How worms help with composting

How worms help with composting

It’s amazing how worms help with composting. I found this video on an allotment forum on Facebook and I thought it was absolutely fascinating. After watching the video above, it spurred me on to find out how much of a role worms play when it comes to composting and generally breaking up the soil.

The anatomy of a worm is probably one of the most simple things to understand – a worm consumes decomposing waste, and what comes out the other end is soil, over and over again.

As a result the worm is one of nature’s top soil conditioners. As the worms eat eat the soil, they’re helping with drainage as the channels they create will help water flow through the soil. This also helps with aeration in the ground.

By breaking down organic matter, plants and crops also have easier access to the nutrients and fertilisers that they need in order to flourish and survive. Worms also operate from the top down – meaning that they take the good organic matter from the top, and take it down to the roots.

A worm is capable of eating it’s entire body weight over a 24 hour period. That doesn’t sound a lot, but if you do some cunning Google research, you’ll find out that 500,000 worms could turn over 50 tonnes of soil over the space of an acre. If you were to direct those worms in one direction, they would create a 6″ tunnel that would be approximately just over half a kilometre long.

A worms lifespan is about one year. When a worm dies it will decay and shrink very quickly, due to the fact that 90% of a worms body is water – luckily, worms reproduce on their own by laying eggs, which means that new worms will replace older and dead worms relatively quickly.

I’d encourage anyone who is just starting to get into gardening to encourage worms and general fauna to live in your heap or your beds. So it’s true that worms help with composting and worms living in your beds is a really good indication that your soil is healthy and that you should expect a good return from your crops.

Double digging and preparing the ground

About a fortnight ago I posted a picture on Instagram of a bed I was double digging at the allotment and as a result everyone was asking me – “what on earth is double digging?”

Well, double digging is something you do every two to three years to help improve the soil quality of the ground you’re going to be growing in. If you find that your soil is of a poor quality or very heavy, then you would want to double dig some well rotted manure or material from the compost bin.

Double digging is best done in the autumn or just after December, where the frost can work its magic and break down the big, heavy clods.

There’s quite a few videos on YouTube showing you how to double dig, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it, but this is the routine that I’ve adopted.

1. Dig a trench, about spade’s depth, along the bed and put the remaining excess soil to one side.

2. Fill the trench with well rotted material from the compost bin or rotted manure .

3. Directly next door to that trench, dig another trench and place the soil from the new trench on top of the first trench, essentially burying all of that new, fresh material.

4. Repeat that process until you reach the end of the bed, and then use the excess soil from your first trench to cover the last batch of composted material.

I’ve made the diagram below to show you what I mean.

Double digging is great as it improves aeration, which helps the roots of your plants penetrate the soil and grab the nutrients they require.

Drainage is also improved and stops the bed from become compacted. You’re also giving the ground some nutrients and new life in the form of worms and other micro-organisms that help to break down the soil.

Double digging is really hard work and I have to say, I really felt it by the end of the session – it really is better than going to the gym. You work a range of muscles and I walked away feeling that I’d made a difference to the plot.

You may have also read that this year I’m embarking on a growing a Victory Garden and preparing the ground for the coming seasons is one of the first things to do.

Sifting soil

I’ve had a couple of piles of compost rotting over the last three or four years now and it was high time I did something to shift it.

It the was the material that was skimmed off the top of the plot originally so it’s full grass and of kinds of bits and bobs. It’s also a very dense and needs to be sifted.

Pros of sifting soil

  • You filter out any rocks, plastics, broken glass or anything that shouldn’t be there.  These contaminants will appear in your compost heap over time, unintentionally, so it’s best to get rid of them when you can.
  • Seedlings will find it easier to germinate in sifted soil.
  • If you have clay or sandy soil that doesn’t retain much water, a layer of top soil will improve the conditions of the ground.
  • Certain root crops don’t form nice roots with chunks of solid stuff in the way.
  • Adding fresh composted material will increase the nitrogen levels in the ground, which is a good, natural feed for plants. As you use the ground for planting, you’re taking nitrogen out of the ground. Adding sifted soil will put it back in.
  • Aerated soil aids with the movement of water, meaning that roots can access water easier than usual, encouraging growth and a good yield.
  • The amount of oxygen in the soil is increased and this is important for bacterial decomposition.

