Aristotle called earthworms "the intestines of the earth," and Charles Darwin said (paraphrasing) that every thing alive has at least once passed through the bodies of earthworms. Just think about that for a moment: to think that the inner space between life and death is the earthworm's body, the stomach of the world.
George Sheffield called the earthworm "the most important animal in the world." Gilbert White called them the "great promoters of vegetation," and along with vegetation comes all the many creatures that live in, among and through the life of plants. All this, thanks in part to the mighty earthworm.
Of course, earthworms get the bad rap with the squirm factor. It doesn't matter. The kids will want to know the details of their creepy-slimy story, no doubt about it.
Still, many cultures the world over venerate the earthworm and appreciate its many benefits. And, although the current earthworm we find in our gardens is not a native worm to the Americas, it has become an essential part of agriculture, not only in Canada and the United States, but in Mexico and other countries south. All composters, vermicomposters, farmers, gardeners and horticulturists agree: a wormless garden or growing field is a sign of ill health, and although the earthworm could be considered an aggressively invasive annelid, their benefits are such that even the scientists are in consensus: "The earthworm is our friend."
Note: A great book for kids with an ecological message about earthworms is Gary Larson's There's a Hair in My Dirt, a Worm's Story. "Dirt for breakfast, dirt for lunch and dirt for dinner! Dirt, dirt, dirt! And look--now there's even a hair in my dirt!"
It's incredible to think that the tiny grain of sand the earthworm in your garden uses to help its gizzard 'chew' the dead leaf that fell from your tree was once part of a small pebble that was once a larger stone that was once the inside of an immense batholithic glob that was at the time the unexposed core of an aspiring mountain range. And even back then, churning out the future biomass, nature's temporal slide was through the bodies of worms.
And here we are, humans, a part of all that. We depend upon them for the proper soil we need to grow our food. As gardeners and farmers we love the earthworm because over millions of years, it has become a life force: the organic soil maker.
According to the authors of The Worm Book, earthworms are highly proficient multitaskers, "...mixing and aerating the soil, improving soil structure and water infiltration, helping moderate soil pH, bringing up minerals in the soil, making nutrients more available to plants, breaking down plant and animal material into compost, and increasing beneficial microbial action in the soil." (The Worm Book, 1998)
We should drop to our knees! Scratch off the top layer of soil and take a close look at these amazing, life sustaining (i. e. soil producing) creatures.
There is an easy way to have living rich top soil for your favorite potted plants each growing season. Many gardeners are vermicomposters. That is, they keep earthworms in an enclosed container, such as a plastic box or other waterproof container. They place their worms in a soft bed of shredded debris (commercially bagged compost is suitable), then feed their earthworms regularly -- daily -- with organic, vegetarian kitchen ends and leftovers (no meat byproducts). Over the winter, the worms process the kitchen waste. By spring, the box is full of happy worms and clean, rich soil.
If you try this at home, be sure to feed your worms regularly. They need to eat. And keep them moist, but not in standing water. The container should be big enough to accomodate population growth. People sometimes use an extra utility sized sink as the home for a container. If the container has a lid, leave it off, or at least ajar. They need air. Let them breath. If you get deep freeze in your area, it might be good to keep the box indoors through the coldest spells of the winter. Give them treats throughout the winter like the vegetables from making soup stock (be sure to cool before serving) or the remains of carrots after juicing.
Earthworms (also called "Earth Angels" by our gardening friend, Bob) do not have lungs; they breathe air through the skin. They burrow by jerking and contracting the muscles along their bodies. They feed on dead organic matter by passing such material through a complex series of stomach chambers. In doing so, the worm extracts nourishment while producing a waste product that provides a number of beneficial results for both plants and their keepers.
Earthworms are also hermaphrodites, capable of producing both male and female gametes. For creatures who live under the soil without eyes, they have quite active sex lives. In fact, Bob thinks the lyrics to the 60s song, Earth Angel, are actually about earthworms:
Earth angel, earth angel
The one I adore
Love you forever
and ever more
I'm just a fool
A fool in love with you...
Structurally, the same type earthworms you rescue from parking lots after heavy rains have been regurgitating the earth and its contents for well over 120 million years. But they have evolved. Today, there are at least 2700 different kinds of earthworms on the planet with new and improved designer models coming out at an ever increasing speed. Well, not really. Some would even say evolution has been called off.
Actually, even though earthworms are extremely adept at composting our leftovers, they are ever more in danger of deadly chemicals and other detrimental substances. In the garden, it's good to give earthworms a break. They are known to improve soil structure and nutrient contents of any given space, but they will not withstand continued use of harsh, and sometimes deadly chemicals. In many cases, the earthworms will do an equal or better job than most artificial applications gardeners think they should use on their plants and soil. Let the worms do the work. Let the worms make pure, clean humus for food and other enjoyments.