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Vermicompost vs. Traditional Compost: Which Is Better?


Which is better? Traditional compost or vermicompost?

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Nutrient-rich soil is essential to growing healthy fruits, vegetables, and flowers.  Compost provides a simple solution to these soil needs. Plus, it’s an excellent way to get rid of food scraps.  If you’ve decided to compost, then you may be pondering another decision—are you going to use traditional methods, or do you want to try vermicomposting—creating compost with the assistance of worms?  I’ve been doing both and have learned a lot. Let’s compare the two.

Vermicompost vs. traditional compost: Which one is better? Vermicompost has many advantages over conventional compost.  These include the following:

  • More nutrients
  • Can be done indoors or out with little space required
  • Creates compost faster
  • Requires less work (once it is set up)

Part of what determines which approach is better depends on your situation and needs. For example, if you live in an apartment and don’t have a yard to start a compost pile, then a worm bin is a smart choice. If you have tons of organic material that you are needing to compost, however, traditional compost is the best solution for sheer volume. All that being said, I’ve been doing both and have come to realize that vermicomposting offers some specific advantages over traditional composting. I’m going to do my best to compare and contrast the two that you really have the information on how these two approaches to composting stack up against each other.

Vermicompost Vs. Traditional Compost: The Differences

Vermicompost Traditional Compost
Has more nutrientsHas fewer nutrients
Require less spaceRequire more space
Mesophilic bacteriaThermophilic bacteria
Creates compost fasterTakes time
Fine structureLess fine structure
Plant growth regulators
Rich in nitratesRich in ammonium
Needs Shallow Container DepthCan be any depth
Can be done indoors and outdoorsPrimarily done outdoors
Requires less workRequires more work

Learn all about vermicomposting. Read Worms at Work: Harnessing the Awesome Power of Worms with Vermiculture and Vermicomposting (link to Amazon)

Vermicomposting has More Nutrients

One of the most significant advantages of vermicomposting is that it has more nutrients than traditional composting.

Vermicompost is rich in phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen, all of which are important for plant health (source). It contains:

  • Phosphorus: 1.55%- 2.25%
  • Potassium: 1.85%- 2.25%
  • Nitrogen: 23%

In addition to these three nutrients, vermicompost is also an excellent source of beneficial soil microorganisms, micronutrients, plant enzymes, and plant growth hormones. Most importantly, vermicompost holds nutrients for an extended time. Traditional compost is not able to supply the same levels of macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) and micronutrients over as long a period of time.

Nitrogen:

Nitrogen is necessary for the development and growth of plants. Plants use nitrogen to synthesize proteins, amino acids, and DNA. Moreover, nitrogen is an essential part of chlorophyll.

 Phosphorus:

Plants use phosphorus to synthesize RNA, DNA, and enzymes. Scientific studies show that phosphorus is needed for the development of flowers and roots. Plus, the nutrient increases the resistance of plants against many diseases.

Potassium:

Plants use potassium to produce enzymes, proteins, starches, and sugars they need for optimal growth.

--According to researchers at the Pondicherry University in India,

“The nutrient statuses of vermicomposts of all earthworm species produced from both the wastes were more than that of the compost.”

Vermiculture – Anyone Can Do It

If you have space in your kitchen to keep a small vermiculture container, then you can easily begin vermicomposting. On the other hand, conventional composting requires that you have sufficient space outside to put a composting container. After that, you will need sufficient materials to keep the compost pile going. See Is Composting Worth It? for more details.

How to Make a Worm Bin - Quick, Simple and Inexpensive

Here is how you can do vermicomposting.

To begin vermicomposting, you need kitchen scraps, worms, water, bedding, and a container (source).

Containers

You want the depth of the container to be between 8 inches and 12 inches ideally. Opt for shallow bins because the redworms feed in the upper layers of the bedding.

You can make worm boxes, or you can buy them online. See our list of recommended worm bins to find the best solution for you.

Small containers work well in apartments and homes. You can easily keep them below your kitchen sink or tuck them away in a closet or utility room.

All About Bedding

The bedding should provide sufficient airflow as well as moisture and offer a place for the composting worms to live. Here are some of the bedding materials you can use.

