It’s not the most common question I get, but as winter approaches, people want to know if earthworms can survive through winter in places such as worm bins, garden beds or compost piles.
It’s an understandable concern. We gardeners work so hard to create an environment to attract worms and promote their reproduction all through the year. The last thing we want to do is see it all come to an end as the weather turns frosty.
Specifically, the question that prompted me to write this article came from an urban gardener that was raising earthworms in his indoor bin—specifically under the sink in his kitchen. His wife had discovered his obsession and relegated the worms to an outside existence. Yet with no real garden in which to go, he was worried that his growing collection of apartment raised wigglers would meet their maker if his bin was relocated to the frigid outdoors.
This is one of those bad news, good news answers. My reply to this newbie worm farmer’s inquiry went something like this; “No Wally, your worms won’t survive winter,” I wrote. I went on to explain that all was not lost though.
Although worms can’t survive freezing temperatures, they lay eggs that are encased and protected by very small cocoons. They can survive through winter to emerge as tiny baby worms, once temperatures warm up again. The worms Wally was worried about losing would be replaced by a contingency plan, cleverly crafted my none other than Mother Nature herself. Wally would have new worms once the weather warmed.
Worldwide, there are approximately 6,000 earthworm species, while only about 30 are found in the United States. And the most popular of all in the garden are commonly known as red wigglers. Because they live primarily in just the upper layers of soil and amongst leaf debris, they’re a familiar sight in compost piles and gardens. Yet, because they never burrow far enough into the ground to avoid freezing temperatures, they don’t survive those conditions.
Fortunately, the eggs laid before their demise provide sufficient replacements next spring.
Other earthworms, such as the common night crawler can survive winter conditions by burrowing deep into the soil, below the frost line (the level below the soil surface in which groundwater freezes). That distance varies based on different parts of the county, ranging from zero to six feet in the coldest regions. Yet safely below the frost line, they live out the winter in small cavities or chambers.
Since night crawlers don’t truly hibernate, you may find them reemerging during a period of unseasonably warm weather and returning deep below ground once the weather turns cold again.
Escaping the cold is just part of what allows worms to survive through the winter. The other issue of course is in how they breathe. Worms don’t have lungs. Instead, they breathe through their skin, as long as it stays moist. To keep their skin moist through winter, they release fluid and mucous that coats their body for whatever time needed.
Under ideal conditions, scientists estimate the average lifespan of earthworms that survive winters at four to eight years while the most common garden varieties live only one or two years. So whatever time our subterranean friends have on this earth (or in it), let us celebrate all they do to improve the conditions of our soil and take comfort in knowing they’ll be back to help us in the garden, just about the time we need them most.
P.S: If you want to see more of the worm bin where these red wigglers in the picture live, as well as the video of us making it and the step-by-step plans on how to make one yourself, I’ve linked to it all for you.
I have a number of small compost bins located next to my chicken coop. I use pine shavings on a shelf and collect the bird droppings daily. This, along with a small amount of kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and grass in the summer compose my “compost” that I add to my organic garden. I let this stand for 6 months, before adding to my garden.
Question… Can I add red wigglers to this mix? will they have enough to survive and thrive? Will they help the pile break down?
Many thanks. I love your show and listen to the podcasts all the time. Continued success.
Joe Lamp'l says
Red wigglers don’t like temperatures warmer than 85 degrees and they like moisture. As far as cold temperatures they may not survive over winter but their eggs should. They like to eat kitchen and garden scraps. You want to add a mixture of green and brown. Here is a link for more information about red wigglers and another link for how to build a worm bin. Happy gardening in 2018! https://www.growingagreenerworld.com/how-to-make-our-custom-worm-bin/ http://compost.css.cornell.edu/worms/basics.html
This article is the answer to the worm questions for a long time, living in Montana cold weather is
a pretty much constant. I have copied the article, thank you, but since I only have a land line computer I’m missing out on the instructions you offer. On the land line it would take weeks to
copy. thanks again for your information, I can now put the question to rest.
Love the show and can watch it again and again even if they are reruns and I’ve seen them several
Gladys Hutson says
I so LOVE your show and all that you teach us. You have had some really great shows about our pollinators this past year and I look forward to hearing about more of your adventures with your Honey Bees.
I, too, am a Beekeeper and am constantly trying to learn more of what I can do to help our pollinators. Mostly I know that we MUST teach our children about this circle of life, from gardening to pollination to the art of preparing the foods.
I am helping to do that in 2016 by joining a local organization called “The Green Teacher Network” out of Charlotte, NC. This non-profit group is bringing these very lessons of stewardship to the children in the Mecklenburg School System.
My hope and dream is that we can reach out to other school systems all over the state and beyond.
Thank You for ALL that you do to teach us to be those good stewards of our Mother Earth!!
Joe Lamp'l says
Thank YOU Gladys for your very kind words and for all the work you are doing too. It is so important and we are all in this together to reach our children. However we’re able to do that, I consider it an important responsibility for us all. Thanks for taking the time to share you thoughts here.
Thanks for all the great info about worms. Hope you and all the staff have a merry Christmas.