Worm Benefits / Problems To Garden Soil

bajajim(9)May 27, 2005

Most know of the benefits of having worms in your garden soil. But could there be any problems, e.g. the little guys munching on tender new roots?

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MKitten(z8 Oregon)

This isn't really a problem, but it's a little gross to find them all over the patio after a rain and hidden under anything you leave on the patio. I found a pile of them under my son's slide when I left it on the patio during the winter.

    Bookmark   May 27, 2005 at 3:20PM
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I found 20 or more dark reddish brown skinny worms in my compost bottom. I've never seen anything like these before.Usually the worms I find in my front yard are big fat grey worms not like these at all. Are these reddish brown worms beneficial or not. Before I take a chance transferring them to my plantings I want to find out.

    Bookmark   May 27, 2005 at 10:32PM
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SDJim(So Cal, USA)

I can't think of any problems with worms n a garden area, they don't eat the roots it is the decomposing stuff the worms are chowing on and even to the point the worms open and arriate the soil allowing better irrigation. I saw in one post earlier where someone was saying that some plants even try to attract worms.

    Bookmark   May 27, 2005 at 11:42PM
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squeeze(z8 BC)

carol - the reddish worms you found in the compost are likely the eisena [compost] worm, which need the rich organic foodstock you found them in, and if your garden is rich in organics then they'll like it there, but if it's pretty much 'garden variety dirt' you're more likely to find'em migrating back to the compost! :) those big fat gray guys do better in plain soil and are prolly night crawlers

to me there are no negatives having a good worm population, and many positives for a gardener


    Bookmark   May 28, 2005 at 9:06AM
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The only negative I can think of is that they are not in my worm bin!

    Bookmark   May 29, 2005 at 11:36AM
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Kelly_Slocum(sw WA state)

It's so nice to come over here and find rational people! I've been debating Martin over on SCM on this subject; a truly futile act and one in which I regret ever engaging! I usually enjoy good debate, but this guy is a master at misinterpreting data and regurgiating misinformation! How does one debate such a person?!?

A handful of earthworm species (six total, if I remember correctly, out of more than 4400 named species on the planet) have been reliably linked to removal of the duff layer in the deciduous forests of the "Big Woods" in WI/MN and the deciduous forests of the northeast. These old forests developed before earthworms had repopulated soils following North America's glacial period, thus they adapted perfectly to a soil profile that did not include earthworm activity. The forest understory consists of plants that eveloved to grow in what is essentially a thick, permanent duff layer. Earthworms are now processing the duff layer into castings, thereby damaging plants that rely on that duff, and are changing the soil profile, which harms trees that evolved to grow in soils with a heavy compenent of raw OM. The problem is not worms actively damaging roots, but worms changing soils. While worm damage to roots has been mentioned very briefly in a few of the articles on this issue, few researchers give it much weight, and even those who do suggest it would account for only a tiny fraction of the damage.

This earthworm damage is the result of very few worm species, is exclusive to deciduous forests growing in undisturbed soils, and is the result of worms processing organic surface debris and changing the soil profile. You will hear and read comments that suggest otherwise, but they are the result of people either not reading the research correctly, or not acutally reading it at all.

Earthworms, lacking teeth, cannot take a bite of larger pieces of OM, roots, twigs, leaves, etc., but must wait for it to be fragemented into smaller pieces or liquified by microbial decay. If a plant root were rotting it could become a worm nutrition source, but while it is growing it is neither available to, nor attractive to worms as a food source. Worms crawling through the potting mix in plant start trays can loosen the soil to the point that the plants fall over, but they are not actively eating the root tissue itself and this is not a problem documented in field environments; only in seed flats.

So, if you are a gardener, or if you live in a house anywhere in the world, your soils are, by definition, disturbed. They were disturbed when you built your home, they are disturbed when you garden, and they are disturbed when your pets, children and livestock walk on them. There is reams of documentation to prove that earthworms have tremendous benefits to these disturbed soils, thus, encouraging their activity is strongly advised... by the rational, thinking gardener.

Kelly S

    Bookmark   May 29, 2005 at 1:06PM
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Arguing with him is like mudwrestling with a pig.

You both get dirty and the pig enjoys it.

There comes a time, and I am there, where I just skip right over any post that has his name on it. It's just not worth the time or aggravation to read that stuff.

Good Gardening!

    Bookmark   May 31, 2005 at 8:51PM
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Thank you all so much for responding to my inquiry.I feel like such a jerk that I didn't know that these were compost worms. So when I take out the compost at the bottom
I just try to segregate the red worms and throw them back in at the top. Is this okay? I guess I have a lot more reading about thes worms to get the hang of this.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2005 at 9:28PM
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Boy, talk about opening a can of ...........
Let's get this skunk off the table.

