View from the Garden: Earthworms Make the World Go ’Round

Last week I decided that there were too many weeds in my garden and more self-seeded plants than I wanted to look at, so my co-worker and I went to work on it yesterday. As I was removing unwanted plants from an area that had been left untouched for quite a while, having accumulated a fine layer of leaves and plants, I found “millions” of earthworms, my favorite things to see in the soil. They seemed to be under every rock and stone and working just under the top of the soil. As I pulled, they wiggled away in “family packs” to new homes.

I love to see them because their presence indicates healthy soil. The more earthworms, the looser and darker it will be with a fresh earthy smell. Plants will be vigorous and disease will be at a minimum.

Earthworms burrow through any kind of soil except that which is very sandy, allowing air and improving water holding capacity in the soil. They eat decaying organic matter producing nutrient rich castings (poop), which contain potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium carbonate. A balanced fertilizer that feeds beneficial bacteria adding to root growth and roots feed the plant. A single worm produces its weight in castings per day and 1/3 pound of fertilizer per year.

To encourage earthworms to work in your garden, never use synthetic fertilizers. They contain salts which kill worms and other life in the soil. Worms provide ideal environments for flora and fauna. Many people think they are being negligent if not applying fertilizer to gardens and grass regularly. But for the health of plants and soil, this is a very bad and unnecessary practice. If you apply fertilizer, you will eventually have to continue the practice, as the natural food producing parts of the soil have been killed. Life in the soil eventually dies and the plants become reliant on fertilizers.

There are non-synthetic fertilizers available that will be helpful until you have enough worms. You can even buy worm castings. But with a healthy worm population, you do not need fertilizer. Give them food by using plenty of organic material on the garden. Compost and mulch. Plenty of mulch also moderates soil temperature and moisture. Compost feeds beneficial flora and fauna.

To increase your worm population, stop rototilling the soil. When planting, dig a hole just large enough to accommodate the plant. When you rototill and chop up the soil for planting, worm burrows are destroyed and worms are shredded and killed. (They do not regenerate when cut in two.) When planting trees and shrubs, you will need a larger hole so compost can be mixed with the excavated soil to fill the hole. Ceasing rototilling and building the worm population is beneficial in several ways: your soil is healthy, your plants are vigorous and more disease resistant, you save money on fertilizer and you do not contribute to nitrogen runoff which is detrimental to our water.

Over the years, worms have greatly improved my once thin and sandy Sag Harbor soil. I have always put the fall crop of leaves on my beds and in pathways. Though we spent the day in my garden yesterday weeding and pruning, the majority of weeds were between stones on paths. I really don’t have weeds in the beds and I have never used fertilizers.

Worms are an important part of gardening organically. The techniques and concepts might seem daunting, but encouraging worms in your garden begins with an easy first step: stop using synthetic fertilizers, apply and keep a 3”-4” layer of organic mulch, and regulate your water so that the soil is moist and not overwatered.

Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067. For more info, visit jeanellemyersfinegardening.com.

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