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WHAT’S BLOOMIN’

Gardening column: Earthworms are gardeners’ friends

Friday, November 16, 2012 - 12:01 am

In days gone by, I thought earthworms were slimy, ghastly creatures that were only good for catching fish — and my first experience of touching one and putting it on a hook was not my finest moment.

Now because I know their worth as a gardener's workhorse, I do my best to encourage their reproduction — and touching them is like shaking hands with a friend (but with my gloves on).

Hopefully, the following reasons to encourage their growth will help you look at the “lowly earthworm” in a totally different way and cause you to protect them from harm:

•Earthworms are living soil filters and are at work constantly recycling and breaking down plant material and mixing it with existing soil, then churning out well-tilled, ready-to-plant-in garden soil.

•If you want to know whether your soil is healthy and ready for planting when spring arrives, get a shovel full of soil and check it for worms. If you find it well-populated, you are ready to plant. If there aren't many (or none), it is time to feed the soil so they will come.

•Layering untreated grass clippings and chopped-up leaves over your garden beds this fall will attract more worms. This is an excellent way to improve an area in your garden where the soil is depleted of nutrients and has become hard-packed and nearly impossible to work.

Adding these two yard-waste products to a new site of mostly clay will attract earthworms, and they will restructure the soil so that it drains well and yet holds in needed moisture during the season.

•It's important to protect their production because earthworms can be killed by using synthetic salt-based fertilizers. Even if the worms aren't killed, birds that eat the worms can be.

Using organic-based fertilizer (compost) not only improves the soil, but also aids in earthworm production.

•Worms often help clean up dangerous chemicals in the environment. Studies have found that bacteria living in the gut of worms can detoxify many hazardous chemicals, such as those in certain pesticides.

•A large earthworm population cuts down on weed growth. They often eat weed seeds and either destroy them or reduce their ability to germinate. That alone makes doing whatever it takes to encourage their production No. 1 on my list.

•Necessary bacteria and fungus, whose growth is stimulated by earthworms, actually help our plants to grow better and stronger as a result of this relationship. The plant becomes larger and healthier and shades out weeds and, as a result, out-competes the weeds for water and nutrients.

•In a recent study it was found that earthworm-produced compost (vermicompost) made a huge difference in seed germination as well as growth in many plants. By adding a small amount to growing medium, plant growth increased significantly.

•The benefits go on and on. Earthworms help eliminate thatch in lawns and grassy areas by eating and digesting the plant debris.

•By passing the organic material through their bodies, it is shown that they can make acidic soil less acidic and alkaline soil less alkaline.

•The bodies of earthworms are extremely nutrient-rich from minerals to amino acids, proteins and vitamins. When earthworms die, these nutrients are released into the soil.

Ford is an Advanced Master Gardener. Email questions to jaf701@frontier.com. You also can read her What’s Bloomin’ blog at news-sentinel.com. This column is the writer’s opinion.