Getting To Know Earthworms

It was the famous naturalist Charles Darwin who once said about earthworms, "It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures." Here are some interesting facts to help you better appreciate these "first gardeners" of nature.


The Benefits of Earthworms

The business of burrowing and ingesting dirt is an important one. Earthworm tunnels create channels for air and water to pass through. They also increase soil fertility by mixing the soil and producing excrement called "castings" that are rich in nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, nutrients essential for the growth and development of healthy plants.

Identifying Worms in Your Garden

Nightcrawlers: average 8 to 10 inches long and prized for fishing bait.

Garden ("Field") Worms: 5 to 7 inches long, gray or brown, and found commonly in damp soils.

Manure Worms: 4 to 5 inches long and found in soils rich in manure.

Red Worms (e.g. Red Wigglers): 3 to 4 inches long, red in color, and used commercially for vermicomposting.

Earthworm Biology 101

Heart: It takes a lot of heart to eat dirt-five, to be exact! Earthworms also possess special glands between each heart that help them process the excess calcium from a diet consisting of dirt.


Lungs: Worms don't have lungs. Instead, they diffuse ("breathe") oxygen through their skin. This form of breathing makes it necessary for worms to keep their skin moist at all times. This isn't as easy as it seems. On the one hand, too much moisture can be fatal.

When soil becomes saturated (e.g. after a heavy rain) the excess water in the soil takes the place of oxygen and causes worms to move toward the surface. (Incidentally, worms also come to the surface after rains to mate due to increased mobility.) On the other hand, if they remain on the surface of the soil too long, they run the risk of drying out and suffocating.

Eyes: Rather than eyes, a worm's skin contains light sensitive cells. These cells don't allow them to see images like humans, but give worms the ability to detect light and changes in light intensity. Their skin is also very sensitive to vibration, touch, and chemicals.


Mouth: Earthworms can pull in large amounts of dirt through their mouths in a short period of time. They can produce their weight in worm castings in about 24 hours.

Setae: These tiny claw-like bristles are invisible to the human eye, but essential to worm locomotion. Earthworms travel underground by way of muscular contractions which shorten and lengthen the body. The setae anchor a portion of their body in place so they can lengthen the rest of their body and and move forward or contract and catch up.

Earthworm Survival Strategies

When soil temperatures get too hot or too cold, earthworms adjust by tunneling deeper into the soil to where conditions are more stable. During extreme heat and drought, they may curl up into a ball, cover their body in a layer of mucus, and enter a state of suspended animation (called estivation) until conditions improve.

Worms remain close to their food supply--the bacteria, fungi, and algae found in soil that is high in organic matter. It can take several years for a good population of earthworms to become established. If their food source becomes depleted (or they become irritated by something in their environment, such as the use of chemicals) they will move on.

Regeneration: It's true, that when injured, some species of earthworms are capable of regenerating small end-segments of their bodies. Worms sliced in half or near the middle cannot regenerate and will die. You can prevent damaging (and reducing) your worm population by refraining from using garden tillers and minimizing disturbances to garden soil.

How to Attract Worms to Your Garden

A large earthworm population is the sign of healthy soil-soil that is rich in nutrients and allows moisture and air to circulate freely through it. It's also a sign of a healthy garden ecosystem. The best way to attract more earthworms to your garden is to add more organic matter to your soil in the form of mulch, compost, or manure. Be careful when using chemical fertilizers to feed your plants. Fertilizers are salts and using them in excess can actually irritate worms' skin and chase them out of your garden.

About The Author: Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services. Contact her on the web at

July 8, 20100 found this helpful

This is so interesting, I love it when I come across an earthworm while gardening. I will have a new respect for this hard working 5 hearted creature. I'm curious how do you know so much about them?

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July 11, 20100 found this helpful

While transplanting my hostas I noticed earthworms galore! I had never seen so many and my guess is that the hostas give the soil (and worms) good circulation because of their many shoots? I ended up planting an herb garden in place of the hostas and when I did, the soil was mostly worm castings! I am now experimenting with the hostas and worms in areas of the yard where my soil is not as rich so we shall see what happens!

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August 7, 20130 found this helpful

I have a "worm bin" or red wigglers a friend started for me. It's great because they eat leftover/old/spoiled plant-based waste that would otherwise end up in the landfill. Their castings create beautiful fertile soil and excess water that drains from the bottom of the bin is referred to as "tea" and is free, nutritious liquid fertilizer. Once you set up your bin, there is no expense, no unpleasant odor, very low maintenance and lots of benefits. Try it!

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