Garden News article: The Joy of Worms

As I mentioned last time some people find it hard to get excited by worms, but worms are proof positive that a greater understanding of the biological function of an animal can help us to garden more creatively. If we didn’t know what a worm did and why it did it, we wouldn’t be able to compost, manage our soils well, create our own nutrient rich worm cast fertilizer or even evolve new gardening techniques such as no-dig, which relies on the downward dragging by worms of decomposing compost from the surface of the soil.

Time honoured phrases give us huge clues as to the biological essence of the worm, and its importance. The worm has turned. The early bird gets the worm. You have made worms meat out of me. These three alone tell us respectively that worms are entirely beneficial, that they are an important part of a wider food chain and that they have a crack at decomposing us when its time to shuffle off this mortal coil. Darwin doubted ‘whether there are any other animals in this world which have played so important a part in the history of the world.’ And he spent 39 years studying them!

Earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) create amazing super highways in the soil. They love to take food from the surface of the soil and drag it deep underground – sometimes down six feet or more, way below the roots of many of the plants we grow. When they eat food at this depth they mix it up with nutrient-rich soils and bring the nutrients back up to the surface of the soil, where they are deposited in casts close to the roots of plants.

It’s natures way of bringing buried nutrients back into use. Just as importantly, the tunnels created by earthworms facilitate the movement of air and water around the soil. Without these tunnels soils become compacted, waterlogged and airless, leading to the death of soil life and consequently to weak, sickly plants that keel over and spoil our gardening. Darwin saddled them with the rather unflattering but accurate name ‘the intestines of the soil’.

You can add to your own understanding, though perhaps not as obsessively as Darwin, by keeping a wormery. Wormeries are science experiment, wildlife reserve, food waste disposal unit and home made fertilizer factory all rolled into one. It’s probably the most accessible way to start learning about nature, for adults or children, and of the good things that small species do for us.

The wormery loving tiger worm (Eisenia fetida to distinguish them from the common earthworm Lumbricus terrestris – which is not happy in a container wormery like the one pictured) eats half its own body weight in food each day and produces a nutrient rich worm cast that contains micro-organisms which essentially, in the truest meaning of the word, take the carbon-nitrogen ratio of the poo down to a level where the nutrients contained within it can be absorbed by plants. This means that when you put your worm cast on the soil it keeps on working for both soil and plants.

You really have to care for worms in a wormery – learning what they need not just to survive but to be efficient – the correct food, moisture content and temperature for starters. Their livelihood depends on your efficiency and your livelihood depends on theirs. It’s an amazing concept to see in action. And once you have, then you can imagine how difficult life would be if we forget to care for nature. Signing off until next time…compost lover.

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