The Scoop: Serious earth movers

Published 8:03 pm Thursday, June 27, 2019


Garden Club of Danville

I found a monster in my garden yesterday, and was happy to see it. While I was planting impatiens in the shade garden, my spade unearthed a shovel-full of earthworms and a surprise. It was a nightcrawler as big as a small snake, the first I’ve seen in my garden. The wriggling creature was at least a foot long and as big around as my little finger. Someone more squeamish might have dropped the spade and run for cover, but I like to see snakes in the garden so that first impression didn’t scare me. I watched in fascination as the huge worm slithered for cover, its pointed “nose” searching for just the right spot to plunge back underground. Less than a minute later it had completely disappeared, all 12 or 13 inches of its moist, grayish-pink body.

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Nightcrawlers are just that, they crawl above ground at night, leaving small piles of dirt where they emerge at the surface. You may never see them, unless you prowl around your garden after dark with a flashlight. Some people might object to the cones of soil littering their lawns, but wise gardeners know this dirt is pure gold and they rake it into the grass. It has been processed through the worm’s gut, from dead and decaying plant material into free fertilizer full of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium, plus other trace elements.

Nightcrawlers are grayer and much larger than red wigglers, the worms you are more likely to see. They have been known to grow up to 14 inches long. “Lumbricus terrestris” are serious earth movers. They burrow as much as six feet deep during the day, eating soil and transporting nutrients from deep underground to areas closer to the surface. Their tunnels aerate the soil, loosening it and allowing water and oxygen to penetrate more easily into the ground.

Did you know that earthworms and nightcrawlers are considered invasive species? It was news to me. They came to North America with the first European settlers, either intentionally or by accident. There are many native worms, but none like the European version. While they are a boon to farmers and gardeners, these worms are not beneficial to native forests. They consume dead and decomposing plant and animal material too rapidly, resulting in fewer nutrients for the small creatures that depend on this forest “duff” for their survival. And thus the food chain is disrupted.

But back to the garden, where the worms’ presence is valuable. I’m awfully glad my spade didn’t slice that nightcrawler in half, although there’s almost no way to avoid killing a few worms when digging in a healthy garden. Yes, in spite of what you may have believed, cutting a worm in half does not give you two worms. Both halves may wiggle energetically for awhile, but they soon die, unless the front end still contains all its primitive vital organs. The tail end will certainly die and most of the time the front section does, too. We’ll just have to take comfort from the fact

that their dead bodies are feeding some other hungry creature, including other earthworms.

Joanna Kirby, former president of both the Garden Club of Danville and the Garden Club of Kentucky, is a big fan of worms. Over the past few years she has given demonstrations of worm composting (vermiculture) to children and other groups around the state. Joanna taught us to fill a perforated plastic tub with strips of damp newspaper and vegetable scraps. By introducing a few red wiggler worms, the contents were soon transformed into rich fertilizer and the worms

multiplied. You can use these castings on houseplants or in the garden.

But, while that’s a fine project for learning about vermiculture, you don’t need a plastic tub to breed worms galore. Gardens that are rich in organic matter attract plenty of worms and other beneficial insects. By adding compost, mulch, straw, or even autumn leaves, you provide food for the worms and they in turn process that matter into nutrients for your plants. It’s no wonder that Aristotle called them “the intestines of the soil.”