Vermiculture vs. Vermicomposting

“What is the difference between worm farming and composting – which is better for you garden. I want to start one of the other or should I be starting both????” ~ Tracy Smith

Hi Tracy,

That’s a good question. With all the related terms flying around it’s very easy to get confused!

Let’s start with worm farming. It is a widely used term, and one that means different things to different people. I personally tend to use it fairly broadly, treating as an all-encompassing umbrella term for both vermiculture and vermicomposting (which can often be used interchangeably, thus adding even more confusion into the mix).

Vermiculture is literally “the culture of earthworms” – ie. the raising and breeding of worms. From a professional standpoint, pure vermiculturists tend to be focused on maximizing worm biomass and not nearly as interested in the material (castings) they produce. An example of a vermiculturist would be a bait farmer – someone much more interested in producing lots of fat fishing worms than the waste reduction or castings/compost production capabilities of the worms.

Vermicomposting is the biological decomposition of organic wastes via the joint action of worms and microorganisms (with the help of some other creatures as well). Pure vermicomposters will tend to be much more interested in the waste reduction and compost production capabilities of their worms, and will want to keep their population as high as possible to ensure maximum processing ability (and thus will be careful about how much worm harvesting they do, if any). Those who set up small home systems for processing their food scraps are generally referred to as vermicomposters.

Of course it’s important to mention that these definitions make things appear much more cut-and-dried than they actually are!

Vermiculture and vermicomposting are inextricably linked.

You can’t raise earthworms without some vermicompost production, and you certainly can’t expect to process wastes and produce rich compost without a healthy thriving population of worms. Add to that the fact that many people focus on both sides of the coin (aiming to sell both worms and castings), and these terms start to seem like more trouble than they are worth.

Some might say it’s all a matter of scale. Someone who is ‘worm farming’ might be thought to be more focused on a larger scale, professional approach (like pig farming or chicken farming), but again keep in mind that many people use the term more generally than that.

Getting back to your actual question (haha), I’m going assume that your use of ‘worm farming’ is synonymous with ‘worm composting’ in this case. Thus we’re looking at the difference between worm composting and ‘regular’ composting. Aside from the obvious difference relating to the presence and absence of worms, vermicomposting is also a cooler process than composting.

With that said, it’s important to point out that many backyard composting units are not actually large enough for sustained heating to occur. The ‘critical mass’ needed for a hot composting pile is at least 1 cubic metre (you will still get heating in smaller heaps but it won’t last as long or get as hot).

As far as which process is “better for your garden”, that’s hard to say. Each has it’s own set of advantages and disadvantages. If you are using one of the smaller backyard composters, I would definitely recommend adding composting worms. They will speed up the process a great deal, reduce odors and pest populations (by outcompeting them) and will produce an incredibly rich compost for your garden.

Proper hot composting has the advantage of killing weed seeds, plant pathogens etc and you don’t have the hassle of separating the worms from the compost. It too can result in highly valuable soil amendment (although somewhat different in nature than vermicompost).

These two processes do compliment eachother nicely, so doing both is certainly not out of the question. Perhaps you can start with a large hot composting heap to ensure that pathogens and weed seeds are killed, but then start feeding the material to your worm composting system after a short period to help stabilize it further and add some of the extra benefits that researchers have found in vermicompost.

I hope my explanation has helped clarify matters a little Tracy (not made them muddier – haha)!

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