Worms - a Gardener's Best Friend
By Sarah Mooney
As a child I felt remorse for the crispy worm bodies I would see on the sidewalk, because worms do not thrive on concrete slabs. However, worms do quite well in our gardens and we are lucky to have them. Understanding the nature of worms can help us harness their utility for the best outcomes in and above the soil.
If you have just one acre of land, you might be host to half a million earthworms! Professional farmers speculate that a healthy population in the dirt can significantly increase the value of land in terms of its ability to support plant life. You do not have to be a professional to appreciate higher quality soil in your garden with little to no effort on your part. Soil that is in good health is more inviting to worms, and there are several different types you might encounter while you are digging around, including manure worms, red worms, night crawlers, and garden worms.
What Conditions Help Earthworms to Thrive?
An appropriate level of moisture in the soil is crucial to the health of earth worms. Without lungs, worms must breathe through their skin. Moisture plays a critical role in their ability to absorb oxygen and convert it into carbon dioxide. However, make sure not to over saturate the earth with water, as this could cause them to drown.
Adding compost that contains plenty of nitrogen will benefit earthworms, however make sure you are not using a synthetic fertilizer. Worms will be driven away by the chemicals contained in synthetic fertilizers because they make the soil too salty.
If it gets too cold too quickly it can be harmful for worms. If you add a cover crop like rye, clover, or buckwheat, you can help maintain safe soil temperatures. This can also be achieved by adding a layer of mulch. In the winter, worms will hibernate by burrowing deep beneath the soil.
When the weather gets too hot, it can impact worms. Summer hibernation is called estivation. Worms may estivate in the summer if the temperatures rise very high; they do this in the same way they hibernate - by digging further into the ground.
How Do Worms Help?
Worms prep the soil for planting by naturally tilling, which helps to loosen soil. The diet of a worm includes dead leaves, dirt (and all the microorganisms in the dirt), cardboard, compostable items like your fruit and vegetable scraps, and so on. When a worm is finished digesting what they have eaten, they produce something called worm castings, which are rich in ammonium nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and nitrates that are accessible to plants.
These soft bodied creatures have a lot to offer, and have offered so much already by helping to create healthy soil that can support the food we need to survive. If you happen to see one stranded on the middle of the side walk, perhaps you can take the time to add it to a patch of dirt. The dirt will be better for it, and the worm can continue to enrich the earth rather than fry on the pavement.