Which creature is most essential for life on earth?

Some years ago my toddler son was out jumping in puddles in his little red wellies, when I noticed some worms. I pointed them out to him and was completely horrified by what he did next – he raised a booted foot in order to smack it down on a worm.

I don’t know why he was so freaked out. Had he never noticed them before? Were they so different to cute animals – without faces or fur – that he found them scary? Obviously I stopped him and told him how wonderful they were.

Children are fascinated by worms but it’s not always a given that they love them. One of our young worm farmer friends, aged 8, said some children in his school were mean to worms when they encountered them.

Worms could do with an image makeover that sees them recognised as eco-superheroes – and now is the time with tomorrow (October 21) being World Earthworm Day.

It’s wonderful that these under-appreciated creatures get their own day, although those of us who compost think every day is earthworm day.  

The day commemorates the publication in October 1881 of Charles Darwin’s book The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Actions of Worms, which changed how worms were viewed.

Of all the creatures that Darwin studied, earthworms were the ones that interested him the most; he spent 40 years studying them.  His studies and experiments attracted the mockery of other scientists because worms were considered pests at the time, but Darwin was convinced there was something special about them. He tested their eyesight and hearing, concluding that they were blind and deaf but could detect vibrations.

Feeding worms showed him they liked celery, cherries and carrots but not sage, mint and thyme. He found that they also eat stones to grind up leaves in their stomachs as they have no teeth.

It became something of an obsession with him. At times he doubted himself and wondered if he was being foolish. People who admired Darwin for his previous work couldn’t believe that he was devoting so much time to such an ‘insignificant’ creature. But Darwin believed that the apparently insignificant can be the foundation of something much greater. As we know, his dedication paid off.
An illustrated children’s book on this subject was published earlier this year – Darwin’s Super-Pooping Worm Spectacular by Polly Owen.  It tells the fascinating story of how Darwin came to conclude that the humble earthworm was the most important species on the planet. For a long time he didn’t find evidence to back up his belief that worms were special, until one day when he discovered their superpower, one that sustains life on earth. We won’t spoil the story!

The Great Green Systems team loves this book and so too do our young worm farming friends, Reggie and Magdalena, shown here reading it.

 Reviews by parents and grandparents who have read it with their children and grandchildren show that adults can learn from it too. Several reviewers say every classroom should have a copy as it’s an ideal subject for primary school science.

As well as introducing children to Darwin and the ways that scientists make deductions, it’s also an inspiring story about the triumph of a person who ignored mockery to persevere with something he believed in.

BBC Wildlife called the book ‘a disarmingly silly read that manages to share cool worm science with a light and easy touch.’

From saint to sinner and back again – worms’ changing reputation


 The fact that worms are vital to soil health – and therefore to us – was well known to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Cleopatra decreed that the earthworm should be protected as a sacred animal as it was believed that harming worms or removing them from the land would affect the fertility of the soil. But this wisdom somehow got lost and by Darwin’s time worms had fallen out of favour and were thought to be pests that killed plants, damaged the soil and made a mess of gardens.  


We know that worms aerate and improve the soil, providing nutrients for plants to flourish. Without them the earth would become cold, hard and sterile.

The few centimetres of soil beneath our feet have typically been the least studied place on earth but today scientists all over the world are following Darwin’s example. The simple act of introducing worms to degraded soil in poor regions of the world has been shown to increase plant yields by 280%.

Gardeners know that vermicompost (compost produced by worms) is ‘black gold’ – the best quality soil food.


 Despite our knowledge about how dependent we are on earthworms, the species is in danger from humans. Chemicals sprayed on plants by gardeners and farmers cause them harm and artificial grass is also a danger as they become trapped below it.  

But there’s a lot we can do to help them. In our gardens, parks and allotments we can compost and create log piles. We can also use ecological gardening methods which don’t rely on chemicals.

To learn more about worms and how to help them, join The Earthworm Society – www.earthwormsoc.org.uk.  

Let’s spread the word about worms at home and in schools so that never again will a child try to stamp on one or be mean to one. Like my son, Magdalena used to be scared of worms when her family first got a worm farm but several months later here she is confidently checking they’ve got enough to eat.

It’s appropriate that Darwin should get the last word.

After his long years of study, he concluded: ‘It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly, organised creatures.’


How many gardeners compost?

Of the 27 million gardeners in the UK, how many do you think compost?

It could be as few as a third, according to a study by the Royal Horticultural Society, the UK’s largest gardening charity. But there is hope for the future with younger people showing more interest than the older generation in learning how to start composting.

The study found that those who compost tend to be older – over 55 – but that age group also showed the most resistance to starting if they didn’t already. The age group most likely to start composting was in the 18-24 age range. Social media is thought to be the reason why more and more young people are getting interested in gardening, or even just cultivating house plants which are especially popular with those living in flats.

Among all ages who took part in the study, a third of those who don’t currently compost said subsidised bins from local councils would get them composting.

