“It is a marvelous reflection that the whole expanse has passed, and will again pass, every few years, through the bodies of worms. The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed, by earthworms. 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 organized creatures.” -Darwin (1881)
I take Darwin’s description of ‘lowly organized creatures’ to mean that he viewed worms as the humblest of well-oiled (or rather, well-slimed) machines, slowly transforming the world’s decaying organic matter into fertile soil.
Growing up in the city, I thought worms were inert, mindless, slimy creatures simply providing an obstacle to jump over after a good rain. As I started down the path of veganic growing, worms became one of my favorite creatures in the garden. Now I know what any good gardener or farmer knows; worms are wonderful.
The group of animals we call worms actually encompasses thousands of species of non-arthropod invertebrates. Basically anything that slithers, is a bit slimy and eats bacteria and decaying matter we call a worm; the most common being Lumbricus terrestris, the common earthworm or nightcrawler.
So here is the skinny on how to keep these little guys safe, and help them to grow and fertilize your garden.
1. Stop Using Chemical Fertilizers.
Chemical fertilizers often contain salt and other compounds that are harmful and/or deadly to worms. If you have enough worms and other organic fertilizers in your soil, there is no need for synthetic fertilizers. Earthworm castings (worm excrement) can contain as much as 10 times the amount of plant-available nutrients as the original soil. This nutrient-rich natural fertilizer is teeming with microorganisms that live in the worm’s gut.
Worm castings have high concentrations of two important components for soil health and plant growth: humic acid and mycorrhizae. Humic acid helps plants develop stronger root systems, increases microbial activity and nutrient availability, promotes the activity of enzymes and natural plant growth regulators, as well as, slowing pathogenic fungi build-up. Mycorrhizae, a beneficial soil fungus, attaches to the root system in a symbiotic relationship that helps the roots to absorb nutrients and increase water intake. Basically, a worm’s gut is filled with good microbes and bacteria that are distributed in the garden as they travel and munch throughout the day.
2. Refrain from deep weeding, rototilling, plowing and other activities that disturb large amounts of soil unless it is dry out.
Worms borrow deeper in dry weather and come to the surface during wet weather. While this activity may seem to halt your aerating and digging activity at times, thankfully the worms will continue to do this for you. They aerate and loosen the soil as they tunnel and move through your garden, providing better water drainage and opportunities for root growth. This activity also brings the subsoil closer to the surface, making the beneficial compounds trapped there available to your plants. The slime excreted by worms, to help them tunnel and absorb oxygen as they move, forms aggregates (soil particles that are glued together.) Soil aggregates are essential for storing air, water, microbes, nutrients and organic matter. Soil with a large number of aggregates is less susceptible to erosion.
At this point you may be thinking – why not get a worm box and not worry about which fertilizers to use and when to rototill? I say: Keep them free. There is no need to contain worms to receive the benefits of their activity. Worms will leave a garden if there are not enough nutrients available or if the soil becomes too hot, cold, wet or toxic for them. They do not have this option in a worm box. In your garden they can choose to go where they want when they want, aerating and enriching the soil as they travel. This means that the nutrients get distributed throughout the garden without disturbing the worm’s natural lifecycle.
What can I say? I like my worms like I like my people, free to play in the dirt.
If you’re looking to capture the microbial “vermijuice” that drips out of most worm boxes, try EM-1 Solution, or Bokashi Compost as a comparable and impressive alternative.
3. Feed not only your plants, but the worms themselves.
As Aristotle said: worms are “the intestines of the soil”, and we all know what moves through our intestines: decaying matter… in its various forms. Worms can eat their weight in organic matter each day so it’s important to make sure there is a good supply in your garden.
The key to keeping these hard-working creatures happy is compost, compost, compost. Creating a compost bin for food scraps (with an open base to allow the worms to work their way in and out) is easy. If you do not have the space for a compost bin or you want to concentrate the nutrients in a particular area, try direct composting.
The same kitchen and newspaper scraps that you would put in a bin can be put directly into the ground.
Dig a trench next to the area you plan to plant. Alternatively, if you can, plan a couple of weeks ahead and dig the trench directly under where you will be planting. Dig approximately one foot down and then dump about 4 inches of compostable material into the trench. Cover the items you dumped in the hole with dirt and lightly compact it down.
If the direct compost is next to where you intend to plant, go about your planting. If the compost is under your planting area, wait a couple of weeks. When you’re ready to plant, gently prod your composted area (when dry) with a garden fork, and aerate the composted material below. You can direct compost during the winter as well, but do not expect the material to break down until spring.
To turbo-pack your nutrients, mulch over the area you’ve composted. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the worms go to work.
This is the wonder of worms; the humblest of creatures making their way through the earth below our feet, imbibing and recycling waste to create a new foundation for growth.
Now, that’s what I call a miracle!