Lowly Worms Should Be Held in High Regard

Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 15, 2007 | Go to article overview

Lowly Worms Should Be Held in High Regard


Not all my time during the spring is spent in the woods, fields or wetlands searching for wildflowers or fascinating creatures. My garden is an equally delightful place to spend warm spring days, and I try to give it equal time. There is plenty to do in the garden. After I plant the early seeds, I prepare the rows for the plants that have to wait until days and the soil are warmer.

The "little kid" in me keeps me from even trying to stay reasonably clean during garden work. More often I'm on my hands and knees mucking around in the moist soil and getting thoroughly grubby.

Along with covering myself from head to toe with mud, getting down to ground level gives me a much better perspective of what's going on down there. From that low vantage point, the garden is like being in the woods, and I find what sort of flowers are beginning to grow and what creatures live in the soil.

Besides, that wonderful sweet smell of moist, warming soil is one of the most delightful perfumes I know. It's very much a part of spring. Holding a handful of soil and letting that aroma roll around inside my nose is a customary vernal rite.

But what about the creatures in garden soil.

Pill bugs are under every rock, stick, heap of leaves or any other object that provided them winter shelter. I'm glad to see the pill bugs. They are a sign of a healthy garden. As decomposers, pill bugs are a link between the leaf mulch I spread last fall and the hale and hearty growth of my tomatoes this summer.

Pill bugs feed on the decaying organic material. They break down the complex chemical building blocks of leaves and, in turn, excrete simpler substances. Those simple chemicals are essential nutrients for plants. My tomatoes will absorb the nutrients, mix them with water and carbon dioxide, use the energy of the sun to build complex chemicals, and again build roots, stems, leaves and, best of all, fresh, juicy, sun-ripened tomatoes.

So the nutrient cycle goes round and round, year after year.

Of course, one of the decomposers I come across commonly in the garden is worms. Big, fat, juicy worms. Like the pill bugs, I'm pleased to find the worms hiding under rocks and resting in their burrows below soil level.

Charles Darwin (1809-1892), the British scientist best known for laying the foundation of modern evolutionary theory, was fascinated by earthworms. He studied and published "The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms" in 1881. There he extolled the virtues of earthworms noting that, "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 organized creatures."

That's quite a compliment, considering the millions of creatures that inhabit our planet, including humans!

There are nearly 3,000 species of earthworms around the world. The species that captured the attention of Charles Darwin was Lumbricus terrestris. It's better known to us as the nightcrawler.

Because worms are a common part of residential and agricultural soils, they seem to be recognized by most people either as an object of revulsion or one that is prized for one reason or another. I won't go into the revulsion side of worms, because one of my goals for writing this article is to give a better appreciation for these important animals -- learn to love a worm.

As far as being prized, worms are important in the eyes of gardeners. Worms are a sign of a healthy, balanced garden with a natural nutrient system. The reasons for this are several.

Like pill bugs, earthworms eat organic material. They feed on grass, flowers and even tree leaves. They can't climb to get the leaves, so they have to wait until the vegetation falls to the ground. Once on the ground, the worm grabs pieces and drags them into its burrow. …

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