Worms are nature’s free plow and a free soil test. If you don’t have them, you absolutely need them in your soil. They add moisture and air to the soil as well as nutrients from their “castings” (a nice way of saying poop). Worms burrow which makes it easier for roots to grow; they break down leaf matter and other organic trash and turn it into soil. Water filtration is improved and soil ph is normalized. Worms are virtual miracles of nature!
There are many kinds of worms: Earthworms, night crawlers, and red wigglers are those you need in your garden. Of course, their science name is different, but if you get these three general common names understood, you’ll be fine. I’m not able to distinguish different kinds of worms by sight, although there are differences.
Earthworms are the most common. These live in the soil of your garden about 6 inches to 6 feet below soil surface. These are the free “plow”. They come to the surface during rains and wet weather, and are the ones you see on sidewalks and roads all dried out after rain. Worms create burrows that can run six feet down. When they are present in the soil there are small mounds of castings visible.
Red wigglers are known by many names, all of which contain “red”. These live closer to the surface and are not widely present in the soil. However, if you bury your kitchen scraps in the soil, you’ll see them devour the waste and turn it into rich, black soil in just two to four weeks. Red wigglers are primarily used in vermiculture, which is the creation of a worm farm for the purpose of harvesting castings. Instructions for your own worm farm can be found easily on the web.
Night crawlers are larger than Earthworms. They burrow deeper and are OK for gardens, but do most of their beneficial work so deep in the soil that garden roots don’t benefit. So in this case, bigger is not better.
Worms are most active in the spring and summer. If it gets too hot or cold, they “hibernate” by going deeper into the soil where they coil themselves into a ball to conserve moisture or warmth. Here in the South, using mulch will keep the soil temperature more even in both extremes, and it is likely that worm activity will be fairly even throughout the year.
If you don’t have worms, here’s how to get them:
The best, easiest way to improve soil and attract worms is to simply bury your kitchen scraps directly into the soil. I cannot figure out why more people don’t do this! Avoid the compost pile all together. Dig a hole about 12 – 18″ deep, empty your scraps into the hole, and refill with dirt. Done! No turning, no harvesting, hauling or stink.
If you do this, be sure to follow the basic rules of composting by not adding meats, dairy, oils or animal poop. Use fruit and vegetable scraps, paper towels, dryer lint, coffee grounds and filters. Keep a small bucket or pail under the sink. After a few weeks you’ll realize that the bucket will fill fast enough that fruit flies and odors are not concerns. (Just for fun, after you bury one bucket of scraps go back and check on it after a week. You’ll be amazed at the number or worms doing their job!)
Alternatively, just add compost.
Don’t use pesticides or inorganic fertilizers. Pesticides affect worms as they breathe through their skin. And inorganic fertilizers have a saline coating that burns them.
Stop tilling or doing excessive digging. These practices destroy the worm burrows and inhibit micronutrient growth on which worms feed. Let the worms turn the soil for you!
You can “plant” worms! Buy Earthworms at bait stores for about $3. Don’t just throw them out on the soil though; you’ll lose them to birds. Dig a hole about 6″ deep (trowel length). Water the hole, pinch a few worms in, cover with compost, then backfill the hole and water it. They will go far below the surface doing what they do!
Worm castings can be a bit pricey but they save some work. They are excellent for gardens, containing lots of nitrogen and micronutrients for the soil. They’re organic. Best of all they will also have eggs, which will hatch into baby worms if covered with mulch. So you’re getting two benefits from the castings. Simply sprinkle around the base of your plants in spring then cover with mulch and let nature take its course!
Free soil test!
Worms are the easiest, free soil test. When I moved to my new house more than a decade ago, there were no worms in the garden beds. None. That should have been a clue to me how bad my soil was. I amended my soil blindly, had three soil tests, followed instructions, and my soil did improve. But the best result I got was from being lazy. Burying my kitchen scraps made the easiest, most dramatic, fastest and free improvement. Now, twelve years later and with much amending and a bit of knowledge, my soil is rich, dark brown, healthy. When planting anything, I look for worms. If I don’t see any, even when planting the smallest tomato plant, I add kitchen scraps to that area. If I don’t see worm castings on the top of the soil, its time for more mulch. Easy.
A happy garden is one with lots of worms. Embrace those wiggly, slimy creatures!