Earthworms are found the world over, and there are around 16 species in the UK. Worms have no arms, legs or eyes and they may not have fur, but are just as cute and will do you no harm. Organic gardening not only brings them to us, but also provides essential foods for birds and chicks, and moles love them (they keep mountains of them in their dens for later feasting). Like all creatures, they go where they can find food, moisture, oxygen and a nice temperature. One acre of land can contain up to a million earthworms.So how do worms work? They tunnel into the soil and work by bringing sub-soil closer to the surface, by mixing it with topsoil using slime, which contains nitrogen, that is good for plants. The sticky slime bunches it altogether. Baby worms hatch from cocoons and are so tiny (smaller than a grain of rice) you would never see them with the naked eye. They don’t have eyes, but can sense light and will move away from it, as their skin could dry out. Worms are both sexes, with male and female organs. After mating, the baby worms are born.
This beginner’s guide to soil and worms, is to encourage you to put away your spade, and learn the benefits of no-dig gardening. And also to garden organically. Good gardening starts with good soil. And earthworms are a huge part of the picture. So let’s protect them.
Unless you make your own compost, choose soil that is free from peat. This is a rich good potting compost, but alas it’s now from endangered bogs, which are home to wildlife. Removal of peat bogs is also one of the main reasons we are having more floods, in recent years. Many people who host grouse-shooting on estates, also burn peat bogs, to make the land flat, for the benefit of the people who pay to shoot these beautiful innocent creatures.
Have you heard of wormeries? This is when people buy worms to put in a worm bin, and then they are good for the soil. However, it’s more complicated than that. Worms are often sent live through the post (what happens if there’s a postal strike?) And the little red worms are often accidentally tipped into the main soil (where they can’t survive) on transferring the compost. Keep these to the experts, and just use normal compost. Earthworms will naturally find their way in. Vermicompost is not simple, you need to correct for moisture levels, temperatures, air circulation and food. If accidentally killing worms upsets you, leave it to the experts.
Can worms survive, if you accidentally cut them in half? No, this is a myth. A worm does have a brain on one end. So if you accidentally nip the tail, it could possibly survive. But if you cut it near the centre or above, it won’t.
Fun Facts About Worms
- The largest earthworm ever found (in South Africa) was 22 feet! That’s as tall as a giraffe!
- Worms eat all kinds of things including plants (including dead ones), animal poo and dead animals. The waste becomes castings, which is what you find on top of your lawn. Other unfortunate worms are used for angling. They breathe through their skin, as worms have no lungs. A worm can live for up to 8 years.
- A worm can have up to 5 hearts!
- If you see a dehydrated worm on the ground, move it somewhere rainy or boggy, as it will die if its skin dries up.
- A worm’s body has many ridged segments, each one is covered in hair to grip the soil to move. They are great for the garden as they aerate the soil and improve drainage, bringing nutrients to the surface. They also provide food for hedgehogs, slow worms, amphibians and foxes.
Books on Soil & Worms
- Soil Science for Gardeners is a book on how to build healthy soil but understanding the rhizophere, the thin layer of liquid and soil that surrounds plant roots. Robert Pavlis (a gardener of 40 years) explores soil myths and provides a personal soil fertility improvement program including looking at plant nutrients.
- Under Your Feet is a fun guide to soil, worms and microbes. Children can learn what lives underneath the soil, and marvel at the mind-boggling size of humongous fungus – the biggest organism in the world. Learn how one handful of ordinary soil contains more organisms than there are people on Earth. Includes tips on being a soil scientist, and looking after soil. Children won’t want to use forks or spades anymore, and be more interested in no-dig gardening methods, to protect our soil creatures, after reading this book.
- Grow your Soil! is a beautifully illustrated guide to help create rich, dark crumbly soil that’s teeming with life, using little inputs, no tilling (digging) and no fertilisers. Permaculture gardener Diane Miessler presents the soil of science health including cover crops, constant mulching, and a simple but supercharged recipe for compost tea. She transformed her own landscape from a roadside dump for broken asphalt, to a garden that stops traffic.