You will need between 4 pounds and 6 pounds of bedding if the size of your box is a 2-by-2 foot. And remember to fill 2/3 of your bin with prepared bedding irrespective of the size.

How to prepare the bedding?

Put the dry bedding in a big container and cover the bedding with water. The container should have holes in the bottom to allow excess fluid to drain. Let the bedding absorb as much water as it can and then squeeze the water out from it. Alternatively, you can wet the bedding and wring out the excess water before you place it in your vermicomposting container. After that, place it in the worm bin. However, you need to ensure that the bedding remains moist after you first add it in.

What Kind of Worms for Vermicomposting?

Red worms are used in vermicomposting. These worms are also known as hybrid worms, manure worms, and red wigglers. You can purchase red worms from a bait store or buy them online (link to Amazon).

Unfortunately, the worms in your back yard aren’t suitable for vermicomposting since they rely on soil for nutrients. On the other hand, red worms can live in the worm bedding that you create, and they will create the compost that you need.

Wondering why red worms? Red worms thrive in temperatures between 55° F and 77° F. They are near-surface dwellers and feed off of scraps that are buried just under the surface. It’s important to note that the bedding temperature should not go above 84° F or below freezing.

The number of red wigglers you need will depend on the amount of waste produced each day. One pound of worms can easily handle a half of a pound of waste. In extreme conditions, these tiny creatures slow down feeding or reproduction. In fact, they will die in extreme temperatures. You can add these red wigglers to your compost bin by scattering them over the top. For more information, see Vermicomposting: How Many Worms Are Needed?

Kitchen Waste

both traditional composting piles and worm composting produce nutrient-rich soil for your lawn, garden, and flower beds.

You can use kitchen waste, such as tea bags, coffee grounds, fruit waste, eggshells, and vegetable waste. At the same time, you should avoid bone, meat scraps, and large amounts of fat.

How To Add Kitchen Scraps?

You should know that bacteria take time to form. Plus, if you add too much kitchen waste too quickly, then your bin can become smelly. So, start slow. Initially, add vegetable matter and gritty material in small quantities, and gradually, you can increase the amount. Reduce the amount of kitchen waste or chop it into smaller pieces if you observe odors.

Now Comes the Harvesting Part

Given the suitable environment, the red worms will digest the kitchen waste faster than any other method. The digested waste will then pass through the body of the red worm and become castings. The excretions (worm casts) will be a sizable volume in three to four months.

And your worm bin will be filled with fertilizer. Worm castings contain more potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen than the regular soil. In fact, worm castings are a great natural fertilizer for lawns. Additionally, worm castings improve the soil structure and are high in humic acids. Humic acids help transport nutrients and water from the soil to your plant.

You need to know that you will have to remove the worm castings every so often to keep your bin in balance. So, try to shine a light into the bin. The worms will move to the bottom of the bin as they are light-sensitive. Remove the upper layer using a sieve or hands. Put any worm eggs and red wigglers back in the bin.

Then, refill your bin with new layers of kitchen waste and bedding. Keep in mind that you should not put glass, aluminum foil, plastic bags, and rubber bands in your compost bin. Additionally, you should not use insecticides around your bin. Pesticides will not only kill your pests but will also kill composting worms. You may be thinking this is common sense, but I’ve seen people do some weird things with their bins so it’s worth mentioning.

Bacteria Differences

Thermophilic bacteria are predominant in the traditional composting, while mesophilic bacteria are predominant in the vermicomposting process. Bacteria that can survive well over 40°C are considered thermophilic; as their name suggests, they love the heat.

On the other hand, mesophilic bacteria thrive in somewhat cooler environments. They like to live between 20°C and 45°C.

In the process of traditional composting, microbes and bacteria decompose waste and generate humus, heat, water, and carbon dioxide gas (source). Traditional composting goes through the following phases under ideal conditions

  1. the mesophilic phase that can last for a few days,
  2. the thermophilic phase that can last from days to many months,
  3. the maturation phase.

Different microbes predominate during many traditional composting phases. Mesophilic bacteria carry out initial decomposition and decompose soluble substances. These microorganisms also generate heat that increases the temperature of the conventional compost.

