Do you cringe at the mere name of “earthworms”? Many homeowners might not like the idea of earthworms in their beautiful garden. However, did you know that these tiny, seemingly repulsive creatures offer many potential benefits to the soil?
So should gardeners be adding worms to the garden or compost? If worms haven’t already found a way in a garden, it can be a good cheat to introduce them to the soil or compost manually. It’s a popular organic practice used by many gardeners to enhance plant growth, but keep in mind that they’ll need to be provided with the right conditions to thrive.
So what benefits do worms offer a garden? What kinds of worms are good for the soil? There’s a lot to learn about these magical creatures before making use of them. This article will cover all aspects in detail, what benefits are offered by worms, what worms are most beneficial, and how to make the most out of them.
Why do I need worms in my garden?
Earthworms symbolize healthy, organic soil. They complete the ecosystem under the soil surface and offer gardeners with countless benefits. Here are a bunch of proven benefits that can be expected when worms are in the garden:
Add nutrients to the soil
Plant residue such as fallen leaves and dead roots are food for the worms. In return, they produce worm castings that are rich in nutrients for the plants. These worms will make tunnels in the soil, which is where they’ll excrete these castings (rich in nitrogen and phosphorus). Tunnel castings are excellent for root growth and allows a greater penetration into the soil through the absorption of added nutrients and moisture.
Over time, the soil in a garden can become compact. This can affect the ability of the soil to absorb water for the plants and drain out the excess. Leave the hard work to the earthworms. They’ll dig through the soil, loosening it as they move around and improving its porosity. Worm tunnels are especially good for drainage, especially on rainy days.
Mix the soil
Earthworms also help turn the soil. By bringing the organic matter down from the surface, they’ll ensure that it’s easily accessible by the roots. Mixing up the components and aerating the soil as they move around, they make it lighter and distribute the nutrients evenly around the area.
For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.2 Thessalonians 3:10-12
Improves plant health
With all the above benefits in place, the positive impact of earthworms on plant health is a no-brainer. Increased productivity comes from healthy soil, and earthworms can help achieve that.
Researchers in New Zealand have shown that the introduction of earthworms to a worm-free pasture can increase production by up to 70%. These pastures were fed up to 7 million worms for every hectare. However, our little gardens won’t take up that much; a handful of worms should do the trick here.
Read our article How and Why You Should Increase Earthworms in Your Soil to learn how to get the most out of these amazing creatures.
What are the different types of earthworms and how are they beneficial?
Ever seen earthworms closely enough to realize different species exist? They seem equally slimy and gooey, don’t they? So who cares? As a matter of fact, plants do! According to Encyclopedia Britannica, around 1800 different species exist in nature. Are they all equally healthy for the soil?
Different earthworms have different characteristics and offer different benefits to the plant’s soil. Some aren’t beneficial at all; some are even harmful to the plants. Let’s check out the most common species in a bit detail and see which ones are beneficial.
Red wiggler is the nickname for the species Eisenia fetida. It’s a popular choice for vermicomposting (discussed later) and also a good friend of any garden. It is also called the manure worm. They are medium-sized and weigh up to 1.5 g when fully grown.
Red wigglers don’t dig deep, unlike nightcrawlers, and prefer moving around in the topsoil. Since they prefer a home with a higher carbon to nitrogen ratio, they’ll thrive in compost pits. They also love garden soil that’s rich in organic matter.
Nightcrawlers, or Lumbricus terrestris, are also a popular choice for fertilizing lawns. If you’ve already spotted nightcrawlers in your lawn, it’s an indication that the lawn is healthy. Nightcrawlers like to dig deeper than red wigglers. A publication on North Carolina State Extension reports that they can dig burrows as deep as 6 feet. They eat soil and debris on the soil’s surface and convert it to humus.
Unlike red wigglers, nightcrawlers don’t do well in composting pits and may kill themselves in an attempt to crawl out of it.
Allolobophora Caliginosa is the scientific name for field worms. While nightcrawlers thrive in soil that’s rich in organic matter, field worms can do with a poorer soil. It’s smaller in size and has a distinct raised portion near the start of the body.
Just like nightcrawlers, they bring down the organic matter from the soil surface into their burrows, consume them, and create nutrient-rich debris. In doing so, they also aerate the soil and make it lighter.
Green worm or Allolobophora chlorotica is a short worm, greenish in color, and isn’t as active as the rest of the species that are beneficial for gardens. They make horizontal burrows as they feed and dig in the garden, but since they aren’t very active, they might not be the best choice to introduce earthworms to a garden.
The species Eisenia hortensis or Dendrobaena veneta go by the name of European nightcrawlers. They are medium in size with a bluish, grey body. Just like red wigglers, they love a medium with high carbon to nitrogen ratio and are ideal for composting pits. These worms are commercially produced for vermicomposting and will survive in most climates.
African night crawler
African night crawler, or Eudrilus eugeniae, is another preferred variety for vermicomposting. Native to West Africa, they can tolerate much higher temperatures as compared to the red wigglers but will appreciate high humidity levels. These large worms can grow about 10 inches long in just 8 weeks and are in use for vermicomposting in many warm regions of the world.
How to introduce earthworms into the garden?
With so many benefits of these minuscule creatures, there’s no reason not to introduce these into the garden right away. However, don’t haste. The best time to attract some earthworms is around spring.