- Gardening with Biochar is the ultimate guide to this new form of gardening for organic growers, which can enrich the soil and improve plant growth. Garden writer Jeff Cox explains what biochar is and shows how you can make it from wood or other kinds of plant material. It can sequester carbon in the soil, making it good for the health of the planet, as well as plants.
- How Do Worms Work? is not really about worms, but it’s a good all-round book of wildlife questions from the Royal horticultural Society. Richly illustrated, you’ll learn if it’s true that sunflowers follow the sun, when a plant is a weed, how to attract butterflies, how long plants can survive without water, and of course, how worms work!
- The Ever Curious Gardener is a book to unleash your inner geek, and learn the natural science of plants and soil. Why will caressing your cucumbers help them bear more fruit? And why you should grow oranges from seed, even if the fruit is inedible? Why do trees need sleep (and how can you help?) Join acclaimed gardener and scientist Lee Reich on a tour of the delights of your garden, from outwitting weeds by understanding their nature, to making the best use of compost and pruning dead plants. And learn why learning Latin, can make you a better gardener.
- Charles Dowding’s No-Dig Gardening Diary will show you how to grow your own food, without a space. His website is also packed with free advice. Use safe humane ways to deter slugs & snails.
- Grow Your Soil: Harness the Power of the Soil Food Web is a beautifully illustrated book to help you learn how to create good soil, and help earthworms. This in turn can help you to grow beautiful plants. If gardening near pets, see make your garden safe for pets to know toxic plants to avoid. Also avoid cocoa mulch, pine mulch and fresh compost near pets, and use safe humane slug deterrents.
This book presents the science of soil health in a fun engaging way, for the backyard grower. Learn how microbes are important to grow thriving plants, and why rich, dark, crumbly soil is teeming with life. You need very few inputs and a no-till, no-fertiliser approach can be yours. Diane shares tips for cover crops, mulch and a simple compost tea recipe, which helped her transform her own landscape from a roadside dump to a garden that stops traffic. Read up on how to depave your local area.
About the Author
Diane Miessler is a certified permaculture gardener. She’s also a soil science enthusiast and experienced gardener. She writes for a local California newspaper, when not playing music in a local bluegrass jazz band!
Do you ever give a thought to what’s going on, under your feet? A whole world exists that we never see: from burrowing animals to rats (!) in sewers, to caves and even burial chambers, pointing back to a tragic history. So what’s beneath us? Also see a beginner’s guide to London Underground and dinosaur fossils on the Jurassic Coast.
- Caves are natural voids in the ground, large enough for humans to enter. Caused by eroded rock, some are in the Yorkshire Dales (limestone) and Cumbria’s Ease Gill (over 40 miles long with Gaping Gill chamber big enough to fit St Paul’s Cathedral). In Hastings, St Clements Caves are a popular tourist attraction, telling the story of smuggling on the south coast, 200 years ago.
- Burial chambers (catacombs) are passageways used by religious people, one in Paris has 6 million people buried in a tunnel network. It’s believed there are over 1000 bodies beneath Aldgate East tube station: victims of the Bubonic Plague which killed 100,000 people (20% of the city population). Other burial chambers have been found on Dartmoor and Southend (between a pub & an ALDI supermarket, suspected from the 6th century).
- Animal homes. From rabbits to water voles, many animals live underground. Badgers have suffered culls due to bad science – see how to stop badgers in badgers & cattle. Also read why foxes are a good part of nature (rats and rabbits are the fox’s natural diet, so could take care of things, if we had not built over his natural home in recent decades).
- Food. With less natural space available, one solution is to grow food underground. London’s Growing Underground grows sustainable food 33 feet underground at Clapham, using LED technology hydro-phonic gardening systems, unaffected by weather. From crop to fork in 4 hours.
- Ants usually disappear, when the weather cools. They usually follow a (sweet) food source (or protein if they have eggs), so don’t leave cans of coke, sandwiches or cake crumbs around. Anthills may not look unsightly but aerate the soil and ants provide food for birds, by protecting caterpillars due to the sticky honeydew they secrete. Spraying anything (even natural solutions like white vinegar with water) will kill them, if wet. Just grow mint (in a pot so it doesn’t get out of control) nearby: ants dislike the scent, so will move on. Keep herb pots away from pets, mint can upset cats in particular if ingested.
