Saturday, August 31, 2013

How to Increase "Red Wigglers" in your Garden

Worms under edge of manure pile.
Underground activity, although not visible, can be what makes or breaks your garden.  All species of garden worms, especially night crawlers, are quite useful for more than fishing.  These powerhouses create tunnels from the lower depths of your garden to the surface, aerating and leaving behind worm castings (poop), which allows better root penetration for your bulbs, annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees and more nutrients available to your plants. The loosened soil drains better and is easier on your back when planting new garden treasures.

Ever see night crawlers on the soil surface after a heavy rain?

Worms require moisture to stay hydrated.  For them to break down organic matter from the top few inches of your garden and make it accessible to plant roots, that means fresh water loaded with oxygen, not over-saturated and stagnant mud puddles.  During heavy rainfall, when the ground water is closer to the surface, worms rise.  The old fisherman's trick of heavy watering the night before a fishing trip mimics nature, in order to bring them closer to ground level for collection.  The easiest-to-find worms for fishing always seem to be a few inches below a moist (fresh) manure pile—a little messy and aromatic, but a good place to start looking for home-grown bait.

How to increase your worm population.
  • Avoid the over-use of chemicals in your garden. When garden soil becomes sterile from using too much (or too many years) of easy to spread fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides or pesticides—and as more product is needed to reach the same level of effectiveness—worms die and soil loses its aerobatic properties.  Reasonable use of granular or liquid fertilizer would be only once or twice a year at most and generally provided only as a supplement for plants with specific requirements.  Use of a copper-based fungicide for Botrytis in spring or a sulfur spray in winter on fruit trees are accepted as organic in many states, of which are old-fashioned controls that are both inexpensive and effective.  Weed problem?  Consider only applying a "spot spray" of herbicide on tough hard-to-kill plants should the infestation be too large and hand-digging of deep roots is not practical.  Creepy-crawly bugs and beetles—most are beneficial and feed the birds—but some destructive types will need control for a good vegetable crop or beautiful flowers.  We do not advocate the use of pesticides in the garden if there is an organic solution of hand picking, trapping or even a less toxic spray available.  Yes, this can be more labor-intense or take longer to see results, but it is much safer for humans, animals, birds and our watershed reserves.
  • Spread mulch/compost liberally around your large perennial plants, shrubs and trees, but go easy where bulbs are planted—don't end up burying them too deep by using a thick layer of permanent mulch.  (This is different than "winter mulch" that is removed in spring.)  Avoid using "shredded tire mulch" because it doesn't add any nutrients, or landscape fabric topped by decorative rock, which tends to create compacted soil, because there are no organics for worms to eat.  Grass clippings from the lawn that has not had weedkillers applied, fallen leaves (naturally small or shredded large ones), compost, and manure are all heaven to earthworms and the softened soil makes pulling weeds easy.  Worms break down large particles of compost and leave behind castings to further feed your plants.  If you do not have access to ready made compost, aged manure or fall leaves, consider growing a "green manure", cover crop of fast-growing grains, such as oats, buckwheat, winter wheat, etc., that can be dug in while soft and tender to improve your soil. (See our Blog posting;  Healthy Soil with Oats, not Weeds.)
  • Keep your garden watered.  Clay-based areas allowed to go bone-dry over summer will have rock-hard soil because beneficial worms are not present in great enough numbers to keep it soft, friable and nutrient rich.  In areas of heavy rainfall throughout winter and spring however, go easy on mulch to allow your soil to dry between storms—so that bulbs, perennials and other low growing or dormant plants do not rot underground or at the crown (soil surface).

Start Now.
Oat cover crop in veggie garden about 8" tall and
ready to till into the soil.

Even if your garden has been mistreated in the past by a previous occupant or you are just beginning to prefer organic methods of gardening, the land can heal itself over time.  Be patient and do not give up.  Educate your neighbors who might be tempted to spread "death and destruction" along your boundary fence.  Explain the beauty of a simple compost pile for returning unwanted biomass—weeds, trimmings, grass clippings, etc.— back to the garden, encourage natural insect control by attracting birds, and allow worms to do their assigned task in life. 

1 comment:

  1. This is such good, straightforward and logical advice. I can tell what areas of the yard need to be improved by whether it has a nice batch of worms. My flower gardens, of course, have lots of them under the mulch (I have to use pine needles)and compost and do well even here in the mountains.