Worms

Yellow-Bellied Worms

From time to time I write for Organic Gardening magazine. The great thing about them is that they are so diligent about fact-checking. There is no possibility that an error or even a rumor about, say, the benefits of cow manure, or the best way to stake your tomatoes, will slip by them. When I send an article to them, I have to footnote every fact in the story and attach a photocopy of my source—a reputable book, article, or interview transcript. I write for a lot of gardening magazines and newspapers, and this is the only publication I’ve ever written for that does this.

So a couple months ago I sent them a story about earthworms, and included a stack of academic sources to back up my assertions. But apparently I wasn’t careful enough—a statement I made about the yellow bellies of red wigglers caught the attention of the fact-checker. She wrote to me and said, “I didn’t see this in the backup or anywhere else. Is it from personal experience? Can you send backup?”

Hee hee. Yes, I suppose you could say I know this from personal experience. Eisenia fetida, the red wiggler, has a yellowish belly. It just does. I have ten thousand or more of them in the composter outside the kitchen door, so I know a thing or two about their bellies. I ran downstairs with the camera, snapped a picture of an upturned E. fetida, and e-mailed it to OG as proof.

Here it is, then. Submitted for your consideration: the yellow belly of the red wiggler.

Sex and the South Beach Diet

Answers to the two most commonly-asked questions about earthworms:

1. Most worms are hermaphrodites—they are both male and female. Their sexual organs consist of tiny pores on their bellies that are usually not visible to the naked eye. (Train a hand lens on a good-sized nightcrawler and you might get a glimpse of them.) To mate, worms slither alongside each other, head-to-tail, belly-to-belly, and one of them releases sperm, which travels to a female pore on the other worm.

I have often wondered if the—ahem—event—ever happened simultaneously for both worms, but as far as I can tell little research has been done on this subject. I have visions of bleary-eyed graduate students sitting up all night in the lab, waiting and watching. (There’s another dissertation topic for you PhD candidates, free of charge. Now all we need is a title…how about “Was It Good For You, Too? Simultaneous Orgasm Among Hermaphroditic Oligochaete.”)

To continue: after receiving the sperm, the worm excretes a sticky fluid that forms a kind of mucus shell around its clitellum, that thick band of flesh about a third of the way down its body. Eventually the worm will scoot backwards and slide out of this shell, and the ends will seal, leaving behind a cocoon. Imagine a tiny lemon-shaped object that is murky yellow or brown and about as big around as the worm that created it. Fertilization takes place in the cocoon and the baby worms emerge as fully-formed, miniature replicas of their parents.

2. There’s no need to worry about putting your worms on a low-carb diet. The worms in my compost bin cannot digest meat, dairy, or fat of any kind, so Atkins is right out, and they crave fruit, especially tropical summer fruits like mango. They also eat plenty of newspaper, surely a high-carb food, and they love plain rice, pasta, or bread. So if you made a New Year’s resolution to go on the South Beach Diet, think of it this way: you can eat all the lean meat and beneficial fats you want, and give those unwanted fruits and starches to the worms. ( From your hips to the worms’ lips.) More good news: they can’t eat the South Beach Mocha Ricotta Creme dessert, so you’ll have that one all to yourself.

Bookworms

If you spend much time looking up books online, you may have noticed that Amazon.com has a new “Search Inside” feature that allows you to search for particular words inside the text of books, as opposed to just searching by title, author, keyword, etc. What that means is that when you go to Amazon and do a search for the word “earthworm,” the following titles appear in the top 20 results:

Life of Pi, a magical work of fiction by Yann Martel in which the protagonist baits his hook with a shoelace, hoping fish will mistake it for an earthworm.

Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, in which the author describes a woman’s big butt as “speaking of many things, including “fertile fields,” “kitchens with banged-up pots,” “canvas shopping bags bursting at the seams,” and, you guessed it, earthworms.

The Universe in a Nutshell, in which author Stephen Hawking asserts that “our present computers are less complex than the brain of an earthworm, a species not noted for its intellectual powers.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,
which mentions a “telepathic, world-conquering earthworm, Mr. Mind.”

A novel by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, called Survivor: A Novel, which makes reference to eating live worms.

Memoirs of a Geisha, which mentions a little boy that is frightened of worms.