To me, sifting soil is a bitter sweet experience. You do get a really good workout, but it takes ages to do and you can end up feeling like you’ve done quite a lot, with very little to show for it.  However, the pay off is the lovely, fluffy, soft compost at the end of the of the sifting session – In some respects, it’s like digging for gold, or drilling for oil, it’s a pain to get the gold or the oil, but in the end it’s gold and oil you’re trying to reach!

Turning your compost bin

Debris and waste such as weeds, old plants, vegetable peelings and other bio-degradable material adds up at an allotment.

Turning your compost bin will increase the rate of decomposition. Composting is basically carbon (brown material) and nitrogen (green material) breaking each other down.  The best way to think of this chemical reaction is to look at the processes involved in producing fire. Fire needs air to survive, and compost is no different, hence the importance in aerating your pile – and introducing regular bouts of air and oxygen.

Introducing air and oxygen into your compost bin will increase its temperature, speed up decomposition and will eventually reduce the size of the pile – allowing you to add more and more as the season goes on.

Aerating the compost pile could be the difference between decomposition in 10 weeks or 10 months. Failure to turn your compost bin could result in bacteria feeling rather sluggish and this will move your compost pile  into an anaerobic condition. Anaerobic means without air.

Turning your compost bin is a doddle. If you have an open bin like I have, all you have to do is insert a shovel or fork and turn it over – a bit like a salad. You should look to turn the compost bin at least once a month or maybe even sooner depending on the size of your compost area.

Compost is often described as black gold for gardeners and growers because it adds a great deal of good microbes and nutrients into your soil.  You’ll be surprised at how much can compost from your home, and just how easy composting is – here are top 10 composting tips to help you get started.

Top 10 composting tips

Here are my top ten composting tips for achieving great compost, which will help you keep your soil in great condition year after year. Using these composting tips can be the difference between a good year on the allotment and a poor one, especially if you’re fond of growing fruit and veg that thrives in nutrient-rich soil.

1. Get the green/brown mix right

The microbes that break down your compost pile need a balanced mix of nitrogen and carbon to thrive. While this may sound complicated, it simply means that you should aim to add an equal amount of ‘green’ materials (such as kitchen waste, manure, and grass clippings) to your compost heap as ‘brown’ materials (such as dead leaves, hay, wood chips, and paper). Try to keep the ratio approximately equal (by weight, not volume), and your compost will thrive.

Top 10 composting tips

2. Use a starter

Give your compost a kick-start with a compost accelerator, such as this one from Neudorff. This will help activate the microbes responsible for breaking down organic matter into compost.

Top 10 composting tips

3. Give your compost a drink

Adding wine to your compost at regular intervals will also spur the microbes and bacteria into action, as will the waste products which come from brewing beer.

Top 10 composting tips

4. Add paper

Newspaper or standard printing paper is a great and easy available source of ‘brown’ material for your compost. Instead of recycling it, shred it and mix it into your compost heap.

Top 10 composting tips

5. Give your compost a helping hand

The smaller the items that you put into your compost are, the faster they will be broken down into usable material. Give your compost a helping hand by cutting food waste down as small as you can before adding it to your heap. An easy way to do this is with the Green Cycler from Ecotonix.

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6. Don’t add fats, pet droppings, or animal products

Fats, pet droppings, and animal products will attract pests and can spread disease, so you should avoid adding them to your compost.

Top 10 composting tips

7. Be sparing when adding ashes

When adding ashes as a ‘brown’ material to your compost, be very sparing, as the high alkaline content can affect the pH level of the compost and stunt production. Be similarly cautious with acidic materials such as pine needles and oak leaves.

Top 10 composting tips

8. Be careful when adding straw

Straw is another excellent ‘brown’ material for your compost, but it may contain weed seeds, which will take root in your developing compost and sap it of nutrients. Regularly check your compost for weeds, and avoid adding straw entirely if it becomes a serious problem.

Top 10 composting tips

9. Speed things up with a hot composter

Hot composting is a process that usually involves a compost bin or tumbler which gets the material to a much higher temperature than a traditional compost heap. This dramatically speeds up the process, and this method can produce usable compost in as few as 14 days. Mantis produces a wide range of hot composters which you can order online.

Top 10 composting tips

10. How to know when you have compost

You know you have compost when it looks, feels, and smells like rich, dark soil all the way through. It should be unrecognisable from any of the items you added to it, and it will usually be less than half the volume of the materials you started with.