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Vermicomposting: TreeYo EDU article from Soils Chapter

Douglas Crouch
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took a TreeYo to pull this article off, with guest writer and long time collaborator of TreeYo, Karsten Hinrichs laying down the pattern on vermicomposting. Covers the food web present, setup and management, and different systems with a focus on the Continuous Flow Through approach.



With a continuous production of food scraps and waste in the kitchen, there is need for a small and slow solution element too deal with this energy cycle. Vermicomposting transforms these small amounts of carbon resources in a slow yet very effective process that hinges upon small inputs of energy on a daily bases. As opposed to a hot compost, for instance, which takes large quantities of work and materials in a short period, both processes lead to the same end result; humus.

Our aim of composting with worms is the following:

  • to catch and store energy
    to cycle nutrients through the use of biological resources (-> Worms and all their friends)
    to obtain a yield of nutritionally rich, natural fertilizer, both solid and liquid, great for accelerating succession and evolution within soils and their associated plant systems
    to produce no waste and as to avoid pollution
    to do all of the above on a small scale.

  • One might think that a Vermicompost is mostly composed of worms, but in fact worms are only a small population of the whole micro and macro vermicomposting team in your bin. Through observation one will learn that the species present in the bin have slightly different environmental preferences and food requirements. Depending on the conditions in your vermicompost and what you are feeding, you may have population blooms of varying species; i.e. if you place a lot of sugary fruit in your bin, you will see mites bloom followed by an increase in the number of springtails. When their food supply weans their numbers go back to normal which emulates other wave pattern population dynamics seen in macrofauna.

    Along with the composting worms in the bin exists bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa and they rely on them, as they actually lack the enzymes to break down much of what they eat. In her book “Worms Eat My Garbage”, Mary Appelhof states: “The composting process continues after a worm casting has been deposited. In fact, the bacterial population of a cast is much greater than the bacterial population of either ingested soil, or the earthworm’s gut”.

    Bacteria are the primary decomposer of organic matter on earth and the most numerous in the vermicompost system. They decompose organic mater by secreting enzymes which break the bonds holding molecules together, thus simplifying and reducing the molecules to their component elements for absorption. As bacteria simplify the organic matter they make it available to worms and other organisms in the system as well.

    Actinomycetes are a higher form of bacteria. The smell, so commonly associated with fresh soil, is the smell of Actinomycetes. Being crucial to the formation of humus, these ambitious bacteria convert dead organic carbon into a type of peat and also release various nutrients such as nitrogen and carbon. Since actinomycetes possess the ability to produce antibiotics, many other bacterial populations decrease as the number of actinomycetes increases.

    Molds and fungi are common organisms in a healthy Vermicomposting system as well. Fungi are simple living organisms but precious to the soil. The Kingdom of Fungi includes yeasts, molds, and mushrooms. They feed on decaying organic matter with tiny, hair-like hyphae, secreting enzymes which break down and simplify the organic material. They are also an additional food source to other organisms in the system, including worms. Mold is a good indicator of whether or not the feeding rate is adequate. Because they grow most prolifically in still, quiet environments, large amounts of mold and fungi indicate there is more food than the system can quickly manage and the feeding rate should be decreased. Mold and fungi pose no threat to the garden or the animals living in the worm bin. However they can cause irritation to humans with mold allergies. If you are allergic to molds, your bin should be kept outdoors or in a garage or basement that is well ventilated to reduce or eliminate irritation.

    Mites are commonly found on the surface of the bin. As mentioned before, their populations will bloom when you have wet, sugary foods (fruit) in your Vermicomposter.

    Springtails are extremely numerous in a vermicompost. They are very small, wingless insects and can be distinguished by their ability to jump when disturbed. They run in and around the particles in the compost and have a small spring-like structure under the belly which catapults them into the air when the spring catch is triggered. They chew on decomposing plants, pollen, grains, and fungi. They also eat nematodes and droppings of other arthropods and then meticulously clean themselves after feeding.

    Nematodes are tiny, cylindrical, often transparent microscopic worms and are the most abundant of the physical decomposers; a handful of decaying compost contains several million. It has been estimated that one rotting apple contains 90,000 of them. Under a magnifying lens they resemble fine human hair.

    Worms do the lion’s share of the decomposition work among the larger compost organisms. They are constantly tunneling and feeding on dead plants & fungus and decaying insects during the daylight hours. Their tunneling aerates the compost and enables water, nutrients and oxygen to filter down. The Rodale Insitute says the following on earthworms:

    “As soil or organic matter is passed through an earthworm’s digestive system, it is broken up and neutralized by secretions of calcium carbonate from calciferous glands near the worm’s gizzard. Once in the gizzard, material is finely ground prior to digestion. Digestive intestinal juices rich in hormones, enzymes, and other fermenting substances continue the breakdown process. The matter passes out of the worm’s body in the form of casts, which are the richest and finest quality of all humus material. Fresh casts are markedly higher in bacteria, organic material, and available nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium than soil itself.” (Rodale)

    The worm species that have been working best for vermicomposting so far are:

  • Eisenia foetida,
    Eisenia andrei,
    Eisenia hortensis,
    Lumbricus rubellus,
    Perionyx excavatus,
    Eudrilus eugeniae.

  • Keep in mind that some worms are adapted to warmer climates ( Perionyx and Eudrillus) and some for colder climates (especially Eisenia hortensis). Do your research before ordering any worms of the internet.
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