The Shed

The Shed
The Shed

Friday, March 2, 2012


Hi boys and girls and welcome back to the Children's Hour with Leatherface! Last time this old cut-up told you all sorts of things about - can you remember?

Yes! Earthworms!

Well today's topic is once again, those very same little underground burrowers, but rather than tell you about the big ones and little ones, the smelly ones and the incandescent ones, we're going to tell you all about those stalwart little fellows in your very own vegetable garden!

"Oh Nooo Mr. leatherface", you're probably thinking, "not a steady worm diet here on the Childrens Hour?"

No of course not! We are simply providing Part 2 of what would have been a very long post if we had presented it all at once.

(And if you missed Part 1, you can catch up right HERE.)

But you know, a worm diet might not be such a bad thing after all!

Just look at how much fun little Jason and Jennifer are having here, posing for their parents! Wouldn't your Mommy and Daddy be grossed out if you tried a few wrigglies? I bet they would! Almost as much as if they toured Ol' Leathers' meat locker.

But with no further ado, and certainly with no reference to the risky diet with worms, or the exceedingly tedious Diet of Worms, let's dive straight into the compost heap!

It’s a team effort:

The gardener is rarely alone in the garden, even when there is no one else in sight . That’s because there is a large and busy unseen work force just inches away toiling at tasks that help make the garden a success even though said work force has no idea that it is doing so. We refer of course to the lowly and much underrated earthworm, unseen ally of every gardener who ever wielded a hoe.

Earthworms when present in the garden in adequate numbers keep the soil loose by burrowing through it. They eat particles of sand and clay as well as microorganisms and organic matter and excrete what is in effect a highly balanced plant fertilizer. They migrate from the topsoil to the subsoil bringing nutrients closer to the plant roots where they may be easily utilized. Their tunnels create arteries through which air and water can pass. They might almost be gardeners themselves.

How many worms are enough worms?                                         

There is almost no practical upper limit to how many worms a garden can benefit from. One way to find out if there are enough present is to take what Edward C. Smith in his excellent gardening handbook, “The Vegetable Gardeners Bible” refers to as a “worm census”. 
Mr. Smith states that a worm census will be most accurate if performed in the spring or fall, and not in the blazing heat of summer which tends to drive worms in unmulched beds deep. Smith recommends marking a twelve by twelve inch area of garden soil and digging down seven inches or so with a spade. Transfer the soil obtained on to a plywood square or similar surface. Gently separate the soil and count the worms found – small worms count the same as large ones.

Less than ten worms in a sample of that size indicate a problem. 40, 50 or 60 worms indicate a large and lively work force, busily drilling tunnels and creating rich fertilizer. It also indicates that the soil probably has a good PH factor, adequate organic matter and a rich subsurface microbial life. It possesses good “structure”.

What about those tunnels? 

When a worm squirms its way through garden soil it opens up pathways called tunnels which are beneficial for a number of reasons. The tunnels allow air, vital for photosynthesis and overall plant health to penetrate the soil easily and deeply. It opens drains for surface water; soil well worked over by worms can absorb water up to 4 times faster than can moderately compacted and relatively worm free soil. And the tunnels allow roots to penetrate deeply and spread easily, all of which leads to healthy and productive vegetable plants.

Natures own fertilizer: 

Worms like to eat. They like to eat microbes and other subsurface life forms, particles of silt and clay, and decayed organic plant matter otherwise known as compost. As they do so they excrete pellets called castings. These castings make the soil more friable, which allows more space for air and water to penetrate, and as was the case with the tunnels makes it easier for roots to penetrate the soil.

But castings are much more than soil loosening granules. They are a potent, safe to use and highly beneficial plant fertilizer. The tiny pellets the worm leaves behind it have concentrates of nitrogen, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, potash, and magnesium 5 to 11 times more concentrated than the original topsoil possesses.  Moreover, in a single year, given a soil rich with humus or compost, a single worm can produce up to 10 pounds of casts. That is a lot of safe, effective plant nutrient.

If you build it, they will come:

How to get more earthworms into the garden might be an appropriate question at this point. It is simple; work lots of compost into the soil, as deeply as possible, and then mulch the beds. 
The compost gives the worms plenty to eat, thus plenty to excrete, and encourages them to make many more worms. The mulch will keep the surface temperature and moisture level within acceptable ranges for earthworms and keep them near the surface of the garden, where they do their best work.

A nice experiment is to keep informal tabs on the compost heap as it progresses through spring to early summer. Turning after turning the gardener will notice progressively more earthworms, appearing as if by magic, in the compost pile. This is because for an earthworm, compost is a free banquet; they wriggle into it and happily produce more worms, which transfer to the garden as the compost is applied.

Things to avoid are excessive mechanical tilling and concentrated chemical fertilizers, both will kill and drive earthworms away.

The grower is never alone:

It may seem that way to the gardener staking, weeding, trellising and watering without another soul in view, but unseen beneath that top layer of mulch, an army is at work.

Well there, that leaves you with a great deal to digest on the topic of earthworms and the vegetable garden. Thanks as always for stopping by for The Childrens Hour with your pal, Leatherface!


Raymond Alexander Kukkee said...

Earthworms are amazing critters, Mac, great article on them! Heavy mulching is the key to success. Our garden earthworm population exploded when we began heavy mulching. Excellent !

Mike W said...

Great article Mac.

Glory Lennon said...

Yes, I admit to being squeamish about earthworms, but I love seeing them in the garden. Thanks for explaining it all so well. BTW, am I the only one frightened by Leatherface? ;-)