Editors note: If you put compost on the ground, almost anyplace on earth, worms will find it.  This is because, as some worm experts have told me, worm eggs stay viable for a long time.  So, if there were worms there once, their eggs will hatch, and you'll have more--if you feed them!

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by Mort Mather

Dear Mort,
Can you help me with my worms? I populated a garden once with worms that I bought at a bait store. That crop of worms did wonderfully until I grew weary of fighting with the Arizona desert and gave up gardening for a couple of years. The worms all died, I presume. This year I got inspired with ambition and time to garden again and so went to the local bait store for more worms. I put them into the soil and keep my soil ready for life and yet I never ever see these worms again. I have a compost heap and even there I never see any worms. What do you think is my worm problem? Are bait store worms not able to do gardening work? Are they too fragile to survive in my 100 plus temperatures even though the soil is moist and soft? Do they need more food than I have given to them? I have added horse manure to the soil. Not brand new stuff but rather old and dry and crumbly stuff. Another question: What can I do about Bermuda grass? I have a major problem with that. Under my soil is a massive latticework of Bermuda roots. Soon the plant will go dormant but next spring I may have a lawn instead of a garden. I need help.
Thank you, I hope you are a real person who answers mail.
Loved your robin mind trip story. I have never thought the subject out that intricately before. Love, mp

Dear mp,
Worms. First I will tell you that I don't generally recommend bringing animals (as in animal, mineral or vegetable) into the garden. The plants we put in gardens are pretty good at staying there. Animals--worms, ladybugs, lacewings, etc.—are free to go where they wish which is where the habitat is best for them. Ladybugs, for example, will clean out the aphids in a garden in short order and be gone. Worse than that, they throw off the balance so that a smaller population of ladybugs in the area may also have to leave for aphidier pastures.
Second, I wouldn't suggest buying the worms from a bait shop because they could be of a species that doesn't thrive in soil like yours. Since the first batch survived, however, I certainly understand your trying again.
I don't understand why the worms left when you stopped gardening. They actually like a grass-covered soil better than a garden. The grass shades the ground and holds moisture. I never read that worms and roots have an actual symbiotic relationship but any time I want to find a worm I'll start by pulling up a nice clump of grass.
I'm no authority on gardening in a desert but I would suggest putting some food out for the worms. Hay, grass clippings and leaves spread as a mulch between the rows of your crops should attract them. If you truly have none, you might want to bring some in after you have the mulch down.
Bermuda grass can also be controlled with a combination of mulch and diligence so it says in The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. I am familiar with a similar grass that propagates through rhizomes. The rhizomes, underground stems that store energy the plant absorbs from the sun through its leaves, can travel distances and poke up through just about anything to get to sunlight. Your job, should you accept it, is to make sure the leaves don't get enough sunlight to restore energy in the rhizomes. Digging or tilling them when you plant is the first step. A heavy mulch will keep them down but probably not completely. Due diligence is necessary to go after any that poke through either by drowning them in more mulch or going after them by digging down and pulling as much of the rhizome as you can before you get tired. Then cover the area up with mulch again.

September 24, 1997

Mort is a husband and father. He authored a book, Gardening For Independence and was named Environmentalist of the Year by Down East Magazine in 1987. He is a consultant for organizations. You can eat his organic produce at his son's southern Maine restaurant. His address is 802 Bald Hill Road, Wells, ME 04090.

Mort retains all rights to his columns. Anyone interested in using them can get the rights at a very reasonable rate.



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