Drop City, by T. Coraghessan Boyle. It’s not clear why this book is included on the list, but I’m a big T. Boyle fan, so as far as I’m concerned, he should be included on any list of books, regardless of the purpose of the list.

In some ways, this new feature of Amazon’s is a little irritating in that it supplies irrelevant and off-the-wall results. If I’m looking for a book on earthworms, Life of Pi and Memoirs of a Geisha are not going to do me any good. I imagine that sooner or later Amazon will have the good sense to remove this feature from their default search box and make it an Advanced Search option instead. Meanwhile, it does make for an interesting cultural study. Just for kicks, do a search for “invertebrate,” “larvae,” and “spineless.” Some novels show up time and again, with several worm-related words woven into the narrative, as if the author had a deep metaphorical connection with worms that manifested itself over and over in the work.

I see the makings of a doctoral dissertation here. I’ll even suggest a title: “As the Worm Turns: The Earthworm as Metaphor in Contemporary Literature.”

Worm Castings in the Garden

There was a break in the weather today, so I dashed outside to plant a row of bareroot berries I’d bought on impulse at the nursery. I planted 2 each of Willamette raspberries, tayberries (a blackberry/raspberry cross), nectarberries (similar to a boysenberry), and dewberries, which are, as far as I can tell, a kind of blackberry. Scott’s the baker in our house—as long as I keep him supplied with berries, we’ll eat tarts and pies and fruit-filled crepes all summer. (By the way, check out Raintree Nursery if you’re in the market for some berries, and for further enlightenment, get Stella Otto’s The Backyard Berry Book)

Now all I needed were some worm castings to get the berries off to a good start. It was time to rotate the stacking trays that make up my worm bin anyway, so I lifted each tray off, put the middle one on the bottom, set the top one in the middle, and made the old bottom tray the new top tray. There were only a few worms left in that tray—mostly it just contained rich moist castings and crushed eggshells (worms can’t eat the eggshells but I add them anyway because it helps reduce the acidity in the bin.) I fluffed up the castings with a garden fork, which made the few remaining worms dive into a lower tray to get away from the light. Those castings went into the bed I’d prepared for the berries, along with a fertilizer from Gardens Alive I like called Fruit Trees Alive. The fertilizer addresses the particular nutritional needs of fruit trees and berry vines: low nitrogen to encourage fruiting over foliage, sulfur and copper to produce sweet-tasting fruit, and boron to help resist diseases. The worm castings are brimming with beneficial bacteria and other microscopic creatures that will help the roots access the nutrients in the fertilizer.

That’s one way to think of worm castings—as a digestive aid for plants. I feed the worms, the worms feed the berries, and sometime next summer, the berries will feed us. I’ve always maintained that worms make the best pets: they’re quiet and loyal and surprisingly clean. What I mean by this is that the worms are reward enough by themselves; the berries are a bonus, a kind of vermicultural windfall.

Worms in the Office

People call me with all kinds of worm problems; I guess that’s just how it’s going to be from now on. Over the holidays my mother phoned from work to tell me that earthworms were crawling out of the flower beds in her office’s courtyard and slithering under the door, where they perished on the nubby grey carpet.

“My co-worker Colette keeps picking them up off the carpet and trying to revive them,” she said. “I hear her over there saying, ‘Oh, it broke in half. That’s OK, it’ll regrow. Oh, it broke into three pieces.’ I try to tell her these worms are dead, but she won’t listen.”

“Let me talk to Colette,” I said.

Colette got on the phone and explained the situation. It had been raining all day and the worms were rising out of the ground, massing on the sidewalk, and squeezing under the door. They only made it a couple feet inside the office before meeting certain death through desiccation.

“Ewwww,” I said. “Dead worms on the carpet.”

“I’m glad something still grosses you out,” Colette said. I guess I have a reputation for being immune to gross-out now that I’ve written a book on worms.

“Well, the real solution is to improve the soil in that courtyard and pile on the mulch, so the ground will drain better and they won’t leave in the first place,” I told her. “Failing that, you just need some way to keep them out of the office. Maybe a piece of weather stripping along the bottom of the door would work.”

“We can try that,” she said, “but we’re about to close for the holidays, and I’m worried about coming back after New Year’s and finding dead worms all over the carpet. How about sealing up the gap with some foil and maybe weighing it down with rocks?”