As the temperature of the compost increases above 40°C, thermophilic bacteria (heat-resistant bacteria) replace these mesophilic bacteria. Plant pathogens are killed at temperatures of 55°C. That can make traditional composting a good option if you want to help plants kill off pathogens.

However, it’s important to remember that temperatures above 65°C destroy many microorganisms and reduce the decomposition rate. Therefore, you should keep the temperature below 65°C by using aeration.

High temperatures increase the decomposition of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins during the thermophilic phase. Soon, the supply of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates become exhausted. Gradually, the temperature of the traditional compost lowers, and mesophilic microorganisms take over for the last phase of curing.

Vermicomposting is characterized by mesophilic microorganisms. It consists of an active stage and the maturation phase. During the active stage, red worms and other microorganisms together decompose the organic matter. The maturation phase happens once the red worms move to the top layers of undigested organic waste. During this process, the microbes take charge of breaking down the waste.

Vermicomposting Creates Compost Faster

Traditional composting takes up to eight weeks; however, it needs an extra four weeks to finish curing. What is curing? Curing is the additional break down of big particles, organic acids, and some compounds that stay after traditional composting. And inadequate curing can destroy plants and crops.

As for vermicomposting, it takes less time than traditional composting to complete. And, vermicompost does not need curing. That’s because the worms eat your waste and turn it into compost in the form of worm castings.

..According to a study published in the journal Springerplus,

Vermicomposting hastens the decomposition process by 2–5 times, thereby quickens the conversion of wastes into valuable biofertilizer and produces much more homogenous materials compared to thermophilic composting .”

Fine Structure

Vermicompost has much finer structure than the traditional compost, and its nutrients are readily available for your plant’s uptake. Vermicompost has a diverse and more significant microbial population than conventional compost. 

Plant Growth Regulators

Vermicompost has excellent biological and chemical properties and is enriched with plant growth regulators that are lacking in traditional composts. These plant growth regulators include gibberellins, cytokinins, and auxins (source). Also known as plant hormones, plant growth regulators are chemical compounds that impact the differentiation and growth of plant tissues and cells. They act as chemical messengers for communication between cells.

A study compared and analyzed the responses of green beans to vermicomposts and conventional composts obtained from domestic waste (MSW). – According to the study,

Results showed that MSW vermicomposts consistently outperformed equivalent quantities of composts in terms of fruit yield, shoot, and root dry weights, which can be attributed to the contributions of physicochemical properties and nutrients content (N, P, and K) in the potting experiments.

Scientists involved in the study concluded that chemical compounds in the vermicompost could have contributed to the growth of the green beans.

Cytokinins

Cytokinins encourage cell division in plant shoots and roots.  These plant growth regulators are mainly involved in the differentiation and growth of cells. Additionally, they also affect leaf senescence and growth of axillary buds.

Gibberellins

Gibberellins control many plant developmental processes, including fruit senescence (a process that recycles fruit cells), flower development, stem elongation, dormancy, germination, and leaf senescence.

Auxins

Plants produce this growth hormone naturally. Auxins are present in root and shoot tips and promote root and stem growth and cell division.

Nitrogen Availability

Traditional compost is rich in ammonium, whereas vermicompost is high in nitrates, a readily-available form of nitrogen. Moreover, the availability of nitrogen is higher in vermicompost than in traditional compost based on weight. Plus, some research found that the supply of magnesium, sulfur, potassium, phosphorus, and other plant nutrients increased by incorporating vermicompost as compared to traditional vermicompost into the soil. Learn why worm castings are a great fertilizer for your lawn! 

Depth Is Crucial

As mentioned earlier, the depth of the bin should be between 8 inches and 12 inches. Compost worms live in the upper layer of the bedding. Therefore, the containers you use should be shallow. Traditional composting containers can be any depth.

Vermicomposting Can Be Done Outdoors and Indoors

You can do traditional composting outdoors only. You have to carry scraps outside and dump them into the bin. Traditional composting is rare in urban places because it needs land. Lastly, it slows down in cold weather. On the other hand, you can do vermicomposting both indoors as well as outdoors. Vermicomposting does not need as much space as traditional composting, which makes it a good option for apartments and smaller houses. Learn the 8 best places to keep a worm bin.

