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Earthworms and Soil Productivity - 2000

There are 1,800 species of earthworms grouped into five families and distributed all over the world.  Some grow as long as 3 feet, while others are only a few tenths of inches.  We call them nightcrawlers, field worms, manure worms, red worms and some people just say "yuck."

Numerous investigators have pointed out the beneficial effects of earthworms on soil properties.  One of the first of these observers was Charles Darwin who published Earthworms and Vegetable Mould in 1881.  He remarked on the great quantity of soil the worms can move in a year.  He estimated that the earthworms in some of his pastures could form a new layer of soil 7 inches thick in thirty years, or that they brought up about 20 tons of soil per acre, enough to form a layer 0.2 inch deep each year.

Earthworms, where they flourish, are important agents in mixing the dead surface litter with the main body of the soil.  They drag the leaves and other litter down into their burrows where soil microorganisms also begin digesting the material.  Some earthworms can burrow as deeply as 5 to 6 feet, but most concentrate in the top 6 to 8 inches of soil. 

The worm subsists on organic matter such as leaves and dead roots near the soil surface.  The earthworm ingests soil particles along with the organic matter and grinds up the organic matter in a gizzard just as a chicken does.  This is excreted in what we call worm casts.  The castings differ chemically from the rest of the soil, as they are richer in nitrogen, potassium and other mineral constituents.

Castings are a natural by-product of worms.  When added to normal soils in gardens or lawns, they provide the same kinds of benefits as other bulky organic fertilizers.  Castings today are not commonly used as fertilizer by commercial plant growers because of their cost relative to other fertilizers.  However, castings are used by some organic growers and are sold commercially as a soil amendment or planting medium for ornamental plants grown in pots.

The physical soil churning process also has several important effects:

  • Organic residues are more rapidly degraded with the release of elements such as nitrogen, sulfur and other nutrients.
  • Some of the inorganic soil minerals tend to be solubilized by the digestive process.
  • Extensive burrowing improves soil aeration.
  • Burrowing can improve water penetration into soils
  • The earthworm carries surface nutrients from the soil surface and imports them into the root zone of the plant.

Although earthworms are considered beneficial to soil productivity, few valid studies have been made to determine whether their presence will significantly improve plant growth.  This may seem odd since many of us have learned from childhood that worms are good.  It is something like the chicken and the egg analogy.  The conditions that are conducive to earthworms are also ideal for plants.  Both plants and worms need temperatures between 60 and 100 degrees F for good growth; both need water, but not too much or little; they both require oxygen for respiration; and they do not like soils that are too acid or basic or too salty.  By correcting soil conditions that are unfavorable for one will also improve the outlook for the other.  The earthworm is a natural component of the soil population.  If the soil is properly managed this natural population will thrive.  In this sense, the presence or absence or earthworms can be an indicator of the "fertility" of one's soil.