I had the great joy last year of reviewing a book, How Do Worms Work, by the noted horticulturalist Guy Barter. Mind you, despite the title, worms were but one small part of many interesting facts relating to gardens and gardening. Oh, and most who responded to the review bogged down on the author’s assertion there are almost no truly blue flowers in nature. Can’t win ‘em all, I guess.
The subject of worms has been of passing interest since I was a boy, learning early on they are much more than a mouth and an anus connected by a wriggling tube. If you’ll bear with me for a while, I’d like to tell you a little about what exists between those two most fundamental orifices. Some of it’s straight, but a lot is quite funny… unless you’re a worm, I guess.
Actually, I might even start by retelling a hoary old chestnut: A worm pops its head out of the ground and sees another worm close by. “Hello, good looking,” says the first worm. The second replies, “Pull your head in, I’m your other end!”
Earthworms are among the most valuable inhabitants on the planet. They eat up compost and waste matter in the soil while doing a lot of other worthwhile jobs as they go about their business. Burrowing deep in the ground, they aerate it and bring some amount of oxygen-starved subsoil back to the top, thus helping create a more friable growth environment for plants. On top of that, they secrete a slime essential to their life and work. The slime left behind is nitrogen rich and a boon to healthy plant growth. The slime also acts as a form of bonding agent for lighter soil types.
What about their poo, then? Good question, and thank you for asking. Known in polite circles as vermicasting, it is nutrient rich. Worm droppings or castings are a product of what they eat (says he, stating the blooming obvious) because, as they munch their way through the garden or the compost heap, the minerals and other nutrients they consume come out as a natural soil conditioner more easily taken up by plants. It also aids in maintaining moisture for developing roots, and its bacterial levels are beneficial to good plant health.
Unlike the Alpha male of the subterranean world in the joke above (bet you’re sorry I told it), a worm has no sight, so is reliant on touch, taste and smell to know what’s ahead of it. Nor has it arms and legs, so is dependent on its ability to wriggle into its earthy environment, while eating also helps in its progress. Speaking of eating, an average earthworm eats its own weight of food in a day.
Wow, doesn’t that lead on to an interesting thought? Were it the case among humans, I’d consume around 100kg daily! There’s a huge difference, of course. My intake detracts from, and does little to help, the natural world while everything eaten by a worm passes straight through, returning in an enriched form.
Right then, I know you’re interested in sex. Well, you are, aren’t you, and you’re itching to know how worms reproduce? A worm is a hermaphrodite, meaning it has both male and female organs. These are contained in a swelling known as a clitellum, located not far from the worm’s front end. They mate by connecting their clitella and exchanging sperm. Baby worms are not born, as such, but hatch from an egg capsule produced after mating. Almost every ardent gardener will be familiar with these.
Gestation takes between one and five months, dependent on species and soil and environmental factors. The young mature between a few weeks and as long as a year, and live around five years.
Here are a few other facts that might keep you on the edge of your seat:
On an end note, as every worm has both male and female sex organs, is it able to ‘have it off’ with itself? No, even in the worm world it still takes two to tango.
Now please go and be kind to a worm today, and when you’re asking for a bit of help in the garden, consider that it is already there. Worms…