“Could work,” I told her. “Those worms can really flatten themselves if they’re determined to get under something. Try to make a tight seal.”

I can only hope she won’t return on Monday to a carpet covered in earthworm carnage. It’s not a sight for the faint of heart. But Colette seemed genuinely concerned about the plight of the worms, who are so unhappy with their living environment that they lost their lives in search of something better. Maybe that’s a lesson for the new year: sometimes, the next best thing is not just around the corner. Sometimes it’s right here at home, if you can only slog through the wind and the rain and hold out for spring.

Making Your Guests Feel At Home

Welcome back to the fourth and final installment of the Earthworm Hospitality Guide. I’ll wrap this up with a few common-sense suggestions for keeping earthworms happy and making them feel at home:

First, don’t till. Don’t double-dig. This may seem counter-intuitive, but trust me, that happy underground community of worms, mites, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and other tiny critters does not want to be disturbed by the tines of your spading fork. I have a friend who tills his vegetable garden twice a year; he once told me that there are practically no worms left in his soil. He learned a tough lesson: nothing will send your new friends running for the door faster. If you have heavy clay soil, you may need to dig new beds once, but only once. After that, just pile mulch on top and leave it at that. If you want to learn more about no-till, no-dig gardening methods, check out the Lasagna Gardening books.

Second, when you mow the lawn, set the blade a little higher and leave the grass clippings on the grass to decompose. Don’t serve your worm guests chemical lawn fertilizers, some of which are touted for their ability to remove pesky worms from nice clean golf courses. Ask your nursery to recommend an organic lawn food or try one of the lawn products from Gardens Alive. If you have access to a good source of weed-free compost or manure, rake it lightly into your lawn twice a year as a special treat, once in spring and again in fall. (This is a great use for worm castings if you keep a worm bin, by the way. You can even mix castings with water and douse your lawn with them.)

And finally, avoid chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, all of which work against the kind of healthy, organic ambiance you’re trying to create. Worms thrive in a balanced ecosystem that includes a wide range of insects and soil microbes. In other words, they won’t be happy unless you let them invite all their friends. If you’re not sure how to kick the chemical habit, give the nice folks at Gardens Alive a call and they’ll suggest some healthy alternatives.

Richard, all my best to you and your worms, and thanks for asking. May you have a long and happy life together.

More Worm Hospitality: The Buffet

2004 is blowing into Eureka on the tail end of a windstorm that rattled the windows and threw still more rain against the roof. The lid to the worm bin turned up yesterday, so they are once again snug in their quarters and no worse for wear after whatever New Year’s Eve celebration they might have had last night. Back in Texas, it was considered good luck to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day; although Scott can’t stand them, he takes one every January 1 like medicine. Today I’m going to make black-eyed pea and lentil soup; maybe I’ll feed a spoonful to the worms.

Speaking of food, here is the third installment of my Earthworm Hospitality Guide: The Buffet.

You might not think that earthworms are finicky eaters. After all, they eat dirt. But a hostess has a responsibility to make sure her guests are well-fed and that their dietary preferences are, within reason, taken into account. The layer of mulch we talked about yesterday is an important first step, but there are a couple more suggestions for feeding your worms.

First, check the pH level of your soil. You can do this with a pH meter or a test kit from a nursery, or you can check with your county agricultural agent about having your soil tested at a laboratory. You might already know whether the soil in your neighborhood tends to be acid or alkaline. If everyone on your street grows rhododendrons, azaleas, and camellias, for example, acid soil is probably widespread. Worms like sweet (not acidic) soil, so you may need to add bone meal or lime to reduce the acidity. However, keep in mind that acid-loving plants like the ones I mentioned above need an acid soil to access nutrients and stay healthy. So you might consider sweetening the soil in your vegetable beds or wherever you plan annual flowers and bulbs, but leaving the larger landscape plants alone. If you do add bone meal or lime, scratch it gently into the soil and/or cover it with a layer of mulch. The worms will carry it deep underground where it will offer the maximum benefits to your plants. Follow instructions on the package for quantities.