We believe there’s a home composting solution for everyone. For example, older people, or those pressed for time, might prefer a Green Cone, which only accepts food waste and requires no aeration or maintenance. It doesn’t actually produce compost but a nutrient-rich liquid that seeps from its underground basket nourishing the surrounding soil. Read about some of our customers’ experiences of using a Green Cone: The long, long life of Green Cone food waste composters (greatgreensystems.com)

Young people with no access to a garden could consider a wormery, which can be kept indoors, and is a great way to turn kitchen waste into food for house plants.

Bokashi bins can also suit those in flats, especially if they can donate the fermented pre-compost that is produced to a friend or neighbour with a composter or to a community or allotment composting project.  Bokashi bins take all food waste along with the addition of beneficial microbes in the form of a spray or bran. The full bin is left to ferment anaerobically (without air) for around two weeks while the contents become a pre-compost mixture which can then be added to a composter or buried in soil. Bokashi juice that is drained from the bin is full of nutrients and can be diluted for use as a feed for house or garden plants. It can also be used undiluted as a drain cleaner. Read our blog about how one family work as a team using a bokashi system: Helping the planet by switching to bokashi composting (greatgreensystems.com)

Studies have shown that the reason why many people don’t compost is fear of getting it wrong.

That is such a shame because really there is no wrong; there is only an imperfect situation in need of a helping hand (as the PR department at Compost HQ might say).

The big thing to realise is that if there’s an issue, there’s a remedy.

Composting is so beneficial for the environment, as well as your garden, that it’s well worth learning the few basic rules to ensure success.

Compost, when added to soil, helps to capture carbon in the atmosphere, improves plant growth, conserves water, reduces reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilisers, and helps prevent nutrient runoff and soil erosion. What’s not to like? It’s estimated that the average amount of compost made by home composting is 280 litres, enough to improve the soil structure of 5 square metres of garden.

There are a few basics to learn with composting but once you know, you know. The facts of nature don’t change. We invest time learning how to use the latest gadget, how much more important to learn how to feed the earth?

Here’s the thing; if things aren’t going great your bin will let you know – usually by starting to smell or looking a bit slimy. If that’s the case we need to go back to basics.

Composting essentials

The basics of composting are about providing good conditions for the insects, micro-organisms and worms that will be digesting the waste. They need three essentials:

  • Waste materials
  •  Water
  • Oxygen


 The composting creatures in your bin grow thanks to protein in waste materials that are high in nitrogen and they get energy from sugar in waste that is rich in carbon. Your aim is to find the right balance between the amount of nitrogen and carbon.  In composting circles, nitrogen-rich materials are often referred to as Greens and carbon-rich materials as Browns.

Greens (nitrogen-rich) include: food waste, fresh grass, soft leafy plants, fresh leaves and hedge clippings, wilting flowers, tea leaves, plastic-free tea bags, coffee grounds. These items break down quickly and contain moisture so they keep the bin’s contents moist.

Browns (carbon-rich)include: shredded twigs, branches, dead leaves, paper, cardboard, straw, wood chips, sawdust. These contents are drier and slower to break down. They also provide fibre and allow air pockets to form for aeration.

 A mixture that contains half Greens and half Browns is a great place to start for composting. Often people find they have a lot more nitrogen (food waste) than carbon (woody items, dry leaves, paper, cardboard) so it’s a good idea to stockpile these carbon inputs so you have them ready to add with food waste. You can keep them in lidded containers or tied bags close to your composter so that when you add a container of food waste you can add a container of carbon-rich Browns at the same time.

Chopping or shredding woody garden waste (no larger than 5cms) increases the surface area in contact with microbes in the pile.  The finer the compost materials are shredded, the faster the pile heats up. 

If the nitrogen/carbon ratio isn’t ideal the micro-organisms won’t decompose the organic material as quickly. Getting the ratio right can be a case of trial and error but you will learn quickly through paying attention to conditions in the bin. 

Everything has its own carbon/nitrogen ratio but you don’t need a calculator and spreadsheet to work it out. If you plan to balance the amount of carbon and nitrogen in a 50/50 ratio you won’t go far wrong. Adding bokashi bran will also help to speed up decomposition by adding more microbes to the mix.

Your composting ratio might not be something that you get right immediately. Knowing how much carbon to add to your pile is something that compost-makers are constantly figuring out.


You want your compost pile to be moist, rather than wet or dry. The materials should feel damp like a wrung-out sponge.  The ideal water content is around 50 per cent. You can check this by using a moisture monitor or by doing the ‘squeeze test’:  take a large handful of compost and squeeze – only one or two drops of liquid should be produced.

Microbes struggle if their environment is too wet or too dry. They need water to live, yet too much moisture can limit the amount of oxygen they receive. If compost is too wet, it will start to smell. If this happens you need to add shredded paper and cardboard and mix well to absorb moisture and make the contents drier. 

If you need to add water to compost that is becoming dry, use rainwater from a water butt if you can rather than tap water.


The fastest form of composting is done by aerobic organisms that need oxygen.  To give microbes air to breathe we need to add air to the mixture by aerating regularly to make sure there’s oxygen throughout the bin.

