Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Earth Worms - the home garden's best friend and simple living heros

Earthworms – great ally in the home garden – a simple living solution to healthy soil in the backyard homestead.  Let me tell you it is not the early bird that gets the worm, it is the wise one.  There can be no one single better helper in the garden than the earthworm.  They are the simple solution for simple living gardens.

Worms, not perhaps the most romantic of images. But not that many years ago, when I turned up my first worm while planting in the backyard garden, I thought – “how lovely”. Yes - lovely, oh no, not because I have some attraction to slimy crawling things. Worms were a sight for sore eyes because they meant I had healthy soil and it was going to get healthier. You see, when I bought Shadows End, it had become a very sad shadow of the bright little cottage it was when it was built for a new bride in 1924. The back garden had been turned into a white gravel “beach” for an above ground swimming pool and the only organic matter it had was cigarette butts. In truth, somehow, against all reason, a bleeding heart still clung to one corner of the house, and an old rose hunkered, sad and thorny against a corner of rotting fence. I always felt like those represented the spirit of the man and wife who had carved out a long life in this cottage. I imagined the two lone survivors of a lost garden clinging to the place they created and waiting for renewal. Waiting for the day their memories could dwell once again in a place of bright blooms and scented summer nights.

So, it was in that meaning, that I found my first worms to be lovely. For they heralded a new beginning; the conversion of that rocky, barren “landscape” into something living and fruitful again. Worms meant that the bleached horror of the gravel beach was slowly receding into the deep recesses and that real soil was forming. Well, some of the soil was being formed, but in truth, much of it was bought and paid for. Bags of cow manure and peat toted home in the trunk of my Saturn and worked into the new flower beds my friend Ray and I were creating. Some was bought and some was crafted from the leaves of the oaks which once shaded the land around my cottage. No one’s lawn clippings were safe, we would drive around and night and sweep up bags of leaves and grass and bring them back to toss into the yard. I remember how careful we were to raid only the better neighborhoods because they would be neatly bagged and free of cigarette butts or cans. Sorry for that bit of sociological snobbism – but there you have it. The great gravel desert seemed unconquerable, but little by little, soil came back to Shadows End. As I look back, it would have been easier and probably cheaper to have the backyard excavated and new soil brought in wholesale – but we did it the old fashioned way – bit by bit.

Well, the sight of that glaring white horror, slowly turning to beige and then richer and richer shades of brown was wonderful. But the day I found worms, I knew the battle was won. Why so confident you may ask. Well, it is because worms are not only the sign of rich living soil; they are, in great measure, the cause of it.

Earthworms bring a long list of benefits to the garden party and they require very little in return. Here are just some of the ways that worms help the gardener

1) Worms move through the soil creating tunnels which loosen the soil.

2) Worm tunnels also allow air and water to reach further down into the soil and reach plant roots.

3) Their tunnels also spread good soil bacteria which help to break down food and provide nitrogen for plants to thrive.

4) Worms help to break down the organic waste in a garden to more usable elements.

5) Worms excrete “castings” small pin head sized pellets of manure that add organic matter and help to retain water. The worms found in a healthy acre of soil can easily produce 50 tons of organic fertilizer a year.

6) A strong worm population can keep a garden plot well tilled, loose and friable without you ever having to spade or till again.

Really, you could not ask for a more tireless and resourceful ally in the garden. How do you get these great workers to come tend your soil? Do not go out and buy fishing worms, they are rarely the right kind and besides the earthworm is everywhere and they love to be fruitful and multiply. Worms lay 200 eggs at a time in tiny little cocoons. Have you ever seen that fat ring on a worm’s body? -that is a clitellum. Over time the ring moves up the worm’s body and eventually passes over their head and forms the egg cocoon. No, there are plenty of worms in the soil in all but the most extreme environments.

They are there; trust me, they just need you to provide food and a little habitat help. Feed them and they will come. Add a layer of good compost, not too thick at first- they will need oxygen. Moisture helps they need moisture to move and to breathe. By the way, if you see worms wiggling about on a rainy night – it is not because they are trying to keep from drowning. No, the sly little things can move much faster and further with all the water about and they are out for a night on the town looking for mates. Ok, so we have added some organic mulch to provide shade and some water to help breathing and the libido. Now the last step is simple – let them take out the garbage. Work in some organic waste – potato peels, fruit cores, etc and you have laid out a wedding feast for any local worms. You don’t ever want to add fat or meats, and of course don’t toss out buckets of rotting veggies – just a little here and there, covered in soil will do the trick. In no time at all, the worms will be burrowing through your dirt and turning it into soil. Happily breeding hundreds of coworkers to build upon your modest beginning.

A few earthworm pioneers will soon rise to thousands and up to several million in an acre of land. Whether you are trying to build a full homestead, a backyard garden or just a bed of roses, worms will make it worth your while to keep them around. They are a great ally in the simple life – I mean they work for garbage and till and fertilize your soil for free – what could be better. Once you get them going, all you need to do is keep organic matter going by added leaves and lawn clippings and keep the soil moist. Of course, you will want to avoid the use of pesticides and even cheap inorganic fertilizer can harm them. Trust me the benefit you get from a bed of worms far, far outweighs any “miracle” you will get with caustic chemicals and blue dye. Leave the 6-6-6 for the golf course greens where nothing real happens anyway.

So, although earthworms may not rank up there with bunnies and robins in the cute department, when it comes to the garden, worms are really lovely.

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