My cousin Sue was visiting – it was a bright, sunny, spring day. The sky was blue and all was well with the world. We were in the back garden, dad was digging one of the borders getting ready to plant out what would become our supply of summer food.
I remember as a child that you couldn’t dig the soil without a profusion of earth-worms being raised to the surface. The blackbird, watching patiently from the nearby hedge and the Robin, hopping from vantage point to vantage point were also in attendance; both anticipating a sumptuous lunch once the two-legs had cleared off.
Sue sat cross-legged on the edge of the lawn, systematically poking her finger into the soil, picking up an Earthworm, dropping it into her newly created hole and covering it over.
It was at this point that my aunt appeared. Suffering from OCD, her consternation at seeing her daughter not only sat on grass, not only putting her fingers in dirt but picking up worms, was evident. “What are you doing”, the panic in her voice seemed to be echoed by the Blackbird and the Robin who were slowly watching their lunch disappear. Sue, who was yet to learn how to pronounce a ‘W’, turned and with glowing pride on her small face said “Putting the burms to bed”. She was promptly taken indoors to be scrubbed clean.
I clearly remember that my thought process at the time was that it could have been a lot worse; at least she wasn’t eating them.
Small children seem to have an intrinsic understanding of, and relationship with, nature. That is until adults ‘scrub it out of them’. Sue went on as an adult to have her mothers same obsession with cleanliness; such a shame. My mother had my aunts obsession (the whole family on that side was a bit loopy) and was never impressed by my Grandma’s (other side) reminders of the idiom ‘you have to eat a peck of dirt before you die’ (Don’t make a fuss about the bit of soil on your potatoes or the caterpillar on your lettuce – they’re harmless).
Recent studies have suggested that our modern obsessions with cleanliness and our determination not to eat a peck of dirt (or come into contact with any dirt at all) could, in fact, be having a detrimental effect on our general health and immunity to disease. Exposure to bacteria and viral organisms is critical to the development of a mature immune system. By constantly cleaning and sterilising our environment, we don’t give our defence mechanisms a chance to grow.
It was thanks to my Grandma that I didn’t go on to have this obsession with cleanliness. It was also thanks to her and my Granddad that I learned to have a respect for the ‘burms’ and how essential they are.
Earthworms may not have the ‘cuteness’ or appeal of other creatures but they are essential to our natural soil ecosystems and its functions that are of service to us ‘two legs’, probably more so than any other creature.
“It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.” Charles Darwin
Earthworms significantly influence and benefit the soil ecosystem by modifying its physical, chemical and biological properties; as a result they have become known as the ecosystem engineers of the soil (did you like his little hard-hat in the picture?). These actions result in changes to the habitat and activities of the other organisms present.
- Earthworms eat dead & dying organic matter; leaves, grass, rotting plants, animal manure, semi-rotted compost, bits of soil & fungal spores – they are the garden cleaners.
- They eat their own weight in organic matter and soil each day. A pound of earthworms eat a pound of organic matter and soil every day.
- This organic matter is ground in their gizzards, mixed with digestive juices and enzymes in the stomach then returned to the soil.
- This creates humus; a dark brown-black type of soil which holds important nutrients like phosphorous, nitrogen & potassium in place (essential for plant growth), at a rate that is 5-11% higher than the worm has ingested.
- They also take these nutrients down through the soil so they are closer to the plants roots.
- They do this by burrowing, creating small pockets known as pores that creates space for air to reach plant roots.
- These burrows also assists rain and irrigation water to penetrate the soil taking soluble nutrients down to plant roots and improving drainage.
- Earthworm burrows also break up compacted soil that is inhospitable to plant roots and can cause water run-off.
- They also improve the soil structure as their coil-like castings are stable when both wet and dry.
- Earthworm castings also help bind calcium, iron, and sulfur to soil particles—minerals that also help plants thrive.
- Earthworms reproduce quickly and increase their population exponentially; one breeding earthworm can produce 96 new baby worms in six months.
- When an Earthworm dies its protein-rich body returns nitrogen fertilizer to the soil.
- Earthworms, like all creatures, are part of the food chain and provide food for other species such as birds.
These little critters really are amazing; by increasing soil fertility, recycling waste products and providing food resources for predators, earthworms help to restore functioning ecosystems both above and below the ground. Once they are established the productivity of soil increases by 25–30%.
How to Encourage Earthworms in Your Garden
Adding chopped leaves, grass clippings, semi-rotted compost, and animal manure to your garden will encourage earthworms to take up residence in your garden, be active, and thrive.
If you have very few or no Earthworms the best way to transfer them is to persaude a friend whose garden has lots of them to let you have a large chunk of soil with worms and worm burrows in it, place this whole in your garden so that the Earthworms can start new colonies.
Next time that you see an Earthworm struggling on a path, be kind to it. Pick it up, poke your finger in the soil and pop him in. If anyone asks what you are doing, smile, with pride and say
“putting the burms to bed”.
Learning Tree Permaculture is a member of the Permaculture Association
The Permaculture Association works to radically and positively change the way we live in the UK and actively supports a worldwide movement.