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Making Compost: Differences Between Vermicomposting, Anaerobic and Aerobic Composting

Did you know that there are different types of composting? Aerobic composting and vermicomposting require ventilation. Anaerobic composting works without oxygen. How do you make compost? Which type is best for households, farms, businesses, institutions, and schools?

How Composting Works

Composting takes advantage of the natural process of decomposition. When leaves drop on the ground in the fall, Mother Nature breaks them down. Ants and other insects, bacteria, and fungi do their work. Soon, nothing remains except brown matter, which becomes part of the topsoil. This rich organic matter nourishes plants, helps regulate water saturation, and creates air pockets.Humans harnessed composting when we took up agriculture. Digging organic material into the fields made the plants grow stronger and healthier. The fruit, vegetable, bean, pulse, lentil, and grain harvests were more bountiful. We learned how to break down animal manure, kitchen scraps, seaweed, vines, and other organic material. Human-directed decomposition is called “composting.” This word originates from the late 14th century Old French word, compote. It came from the Latin word, compositus, meaning “put together.”

Oxygen and Composting

Bacteria grows during the decomposition process. Different types of bacteria need different amounts of oxygen. “Aerobic” means needing oxygen. “Anaerobic” means the opposite: needing little or no oxygen. Both aerobic and anaerobic bacteria break down organic matter. When setting up a system, you will encourage either aerobic or anaerobic bacteria.

Another critter that breaks down organic matter is the earthworm. Composting worms such as Red Worms speed up the composting process. European Night Crawlers are useful for composting, fishing, and aerating the soil. They are living creatures that breathe through their skins. Therefore, composting with worms (“vermicomposting”) is aerobic.

What is Anaerobic Composting?

Anaerobic composting is typically done in trenches or pits. Dig a hole, dump in the organic material, and cover with soil. Composting anaerobically takes more time than aerobic. Also, you cannot tell when the process is complete unless you dig it up. This process is very stinky. Malodorous gasses are released, including methane. Methane is flammable. In large concentrations, such as a landfill, the methane should be burned off or captured as fuel.

A householder might resort to pit composting if they have a large amount of organic material. Typically, large industrial and municipal operations use anaerobic composting. Systems are set in place to manage hazards, nuisances, and speed.

Anaerobic composting may not get hot enough to kill weed seeds. The resulting compost may include unwanted seeds.

How Aerobic Composting Compares

For the householder, odor and appearance are important. A wretched, stinking compost pile is inappropriate in a suburban neighborhood, home, or school. Rules or ordinances may set limits such activities. Thus, the vast majority of small-scale composting is low-odor aerobic composting in a bin.

Most people place the composter outdoors. Local hardware and gardening stores carry a variety of composting bins. Easy-to-use tray-based composting bins are available online. Or you can make a compost bin from a tote or wood pallets.

The composter needs to have air holes. Air holes let the oxygen in, encouraging aerobic bacterial growth. You can turn the handle of a tumble-style composter each time you drop in kitchen waste. Turning introduces air. Other types of composters may need to be turned manually using a pitchfork.

Typical aerobic composting bins need “green” and “brown” materials to break down properly. “Greens” are high in nitrogen, such as kitchen scraps and coffee grounds. “Browns” are high in carbon, like leaves, untreated wood chips, and grass clippings. The materials will heat up, killing weed seeds, and breaking down the material quickly.

What is Vermicomposting?

Vermicomposting means composting with worms. This is a type of aerobic composting with a twist: the worms go to work for you. Advantages of vermicomposting over “hot” aerobic composting include:

  • faster
  • low-odor
  • cooler
  • can be done outdoors or even indoors – perfect for neighborhoods and schools
  • children love taking care of worms
  • not much worry about greens vs. browns; the initial bedding is “brown” and then you add “green” kitchen scraps over time.

If you would like to get started composting with worms, order a composter and worms from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm. We recommend our Red Composting Worm Mix for most composting projects. Our indoor/outdoor composters that use trays are ideal for small-scale composting projects. Our products come with complete instructions. We also have lots of information about composting on our website.  Uncle Jim’s is an excellent source for composting knowledge, materials, and worms.

One comment on “Making Compost: Differences Between Vermicomposting, Anaerobic and Aerobic Composting

  • Sandy Kincaid says:

    I harvested my vermicompost and sealed it a zip lock bag. Soon after I noticed there were still some worms in there. Long story short I didn’t open the bag for a few days and when I did it smelled like ammonia. Should I not use this in my garden.

    Reply

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