Happy Gardening! You Have Earthworms!
When night temperatures are warm, even during the winter when warm spells occur, I often get questions about tiny mounds of granular soil covering small or large areas of the lawn. If you have seen this, then congratulations, you have a thriving population of earthworms.
Often earthworms leave small mounds or clumps of granular soil, which are called castings, scattered about in the lawn or garden. The castings may be seen as a nuisance when they accumulate. This situation is often noticed in fall, winter, or spring when warm season grasses are dormant or grow slowly. Without constant growth of grass and mowing to knock them down, the castings brought to the surface are more noticeable. Sometimes earthworms may enter drainage holes of containers sitting on the soil or sunken into the ground. The castings may clog the drainage as they accumulate in the container.
As earthworms tunnel through the soil, they ingest the soil and digest any organic matter in it. Organic matter is dragged into their burrows and is broken down. Although they are most numerous in the top 6 inches, they also work in the subsoil, bringing mineral rich soil from below to the surface. This adds to the supply of nutrients available to the plants. In 100 square feet of garden soil, earthworms may bring from 4‑8 pounds of dirt to the soil surface each year.
Besides incorporating organic matter into your soil, earthworms are good manufacturers of fertilizer. Castings have a nutrient level and organic matter level higher than that of the surrounding soil. Each day they produce nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and many micronutrients in a form that all plants can use. For example, a 200 square feet garden with a low worm population of only 5 worms per cubic foot will be provided with over 35 pounds (about 1/3 pound per worm) of top grade fertilizer each year.
Not only do they produce this fertilizer, they spread it in the top 12 inches of soil. They may also incorporate it as far down as 6 ft. A soil that is well managed and rich in humus may easily support 25 worms per cubic foot, which translates into at least 175 pounds of fertilizer per year for the same 200 square feet of garden.
This means that your garden or lawn can be supplied with fertilizer of superior quality and soil building properties than a dry or granular fast acting fertilizer of 10‑20 lb. Worms make other contributions, such as adding calcium carbonate, a compound that helps moderate soil pH. Over time, earthworms may help change acid or alkaline soils toward a more neutral pH.
Earthworm tunnels help to aerate and loosen the soil. This allows more oxygen in, which not only helps the plant directly, but also improves conditions for certain beneficial soil bacteria. Finally, the tunneling of earthworms provides access to deeper soil levels for the numerous smaller organisms that contribute to the health of the soil.
Earthworm activity in your soil is beneficial and should be encouraged. They help incorporate organic matter, improve the soil structure, improve water movement through the soil, improve plant root growth and minimize thatch build up in lawns. Since earthworms are beneficial, control measures are not required. Once warm season grasses begin to grow actively they will cover the soil and castings earthworms have brought to the surface. Earthworm populations will be higher in very moist areas. Core aerating and topdressing lawns with thin layers of sand over time may improve surface drainage and help reduce earthworm numbers to a tolerable level. In heavy, wet soils, installation of drainage systems may remove excess moisture but it may not be enough to reduce earthworm populations. Except in extreme cases it is best to enjoy the fact that nature is at work in your yard and you have a work force out there improving the soil day and night.
While earthworms are out there working to improving the soil in gardens, you might be inside this winter thinking of growing vegetables next spring. Winter is always a great time to start planning for the next gardening season. If you have an interest in growing vegetables of your own but do not have space to do it, consider the Pitt County Community Garden. Joni Torres, Pitt County Community Garden Technician (funded by the Vidant Medical Center Foundation), has a few plots available for the 2013 gardening season. Contact her at 902-1756 if you are interested. If you have gardening questions call the N.C. Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Volunteers at 902-1705 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. More gardening information is always available at http://pitt.ces.ncsu.edu.