- Organic matter and cornmeal attract earthworms. They also improve the nutritional value of the soil. Add these to the soil. In just about a month, bacteria will appear around the area and worms also come. Continue adding organic matter in the form of compost, manure, or cornmeal every two weeks to attract more worms.
- Another useful way to attract earthworms is to start a composting pit. Just start the pit and the earthworms will find their way to the pit on their own.
- After vegetable harvest, leave the roots in the garden to rot. Just cut off the top part of the plant to add to the composting pit. Leave the roots in the ground for the surface-dwelling earthworms to feed on. Even after the garden has delivered its produce, the worms will continue working in the field to improve the quality of the soil for the next crop.
- Another simple way is to cut open a bag of manure from the side and leave it in a shady place with the cut side facing down. In a couple of weeks, you’ll find lots of earthworms in the bag that can be added to the garden along with the manure.
How to encourage the activity of earthworms?
Since these little creatures help out so much, it’s only fair to return the favor. And plus, in order for all the benefits to continue, it is important to encourage the activity of earthworms in the garden. So what can be done to help them out?
We continue to discourage our fellow gardeners from tilling the soil since it destroys the soil life. Read our article How to Start a No-Till Garden: A Complete Step-By-Step Guide to learn more about no-till gardening.
Tilling disturbs the home and activity of earthworms, and will need to be avoided as much as possible. Fewer earthworms will survive in a field that’s plowed and tilled often. If you’re adding compost, just sprinkle it on the surface, leave the rest of the work to the earthworms. They’ll till the soil naturally, bringing the organic matter down and mixing the soil up.
Add organic matter
Include organic matter in the form of compost or manure every two weeks. Make it a routine. This will ensure that these tiny pets are well-nourished to work well and multiply.
Add organic mulch
Earthworms are most active when there’s moisture in the soil and the temperatures aren’t extreme. Covering the soil with mulch helps retain moisture and keeps the soil cooler on hot days. On the plus side, mulch is also good for plants.
Don’t use fertilizers
Chemical fertilizers aren’t good for earthworms. Some of them are highly acidic; they’ll reduce the number of earthworms in the garden and also tamper with the soil structure.
Maintain good moisture
Water the garden well to make sure there’s enough moisture for the earthworms, but avoid overwatering. Water more frequently during hot spells.
Where do earthworms go during the winter?
Don’t be too alarmed if earthworms are not visible in winters. These months of hard work in introducing earthworms to the garden and keeping them happy haven’t gone to waste. During the winters, they’ll stay deep under the soil, safe in their burrows. They go into a state called estivation (similar to hibernation) and will reappear once the weather is favorable for them.
Some of them handle the cold with a different approach. Instead of hiding deep down in burrows, they’ll lay eggs in cocoons in the soil and then wait to die on the soil surface. The eggs will hatch when the weather is favorable for them.
In both cases, the earthworms will resume their activity once the winters are over. Let these hard-working laborers sleep for a little while before they start working in the soil again.
Should I put worms in a container garden?
Earthworms are good for the soil; it doesn’t matter if it’s the soil in the garden or that in a container. It might not be necessary to go through the trouble of finding earthworms to add to the container garden. Give them the right conditions (healthy soil with lots of organic matter) and they’ll come on their own.
Even if the worms are added manually into the container, they’ll not stay there if they don’t find suitable conditions. In reality, garden conditions are more suitable for them since the base is not closed off, as is the case with containers.
When deciding to add earthworms, don’t add too many. And don’t add them at all in pots that are too small. Just dig out a couple of earthworms from the yard, loosen the topsoil, place the worms and cover them with soil. When given the right conditions, earthworms won’t run away from the container garden, and will bring loads of benefits to the soil and plants:
- Aerate the soil
- Improve the nutrient content of the soil for plants.
- Decrease the compactness that’s common with potting soil.
- Maintains slight acidity in the soil which is suitable for most plant varieties.
Vermicomposting at home
Vermicomposting is an excellent way to get rid of kitchen waste. Instead of dumping all those coffee grounds, potato peels, banana peels, onion trimmings, and whatever else to the garbage can from where they spread an awful smell all over the kitchen, dump it in a vermicomposting unit.
Just choose an opaque storage bin and drill a couple of holes at the top and the bottom for aeration. The container should have a lid. Worm bins that are specially designed for this purpose are available and can be purchased at most gardening stores.
Prepare bedding with shredded, moistened newspaper and start adding food scraps over it. Red worms are ideal for worm compost. Boxes of red worms are available at the store. Once a box of red worms is added to the bin, they’ll feed and multiply on their own.
Continue adding food scraps to the bin to keep the worms active in the bin. Avoid adding dairy, meat, or animal or human waste in the bin. The worms will take about 6 months to consume waste and create compost. That’s when it can be harvested and used in the garden.
Should I add worms to my compost tumbler?
Compost tumblers aren’t the ideal setup for earthworms, primarily because they are designed to be rotated. Earthworms prefer an environment that isn’t disturbed. If you do add them to a compost tumbler that’s rotated often, you’ll find them turn pale and eventually, dead.
Also, it’s usually pretty hot in there for the earthworms to thrive. If holes are in the compost tumbler (remember, they can be drilled manually) and it will not be rotated at all, go ahead and add worms. As far as the food is concerned, they’ll find everything in there that they’ll love. Just give them the right conditions when introducing them to a compost tumbler.
See how these tiny creatures which disgust most of us can help our garden? So the next time you find a worm in the garden, don’t throw it out! Instead, pet them and let them improve the garden soil.
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