Worm Bins Require Less Work

I had this one all wrong. I really thought that traditional composting would be less involved. After all, I just needed to pile scraps and leaves up and let them turn into soil, right? Well, not exactly.

Traditional composting requires extra aeration. And you will regularly need to turn the compost with a pitchfork or shovel. In the absence of aeration, the inner part would heat up and destroy the microbes essential for composting.

Note: I do practice forms of passive composting including a dig and drop technique. That is another option.

The bottom line is this: you will not need to turn the pile in a vermicomposting system. Why? Because worms burrow small tunnels that allow oxygen to circulate.

With all of that being said, traditional composting can be pretty simple. This video highlights how to not overthink it:

Composting 101: Stupid-Easy Compost Making in Piles & Bins

 Disadvantages of Vermicomposting

While vermicomposting offers substantial benefits, it comes with its own set of disadvantages. And you should be aware of these drawbacks before establishing a new compost system.

Vermicomposting Traditional Composting
Requires more care to startNeeds less care to start
(Slightly) More Expensive to start Cheaper to start
May not kill all pathogens Kill harmful microorganisms
Cannot handle large volumes Can handle large volumes

Requires Care And Attention

We mentioned earlier that worm composting requires less work, and that is true. But it’s not completely maintenance-free. The red worms employed in vermicomposting need proper moisture, heat, and food to make the compost material. Keeping a bin is balance is critical. In all fairness, though, once you have the bin established, it can get pretty passive. It’s just in the beginning you really need to pay attention and make sure the bin bedding doesn’t get too wet (or dry) and that you aren’t overfeeding or underfeeding.

Vermicomposting is More Expensive

Vermicomposting may be more expensive than a traditional compost pile. Conventional compost piles can be started with almost no investment. Just start piling your yard debris and food scraps in a pile. I’ve even started compost piles in a cardboard box. On the other hand, vermicomposting needs the cost of worms and a bin. You can reduce the cost with a DIY worm bin but there is still a cost there so, in fairness, vermicomposting costs more, at least to get started.

Harmful Bacteria Killing Capability

Traditional composting kills most harmful microorganisms that come with the organic wastes. However, vermicomposting does not kill pathogens.

A reduction of harmful microorganisms occurs faster in hot conditions. Vermicomposting, on the other hand, is a cold-composting process. However, this does not mean that it is ineffective in eradicating pathogens.

A study looked at the changes in the density of microorganisms after ingestion by different earthworm species (Eudrilus eugeniae, Lumbricus rubellus, Eisenia andrei, and Eisenia fetida). Researchers found a reduction in protozoan numbers, a substantial decrease in coliform numbers, and no nematodes. According to researchers,

The results indicate that short-time effects associated with the digestive activity in the earthworm gut play an important role in the changes that epigeic species exert on the decomposer community.” (source)

Vermicomposting Cannot Handle Large Volumes

While traditional composting can easily handle large amounts of organic wastes, vermicomposting cannot handle large volumes. And over-feeding the worms can kill them and cause the bin to stink.

And the Winner is…

Both vermicomposting and traditional composting will allow you to turn organic material into nutrient-rich soil. And both of them have their advantages. Traditional composting needs constant turning, but vermicomposting does not. Vermicomposting cannot manage large volumes of waste, but it is faster. Lastly, vermicomposting can be both outdoors and indoors, whereas traditional composting can be outdoors only. To sum up, vermicomposting has more benefits than traditional composting for most people but those with farms or large lots of land who need to compost significant amounts of food and yard debris will gain the most benefit from traditional composting.

I’ve found that both serve their purpose. I continue to practice traditional composting during the warmer months because I can compost large amounts of food scraps. During the winter, however, the worm bin is the only one still producing nutrient-rich soil additives.

Ready to get started with vermicomposting? Have a look at our top picks for worm bins!

Prefer traditional composting? We’ve got some great recommendations for that as well.

Paul Brown

Paul has a two-acre yard on red clay soil in Southeast Texas. He knows exactly what the challenges are to nurturing a thriving yard in difficult soil. He takes a practical approach to yard improvement and enjoys putting best practices and “golden rules of lawn care” to the test. Click here for Paul’s author page

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