Worms and Your Garden

Worms and Your Garden

By Michael Jenkins

Worms—they seem to be everywhere, they’re both cute and gross at the same time, and you may have dissected one in high school or used them for bait while fishing. And while many gardeners know that worms are important in the garden, what exactly they are and how they help our plants and soil remains a mystery to many of us. Well, we got curious so the Gardzen Research Team set out to learn a bit more about worms and gardens and how it all fits together. So if you’re curious about the role of worms in your garden and how you can promote and support these helpful creatures, join us as we dig in and learn a bit more!

What are Earthworms, Exactly?

We all know what worms are—the segmented, legless, invertebrates that live beneath the soil. As we’ve discovered in researching this blog, however, there are a number of different species that are often lumped together as “earthworms.” These vary depending on location, but some common examples include night-crawlers (Lumbricus terrestris), redworm (Eisenia fetida), and the various Sparganophilus species. Earthworms reproduce by laying an egg-filled cocoon, in which the small larva hatch and develop before breaking free and moving into the soil on their own. Earthworms move through the soil by burrowing and consuming organic matter as they move. Most earthworm species prefer dark, damp conditions, and they’re mostly likely to be active at night especially when their activity—like mating—takes place on the surface.

The Benefits of Earthworms for Gardens

Not long ago, earthworms were regarded as a benign species in the garden, neither helping nor hurting. We now know that this isn’t true—earthworms are hugely beneficial for the soil they inhabit and the plants in that soil. The benefits of earthworms in the garden are many and vary by species and location, but do include the following:

  • Earthworms improve drainage and water infiltration. The tunnels they dig while moving around, feeding, and doing their other daily routines allow for water to infiltrate the soil more effectively and quickly. This allows for deeper and more efficient watering, better drainage, and reduced risks of water pooling on the surface.
  • As earthworms dig their tunnels and consumer organic matter, they also loosen and aerate the soil. This is wonderful for soil health—it permits better air circulation, which in turn promotes a more healthy and active biome of microbes. These microscope creatures of various species help keep the soil healthy by resisting unwanted molds and mildews, breaking down organic matter into nutrients plants can use, and in general ensuring that soil remains vibrant and active. Loose and well aerated soil is also easier for plant roots to grow into, helping our plants get established and grow healthy and strong.
  • Earthworms eat and thus earthworms poop, and the waste the create—properly called “worm castings”—provide excellent and ready-to-use fertilizer for our plants and a lasting enrichment for our soil. You can promote a healthy environment for worms and rely on the fertilizer they produce in nature, or you can farm your own worms at home in a process called “vermiculture”. We’ll address raising worms deliberately in a later blog, but for now please follow that link for more information on the practice. For now, just know that having worms in your soil makes it richer and more nutritious for plants.
  • Worms control pests that affect the health of our soil, and by pest we mean in particular the ground nematode that is so often the bane of tomato gardeners. Worms eat the nematodes, keeping their population down and helping tomatoes to thrive.

These are some of the benefits of having earthworms in our garden soil. This brings us to our next question—can we or should we add worms to our soil? Many garden supply stores and online outlets will sell earthworms to be introduced to the buyer’s garden, and some garden guide suggest buying them there or from fishing supply places in order to introduce them to the garden and enrich the soil. Should we put earthworms in our gardens? Well, the answer to that is a firm “maybe”. While earthworms do a lot to promote soil health and there are over a thousand species of earthworms worldwide, they’re not native to every part of the country and can actually cause problems if introduced to the wrong place. Our best advice is to contact your state’s agriculture extension or your county extension office and ask their advice—your local garden club might have some guidance as well. It’s always safe to create a worm-friendly environment by adding organic matter to soil, watering deeply, and otherwise providing the kind of environment worms prefer. They’ll likely show up and start breeding on their own, sparing you the trouble of adding them.

Worms are another fun feature of our gardens, another reminder of how nature is interconnected, and a great way to celebrate the ways in which our garden spaces fit into the world around us. We hope this blog helps you understand the benefits of worms in your garden and how you can help them—and your plants—thrive!

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