All You Want to Know about Sewers!
Sewers are pretty recent, invented after an outbreak of cholera in London (which was so smelly Parliament would regularly have to close down). Before, all sewage would be dropped into the River Thames. But sewers were designed for a smaller population that washed away human waste. Recently ‘Fatty McBerg’ was found: a huge concealed lump of goo made up of waste people were flushing away (cooking oil, tampons, wet wipes, cotton buds, hair, medicines, dental floss, nappies, condoms etc). It was pressure-blasted and recycled, but costs huge amounts of money to do so – same as ones recently found in Devon (it took 8 weeks to remove) and Liverpool (this fatberg weighed the same as 13 African elephants).
- Use quality recycled toilet paper (avoid extra-thick ones as these can block drains) and don’t throw anything else down the loo: choose zero waste alternatives if you can (plastic-free buds, cloth nappies, reusable feminine care etc).
- Use a bath guard or shower guard to stop hair clogs.
- Dri-Pak has a good article on how to keep drains clean without toxic drain products. For maintenance, use a guard (above), scrape food off plates before washing up, bin cooking oil (don’t pour it down the drain) and keep exterior drains free from leaves. Many stores (and Natural Collection) sell their cheap nontoxic soda crystals (pour a mug down the drain followed by hot water each week ((biodegradable, so also works for septic tanks). Securely wrap and dispose of toxic drain cleaners.
- For a smelly or blocked drain, do the same (mug of soda crystals with boiling water, leave 5 minutes, repeat). Soda crystals are alkaline, so can dissolve oil and fat – you can also use bicarb of soda, but it won’t be as powerful.
- For severely blocked drains, try a plunger and rods. Or try the soda crystal method above, but add citric acid (baking soda & white vinegar does the same – it will fizz up, fun to watch). Do not use soda crystals or liquid soda crystals on aluminium or lacquered surfaces. Never pour bleach down the sink, and never mix bleach with anything (not even natural products).
- Hedgehogs and other creatures can fall down open drains, so ensure yours have properly-fitting covers. Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital say often the only way to rescue hogs is to use two pairs of pliers to gently wrench them out, then take to your local wildlife rescue, to check for burns and injuries, before safe release.
How to Prevent Rats!
The saying that ‘you’re never more than 6ft away from a rat in London’ is not true – more like 164ft according to experts.
- Keep places clean with all food and rubbish sealed (Weir Bags offer quality recycling sacks which are more rodent-proof than black – emptied into trucks and returned).
- Keep gardens free of leftover food (it’s best for birds to let them feed naturally). Gradually reduce food in summer so they don’t starve, then only feed if necessary.
- Don’t put animal or cooked foods in compost bins (some say to wash eggshells beforehand, to remove the smell). And as rodents are shy, site compost bins near footfall.
- Using plant-based garden fertiliser over bonemeal or fishmeal is also a good idea.
- And use a MouseMesh grille to prevent rodents entering gaps (they do a stronger version to deter rats, keep it clean from leaves, and don’t cover gas vents). Repair any damage that could provide entryways (roofs, broken pipes etc). Keep cat flaps closed and toilet seats down!
Books on The World Beneath Our Feet
- Underland: A Deep Time Journey is by Robert MacFarlane, who takes us on a journey to the worlds beneath our feet: from the ice-blue depths of Greenland’s glaciers to underground networks where trees communicate. From Bronze Age burial chambers to the rock art of remote Arctic sea-caves, this is a voyage into the planet’s past.
- The Street Beneath My Feet takes children on a fascinating journey underground. One side shows the ground beneath the city, the other beneath the countryside. So whether your child lives in an urban or rural area, he or she will learn of underground tunnels & pipes (or creatures’ burrows and layers of rock). Covering geology, archaeology & natural history, the book folds out like a giant map to explore on the floor. Also read The Skies Above My Eyes!