Worm lovers go underground for their gardens

Bill Duncan

By BILL DUNCAN

For the Capital Press

I've got worms. No, not the intestinal kind, the garden kind. My worm bin is a three-layered device I keep in a cool place on my patio. I feed them a carefully selected diet of table food scraps, coffee grounds, decaying leaves and deadheaded flowers, which they devour and leave behind castings of nutrient-rich soil, indeed so rich I have to mix it with other soil before I add it to my garden.

Their castings work miracles in converting my black mud into pliable soil. Charles Darwin said these lowly organized creatures have played an important role in the history of the earth. The most important contribution is that earthworms plow the soil by tunneling through it providing the soil with air and water, essential to soil microorganisms and plant roots.

An earthworm is really just one long intestine. Kitchen waste and organic matter is ingested in one end and comes out the other as concentrated, enriched and well-mixed castings. Scientists estimate that worm castings contain five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorous, 11 times more potash and 40 percent more humus than are found in the top six inches of soil. All of these nutrients are important to the ecosystem.

Earthworms have no eyes, but they do have light-sensitive cells on their outer skin that give them to capacity to detect light. They have five hearts and no lungs. They have a very small brain.

When the soil is very cold, or very hot, it affects the worm, causing it to tunnel deeper for protection against the elements. During the wet season, worms often come to the surface. I have a special bin for the "regular" earthworms and will scoop them up when they are forced to the surface by constant rain. They are kept separate from my red worms, which are my garbage disposal.

I am a crusader when it comes to these garden workers. It is said that a single acre of cultivated ground may contain 6 million earthworms. If you are a worm keeper, as I am, the feeding is important. I have generously donated worm batches to other gardeners, but always with a stern lecture on what to feed and not to feed the earthworms. One gardener I supplied with a batch fed them the leavings of jalapeño peppers from her salsa makings. Strangely, the worms shriveled up and died.

This is feast time for kept worms as there is an ample supply of their favorite food -- melon rinds. They make short work of this delicacy, leaving behind a thin remainder before they wiggle off into the dark innards of the earth using their complex system of muscles.

Admittedly, I am fascinated with these creatures of the nether world, but not nearly as is Amy Stewart of Eureka, Calif. Amy has written an intriguing book, "The Earth Moved," on the remarkable achievements of earthworms. "The earthworm may be small, spineless and blind," she wrote, "but its impact on the ecosystem is profound ... as it plows the soil, fights plant disease, cleans up pollution and turns ordinary dirt into fertile soil."

The fascinating book gives the lowly, humble earthworm its due for extraordinary contribution to the universe. In the book, she interviews Dorothy McKey-Fender, an oligochaetologist, a scientist dedicated to the study of earthworms, who with her husband Kenneth discovered and identified the giant Oregon earthworm, now believed extinct.

Her son, William, has now taken up the search for this rare earthworm. When Amy asked Dorothy why the continued search, her reply was that the Pacific Northwest has a unique fauna of worms and ended the conversation by saying. "Anytime a thread is broken, the web changes forever."

After reading Amy's definitive story of the earthworm, I no longer consider myself odd for caring about these underground creatures who are hard at work saving the precious soil that sustains life.

Bill Duncan can be reached by writing to P.O. Box 812, Roseburg, Ore. 97470.

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