.
- After a couple of months, shine a bright light into the bin (to make the worms burrow down) and scoop off the top layer of worm casts. You should remove any worms and eggs from the layer and put them back in the bin, and then you’ve got your first harvest!
Vermicomposting and composting have a lot of similarities, with the same intention (recycle organic waste) and a similar end product (fertilizer), but they are suitable in very different situations, and involve quite different processes.
Work out which method is right for you, or try both if you have the space and the inclination.
You may find that one really works for you, or you might decide that you want to keep both running in the long term.
Whichever you end up using, you now know some of the differences between composting and vermicomposting, and will hopefully have a better sense of which you want to go for and what you can expect from it.