Wood chips are useful materials to add as they provide pathways for air and you may be able to get them for free from a local tree surgeon if you are able to accept large amounts. You can create air pockets by adding some cardboard tubes from toilet or kitchen rolls whole and keeping cardboard egg boxes whole. Scrap paper can be added scrunched up, as well as shredded, so that it provides pockets of air. You can also create air spaces by pushing a couple of sticks down into the compost and leaving them there – remove them when you aerate and replace them.  

The most common rectifiable issue (we won’t say ‘mistake’ for the sake of those mentioned above who are afraid of getting things wrong) is slimy compost that may start to smell. This is caused by too much nitrogen-rich content (which makes the pile wet) and lack of aeration. A smell is a sign that the compost has become anaerobic (without oxygen) so you need to aerate the whole pile so that aerobic microbes dominate once again. Using a garden fork will enable you to dig down and get air into the whole pile. Also add plenty of chopped or shredded carbon-rich inputs (branches, twigs, autumn leaves, paper, cardboard, wood chips) as described above. Sawdust is also useful in absorbing excess moisture. Make sure to add it in thin layers and mix in well to avoid it forming clumps.

Sometimes the problem is caused by the addition of large amounts of grass clippings in one go. Grass mowings should be added in thin layers balanced with carbon inputs or they might clump together and form a soggy mess. Again, adding dry carbon-rich inputs and aerating will help to bring moisture levels back to the ideal consistency of a wrung-out sponge.

Learning to ‘speak compost

One of our customers teaches groups of people of all ages and backgrounds how to compost using the Green Johanna and she reckons that within a few months anyone can ‘speak compost’.

 In fact, she says that most people she works with go from knowing nothing whatsoever about composting to becoming ‘compost evangelists’.

You have been warned.

Worm farming – like father, like son

One of our young eco-friendly friends, Thomas, aged 8, was delighted to get his very own worm farm recently.

Despite his tender years, Thomas is not a total novice. He’s grown up appreciating the wonderful work that worms do as he’s watched his father tend an old-school wormery that’s been in service for an impressive 35 years since the late 80s. That decade has a reputation as the materialistic yuppie era, but according to Thomas’s dad there was also a growing holistic community too, which didn’t attract as much media attention as the yuppies but was quietly thriving in the background.

Thomas’s dad saw the wormery advertised in an organic seed catalogue and has never looked back. This holistic-minded community has obviously grown and grown as the world has caught up with the philosophy that we’re all linked to the world around us.

Thomas is following a long family tradition of gardening, composting and veg growing, showing that great habits get passed down the generations. We need those great habits now more than ever. Wormeries are a great way to recycle food waste into nutrient-rich compost to feed the plants in your garden.

Thomas might be following in Dad’s footsteps but he’s also relishing having his own little worm community to care for.

In the photo taken in January, when the worm farm arrived, Thomas is seen making sure the worms are settling in well, with a cardboard cover to hand to provide the dark conditions that worms like.  A strip of hessian sacking or a few sheets of newspaper can also be used as ‘blankets’.

A few months later, and with milder spring weather, Thomas is able to manage his worm farm without being all wrapped up!

The wonderful world of worms

  • Worms produce top quality compost (vermicompost) which is richer and more nutrient-dense than ordinary compost, providing you with fertiliser for healthy plant growth.
  • Worm farming is easy composting; your hard-working worms do all the work in turning the compost and by their tunnelling actions they aerate it too.
  • Managing a wormery is a great project for children, showing them how to care for tiny living creatures that are essential to the planet and to us. Children also learn how to follow instructions, wait for results and develop observational and problem-solving skills, such as working out if conditions are too wet or too dry and what to do if a smell might be developing. (Wormeries should never smell bad, only fresh and earthy; a bad smell is a sign of overfeeding, which is easily remedied by feeding the worms less often and adding shredded cardboard to absorb moisture.)

On top of all that, worms are fascinating and fun!

Did you know?

There are over 9,000 species of earthworms, but only seven are suitable for vermicomposting. Red wiggler worms can be ordered from Great Green Systems and are sent out separately from our worm farm partners in Herefordshire.

A worm welcome

Tips to help your worms settle in.

  • Worm farms need a sheltered spot away from direct sun and rain. A shed or garage is ideal.  If placed outside, cover the worm farm with a tarpaulin in winter.
  • The Maze Worm Farm is simple to start up. There are two working trays; you won’t need the second tray at first until the first one is full. You need to line the first tray with 2/3 sheets of wet newspaper.
  • Coconut peat is provided for the worms’ bedding. This is soaked in water for 30 minutes, then added to the layer of wet newspaper.
  • Worms like a dark environment so cover them with a blanket. This can be any fabric made from natural material, such as hessian, or several sheets of newspaper or cardboard.
  • Leave the worms for a week before adding any food scraps so they can settle into their new home.
  • Feed your worms chopped-up fruit and veg scraps, small amounts of bread/cooked rice/pasta, moist cardboard, teabags, coffee grounds, crushed eggshells.

Spare Parts