If there is agreement that worms will only help your garden, and if certain types are best for composting, which are best for your garden soil? Those reddish worms mentioned above (eisena maybe?) are probably what I knew as red wigglers. Good for composting, and by the way, fishing. But I don't want anyone in my garden that wants to sneak off at night to their old hangout.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2005 at 9:32PM
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Kelly_Slocum(sw WA state)

Below is a handout I wrote some months ago, explaining the differences in the thousands of earthworm species on this planet. Sadly, it is rather long, which seems to be my hallmark; brevity being a talent I should cultivate, but it should answer some questions about how worms work in the soil.

Kelly S

Earthworm Characterization

There are more than 4400 named species of earthworm on this planet, segregated by soil ecologists into three categories, largely descriptive of their habits and preferred soil zones. These three categories are endogeic, anecic and epigeic.

Endogeic worms are soil movers that build complex lateral burrow systems through all layers of the upper mineral soil. These worms rarely come to the surface, instead spending their lives in these burrow systems where they feed on decayed organic matter and bits of mineral soil. They are the only category of worm which actually eats SOIL and not strictly the organic component. Endogeic worms tend to be medium sized, pale-colored, and dependant on the consistent moisture level and temperature of the deep soil in order to thrive.

Anecic worms like the common nightcrawler Lumbricus terrestris build permanent, vertical burrows that extend from the soil surface down through the upper mineral soil layer, often reaching depths of six feet or more. These worm species coat their burrows with mucous which hardens to stabilize the walls, and will build little mounds of stone and castings outside the burrow opening, called middens, that marks the burrow as theirs. Anecic worms are able to recognize their own burrows, even in an environment where there are hundred of others present, and return to these burrows each day.

Anecic species feed in decaying surface litter, so they come to the soil surface regularly, which leaves them exposed to predators. They developed a spoon-shaped tale that bristles with little retractable hairs, called setae, with which to grip the burrow wall and avoid being easily pulled out. This flared tale shape is rarely found in the other species categories, making it a defining characteristic of anecic worms. Species in this category also tend to be very large and have pale ventral surfaces (bellies) and more darkly pigmented dorsal surfaces (backs). They have a long generation time, do not do well in high density culture and, similar to their endogeic cousins, require the stable environment of their deep burrows in order to thrive. In the absence of this burrow, anecic worms will neither breed nor grow.

The worms we use in vermicomposting systems, like Eisenia fetida, are in the epigeic category. In nature epigeic worms live in the top soil and duff layer on the soil surface as opposed to the deeper soil zones. These small, deeply pigmented worms have a poor burrowing ability, preferring instead an environment of loose organic litter or loose topsoil rich in organic matter. Epigeic species feed in organic surface debris and have adapted beautifully to the rapidly shifting, dynamic environment of the soil surface. It is worms from the epigeic category that are used in vermicomposting systems because we can easily duplicate their preferred environment in a bin or bed, because they are voracious processors of organic debris, because they do well in high density culture, and because their development as surface dwellers enables them to thrive in a wide range of environmental conditions and fluctuations.

Each soil environment on earth supports multiple worm species from each of the three categories. Different soil types, climate zones, and even plant types will impact which worm species dominate a given soil environment. Not all species can survive in all ecosystems, though the epigeic worm Eisenia fetida comes close. This ubiquitous worm is found on nearly every terrestrial land mass, though it is not always the dominant species, demonstrating a level of adaptability that supports its reputation as the premier worm for vermicomposting systems.

When a composting or vermicomposting system is in soil contact naturalized earthworms will be drawn to the system when and if it meets their environmental requirements. Even if the bin is stocked with one worm species, over time it will take on a varied population profile selected from the naturalized species present in the surrounding soils and their attraction to the bin environment. Local epigeic species will all live happily side by side in the bin, processing vast amounts of organic debris. The one best adapted to the particular bin environment and local climate will be the species that ultimately dominates the system, with others present at lower population levels. In many areas of the US the dominant epigeic worm tends to be E. fetida, though it is sometimes Lumbricus rubellus. Perionyx excavatus is sometimes the dominant epigeic species south of the Mason Dixon line, and Amynthas hilgendorfi is often dominant in soils along the east coast, all highlighting the fact that different environments support different earthworm species.

Vermicomposting systems in soil contact, while dominated by resident epigeic worm species, can also play host to a surprising number of anecic worms. Piles of organic debris are rich sources of food to all earthworms that feed in decaying surface litter, and, while they typically do not take up residence in such environments, anecic worms will certainly take advantage of the available feast. Their presence should not be taken as an indication of their preference for this environment as a suitable home, however, but simply as their current choice for a good meal.

Earthworms are an incredibly varied and adaptable group of animals that are so common in our world that they often go unnoticed and unsung. We are far more dependant on them than we realize, and are fortunate that they are so eager and able to rise to the challenges we pose them!

Kelly Slocum

    Bookmark   May 31, 2005 at 10:26PM
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