Earthworms in the garden are one of the best indicators of soil health and vitality. They are the original recyclers, turning garden waste, grass clippings and even sand into food for your plants. These little wrigglers ingest their own weight daily and expel nutrient and mineral rich castings which will keep everything from carrots to roses growing strongly.
As they go about their business earthworms loosen and aerate the soil. Their tunnels make it easy for rain to penetrate, and the carbon dioxide they give off is utilized by growing plants. Don’t till or turn over garden soil. Let the earthworms do their job of bringing up nutrients to root level without disturbance.
What’s the secret to a healthy earthworm population? The answer is compost or any organic material such as fallen leaves (preferably chopped so they don’t mat down), non-chemicalized grass clippings, coffee grounds, etc. Provide food for them and they will come. Layer several inches on top of the garden at the beginning of the season and the worms will do the rest. If your soil is very short on humus, add another layer mid-way through the garden year. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your soil improves in tilth and nutrients. The change will be evident in the vitality of the plants you grow.
Mulch moderates the soil temperature and keeps it moist, providing a safe haven for your earthworm workers. Apply at least four inches to the garden. Another benefit to mulching is the reduction in weeds.
Of course chemical fertilizers and pesticides are out of the question if you want the earthworm population to thrive. Don’t forget that chlorinated water isn’t good for them either. Put barrels out to catch rainwater and use that instead or let tapwater sit overnight in an open container so the chlorine can escape.
Vermicomposting, the production of nutrient-rich worm castings, can be done easily in your house. There are no end of instructions on the internet for making worm compost out of kitchen waste. Take a look at the book The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Amy Stewart for an interesting and humorous take on the little critters.
My lazy approach to vermicomposting consists of throwing kitchen waste, excluding meat, fat and cheese, into a five gallon pail with a couple inches of compost on the bottom. When the pail is full, I dump it outside in my compost pile which should really be called my earthworm pile because those are the guys who do the work of converting the waste into nutritious compost. I do this year-round, even when there is four feet of snow on the ground. The pile rarely freezes because of all the worm and bacterial activity. If it does freeze, no worries, the activity starts up again as soon as the weather warms up. And don’t be concerned about buying worms. Put the food out and they will come.
Remember, earthworms are the gardener’s best friends. Give them a friendly environment in which to live and do their work and they’ll pay you back a thousand fold.