Another delicious dish you can serve your earthworm guests comes in the form of particular plant roots that are considered a delicacy in the worm world. Clover, vetch, ryegrass, and fava will loosen the soil, suppress weeds, prevent erosion, and attract worms like crazy. These seeds are often sold as cover crop mixes and are intended to be planted in an unused areas of the garden, like a vegetable bed that’s getting a rest for the winter, or a new section of the garden that you want to fill with flowers next year. Typically cover crops are planted in the fall, but you can buy spring and summer mixes. Let the cover crops grow for one season and then cut them down with a string trimmer before they bloom, and either leave the vegetation on the ground or toss it onto the compost pile. The roots will decompose underground, leaving plenty of organic matter for worms to devour. Some gardeners plant permanent cover crops that don’t get cut down or tilled under—for example, clover works great in orchards, where the flowers attract bees, the dense vegetation suppresses weeds and holds in moisture, the roots fix nitrogen, and the worms set up camp for good.

There is an old saying among hostesses that guests, like fish, start to stink after three days, but this is certainly not the case with earthworms. Once you’ve invited them over, you’ll never want them to leave. Tune in tomorrow for Part Four: Making Your Guests Feel at Home.

Earthworm Party Favors

Welcome back, blog friends. I hope you had a good Christmas. Worm-oriented gifts seemed to be the theme this year: My friend Sue made me an anatomically correct clay earthworm that’s sitting on my desk right now. The real worms had a rough holiday: the lid blew off one of the worm bins and I haven’t found it yet. I’m hoping it’s stuck behind a shrub in the backyard somewhere. Meanwhile, the worms haven’t seemed too eager to go exploring. They’re still working on the remnants of our Christmas Day dinner; that’ll keep them happy for a few more days.

As promised, I’ll continue with the Earthworm Hospitality Guide. Here is Part Two: Party Favors.

A good hostess knows how to put together treats that will delight her guests and leave them with happy memories of her home. Some guests enjoy toys or games, cookies or chocolates, trinkets or keepsakes, but for earthworms, there is no more delightful treat than a good thick layer of mulch. Spread three to six inches of aged manure, compost, planting mix, or shredded bark on the ground, and the worms will simply flock to your garden, attracted by the delicious bits of organic matter and the protection offered by that spongy surface layer. You’ll also suppress weeds, help the soil hold moisture, and protect fragile young plant roots during winter freezes and summer droughts. Over time, your industrious guests will take their party favors home, carrying that mulch belowground and doing the hard work of tilling your garden, without you lifting so much as a finger.

Tune in tomorrow for Part Three: The Buffet.

The Big Moment

I interrupt the regularly scheduled programming on this channel for a special announcement: a box containing 20 copies of The Earth Moved arrived by UPS at approximately 6 p.m. tonight. We’ve had one copy for a couple weeks now, but there’s something about seeing a box of them that makes this whole enterprise seem more—I don’t know—legitimate. Scott was so excited that he ripped the box open on the porch and gave a copy to the UPS driver. The guy deserves it; he’s been bringing worm-related research material and marked-up manuscripts to the front door for three years now.

You might think that authors get unlimited free copies of their own book, but it’s not true. My contract says that I get 20 and my agent gets 10, and beyond that, if I want copies, I have to buy them. (I do get a discount.) When my last book came out, my friend Annette went out to the bookstore and bought every copy they had. She still buys them when she sees them. Mostly she gives them as gifts. She’s mentioned in From the Ground Up, so when she gives a copy to someone, she always points out the chapter in which she appears.

One time at a party a friend of hers said, “There you go with that book again. What is it about that book that makes you pretend that you’re the Annette mentioned in there?”

The funny thing is, this guy had actually met me. He had every reason to believe that she was in fact mentioned in the book, but somehow he’d got it into his head that she was making it all up. She had to point out the obvious parallels between the book and real life—she lives in Albuquerque, and so does the Annette in the book. Both Annettes are psychologists. And both of them went to Santa Cruz to visit a friend named Amy in the summer of—oh, lordy, when was that? 1997? 1996? Geez, it seems like yesterday.

So eventually we convinced him. The other thing that happens to her when she gives the book to people is that they assume she got it for free, either because she knows me or because she’s in it. So they react the way you’d react if somebody gave you something they’d gotten for free. But she knows that I don’t get royalties for free books. I only get paid when somebody walks into a bookstore and buys a copy. So she buys hers retail.

Needless to say, I put her in The Earth Moved, also. Why wouldn’t I? She’s my best customer. See page 121.

OK, tomorrow I promise I’ll get back to the Earthworm Hospitality Guide.