Friends of the earth

 Earthworms not only eat all the nasty, invisible bacteria, microbes and fungi which cause plant problems but go an amazing step further by converting the bad bacteria into good, writes Zahrah Nasir

Earthworms are an integral part of healthy soil, a statement which may come as a shock to some gardeners, not to mention millions of farmers all over the planet who appear firmly set on wiping them out! These wriggly little creatures spend their hard working lives aerating, digging and feeding the soil for us.

I decided that it was high time I wrote something about them after a discussion with a gardening friend who asked me the correct quantity of a most noxious  to apply per square yard of her garden to completely wipe out the earthworm population there. I was stunned!

Meanwhile, she had instructed her gardeners to pick up any earthworms they found, deposit them in a plastic bag and dump the poor little things to suffocate. I was absolutely horrified!

Upon further enquiry I learnt that she had decided to do this on the advice of the nursery owner who had told her that earthworms are responsible for killing plants by eating their roots. He had then proceeded to sell her exorbitantly expensive chemical with which to eradicate them. Apparently, the man in question, is not just minting money from unwary gardeners but actually believes in what he says. In this instance, his horticultural knowledge is criminally lacking!

If you dig up a dying shrub for example, particularly if it is suffering from any form of root rot (which is mainly caused by over watering and bad drainage), then you are quite liable to find earthworms around its roots but –– they are not trying to kill it.

On the contrary they are trying to help it heal itself by eating all of the nasty, invisible bacteria, microbes and fungi which are part of the plant’s problem.

These busy, wriggly creatures not only eat up the bad stuff but go an amazing step further by eating it and, through their incredible digestive system, converting the bad into good. How’s that for nature’s answer to efficiency? Pretty effective I would say and certainly not something to be interfered with, let alone chemically poison off the face of this extremely fragile planet.

Earthworms also automatically head for damp areas of the garden as their skin needs to be kept moist in order for them to survive. This is one of the many reasons people often see them surfacing from their subterranean tunnels during and after a shower of rain. They are particularly seen on lawns at this time as, along with everything else they eat, they do need a certain amount of green stuff to balance out their diet.

No. You have not caught me out here. When I say green stuff, I am still not inferring that they eat your plants as they obtain their green requirements from newly fallen leaves and blades of already cut grass and they do you an enormously big favour in the process.

Plant debris, fresh or already in the throes of decomposition provide a veritable feast for these hungry workers who, slowly but surely, pull it, particle by minuscule particle, down into the safety of their underground homes where they can consume it at leisure without themselves being converted into part of the food chain by hungry birds.

As this ‘discarded’ plant material is digested by the friendly earthworms it is actually sterilized against nasty, pathogenic soil fungi and eventually emerges enriched in good, beneficial bacteria and fungi excreted as a sticky material that glues itself to other organic particles and soil. This is known as ‘worm casts’ and is the best addition to any form of compost that you can find.

In the process of making their worm casts these ever helpful critters tunnel through the soil, lining the tunnels with this fantastic substance which has the added bonus of ‘cementing’ the tunnel walls, thus ensuring that they do not cave in when someone walks above them.

These re-enforced tunnels have yet two more ingenious garden benefits. Firstly, they allow water to reach the ground easily. Secondly, these cleverly re-enforced tunnels provide easy access for exploring plant roots that are always in search of accessible nutrients. Nifty I must say!

These much misunderstood creatures are attacked on many fronts at once, knowingly and unknowingly, by farmers and gardeners alike through the widespread application of insecticides, pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Earthworms also manage to get themselves chopped to pieces by agricultural machinery such as ploughs and harrows and, through the deep digging of ordinary gardens carried out by well intentioned gardeners.

Earthworms really don’t stand much of a chance unless agricultural and horticultural practices undergo a number of major changes.

Actually, vast areas of agricultural land in the Punjab have degraded badly over the years because of bad farming practices, which are recently being readdressed. These lands have become quite sterile and have been found to be without any current earthworm population at all. Steps are now being taken to breed and reintroduce these wonderful creatures to these damaged agricultural lands in an attempt to bring back the over exploited soil‘s fertility, so that food crops can once again be grown.

Obviously, this will only be effective if farmers can also be convinced not to use chemical intervention in their fields in future but, quite frankly, I do not see this happening on a large scale.

However, horticulturists — and this means you — can all do something to nurture these precious earthworms residing in our gardens by avoiding all chemicals; refraining from digging the soil unless absolutely necessary and even then, unless a tree or shrub is being planted, avoid digging deeper than an inch or two if possible.

Allow piles of fallen leaves to accumulate underneath shrubs and trees as these provide food and shelter for earthworms. If you feel such leaf piles may attract disease, which they possibly can, then create a haven for earthworms in an out of the way area which will not have any untoward effect on existing plants.

Many countries of the world now encourage gardeners to breed earthworms in purpose designed worm composting bins in which the precious earthworms multiply themselves at quite a fast rate whilst converting garden and household waste into top quality compost. No smells attached!

I will give you full details of ‘worm composting’ in a future article but, meanwhile, please don’t poison them, suffocate them, use them to bait fish hooks or harm them in any way. They are doing a wonderful job.

Send your gardening queries to Answers will appear in a future issue of The Review

19 April, 2013
Zahrah Nasir
Daily Dawn
15 September, 2005

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