Intestines of the soil

Willi Waws

Whenever I slice the shovel into the rich dark soil near the bottom of my compost box,  I cringe at the thought of how many earthworms I may be decapitating. 

I’m briefly comforted by the old tale about cutting a worm in half and both halves going on about their business, but truthfully, I doubt that I’m increasing their population.

However, short of transferring compost with blunt-fingered hands, I don’t know how to avoid my shovel’s slaughter. The fact that only eight hermaphrodite (each of a couple is capable of reproduction) worms can become 1,500 worms in about six months eases my mourning somewhat.

While we may rate worms near the bottom of our scale of animal appreciation, in the opinion of Charles Darwin, the earthworm may have played a more important role on this planet than any other animal, and some have dubbed them “the intestines of the soil”.

When you consider that in an acre of good garden soil there my be upwards of 50,000 earthworms who are capable of passing through their bodies, every year, eighteen tons of vegetable matter, there is definitely a case for the worms’ work ethic.

Long before mere humans got the hang of tilling the soil, the earthworms were diligently cultivating their own “gardens” — plowing, harrowing, and fertilizing, providing for drainage and the addition of soil amendments.

We usually come across the pinkish-red coils of the earthworm in the top 12 to 18 inches of soil, but they’ve been found moiling away at depths of seven or eight feet. Even more interesting is the fact that they accomplish their massive earth-moving activities with the most primitive of equipment: a tiny proboscis, an expandable pharynx, an indeterminate tail, a gizzard, and peculiar calcareous glands peculiar to this lowly creature.

Unlike a snake whose scales help give it traction to move along, the earthworm depends on bristles and two sets of muscles. These bristles or setae point in the opposite direction to which the worm is traveling, and when the early bird goes out to catch his worm it is these that bristle with indignation and together with the strong muscles hold tightly to the sides of its burrow. When we watch an earthworm lengthen its body we are seeing the contraction of its circular muscles and the extension of the longitudinal ones; to shorten itself, it puts the process in reverse.

Lots of organic matter, the stuff of compost piles, is a feast for the earthworms. They ingest and digest it, eating their way through the pile, passing the organic matter through their bodies, grinding it up with the help of minute stones in their gizzards, then leaving behind the dark, fertile, granular “castings” that are ambrosia to healthy plants. 

Helping the earthworms in their work are the compost pile’s bacteria. In this symbiotic relationship the worms do a lot of digesting for the bacteria and the bacteria do the same for the worms while providing food for themselves. Just as we find, everywhere we look, something is always joining “this” to “that”.

If you want to be really kind to your friendly and helpful worms, feed them what they like best — vegetable scraps, fruit rinds and peels, tea bags, coffee grounds, and some say even the filters, though I find my worms take a long, long time to cast out a coffee filter. Like the rest of us who hanker for a healthy heart to keep us working in the garden for years to come, the worms disdain meat, cheese, butter, and other greasy or oily foods.

So keep your worms happy, they’ll keep your soil happy, the happy soil will put smiles on the faces of your sunflowers and cabbages, and presto — a happy gardener.

(And try not to feel too badly about those worms who get in the way of your shovel.)




— Nancy Whelan is a regular Parksville 

Qualicum Beach News columnist.


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