Earthworms: Soils' Fertility Factories
I've always liked earthworms, as wiggly as they are, because they improve my garden soil so industriously. They’re trustworthy, hard working, and very helpful, the same qualities that a girl looks for in a guy (except that guys are better looking.) Then I realized how little I know about them.
What is that spare tire some of them carry around their middle? Do they have eyes? Where in the world are their mouths? If you cut a worm in half, do you get two worms, or one half-dead one and one all-dead one? Most importantly, how can you get more earthworms in your garden?
I'll bet you like earthworms in your garden, too. How many times have you taken an earthworm off a dry sunny sidewalk after rain and put it gently in a flowerbed with a sprinkling of moist earth over it? You haven’t? It’s a beneficial thing to do, both for the worm and for your garden.
They've been called “Nature's plowman,” “fertility factories,” “master soil builders,” and “the world's most efficient organic waste processors.” They’re safe, tireless farmhands, performing as living plows in your garden. They’re a lot more effective than any soil building products you can buy and they don’t cost anything.
Why are earthworms so good for the soil? A worm is pure intestine, ingesting organic matter and turning it into a form plants can use immediately. Their tunnels increase soil's water holding ability and aerate it, which helps roots to grow. They add enzymes, beneficial fungi, and growth stimulants to your soil, and they even eat harmful nematodes.
Their physiology is strange and remarkable. They have five pairs of hearts, but no eyes, noses, or lungs. (They breathe through their skin.) Their mouths are just a small flap of skin at the front. They have gizzards like chickens, which use fine sand particles to grind up organic matter so they can digest it.
An earthworm has both male and female organs, so theoretically it can fertilize itself, if it can figure out how to do so. It really prefers cuddling with others though, in a frequency that rabbits would envy. Each mating "which resembles a Turk's-turban knot" can result in an egg capsule the size of a rice grain. These are laid every seven to 10 days, and they’ll hatch two to three weeks later, releasing an average four baby worms.
Wormlings reach breeding age in 60 to 90 days, indicated by formation of the clitellum, the thick muscular band around worms that I wondered about. If the temperature is under 50 degrees or the soil is too dry, the egg capsules lie dormant until conditions improve.
An earthworm's lifespan in your gardens is a year or two. They can replace the tail segments of their bodies, but can't regenerate the front end, where their organs are located. When earthworms are flooded out of their burrows they don’t die from drowning, but from sunburn, so it’s good to put worms you see flooded out of the soil in some shade.
Varieties of worms
There are thousands of varieties of worms, including an Australian beauty two inches thick and 12-ft. long. (I don't think you'd want him in your flowerbed.) Common night crawlers are "Nature's rototillers," digging deep burrows in the soil. They take organic matter and air deeper, and bring minerals up to the soil surface.
Composting worms, like the red worm (Eisenia fetida) live in the top few inches of the soil. They're "stay at homes," not migrating far, as night crawlers do.
Increase your earthworm population
If you want a healthy earthworm population avoid chemical fertilizers and strong insect sprays and weed chemicals, which can kill earthworms. They thrive best when tilling is avoided (that cuts a lot of them in half!) They work in any kind of soil except acid soil, as long as they have moisture and organic matter to eat. They work slower in clay soil, but they will even break up hardpan in time. Hot, dry summer weather kills them, so keep them alive by mulching and watering regularly.
To increase your earthworms, ecologists recommend having both a compost heap for garden wastes and a "home wormery" for kitchen wastes (except for meat scraps, which attract vermin.) This is also good for the environment, since a good proportion of the volume in landfills is organic matter. You can grow a worm farm in a wooden box, old bathtub, or a large plastic basket as long as there are holes in it to drain excess water. These livestock are troublefree, mannerly, and very quiet, and they don’t bite. Garden magazines and the Internet have information and sources for composting red worms.
You can even go into the earthworm business. President Carter's cousin, Hugh Carter, is said to have started a worm business in an old coffin in 1947, which grew to a multimillion-dollar business by the 1970's.
For human consumption, worms have been described as "palatable, if a bit chewy." I usually test garden subjects I write about, but I'm not going to try this one. I’ll stick to spaghetti, thank you very much.
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