Skip to Content

The $35 Accidental Discovery That Vastly Improved My Soil

Soil health is a topic that’s coming up more and more over the years. It seems we’ve finally come around to the idea that what’s going on beneath the soil is usually the most important aspect that influences what comes up out of the soil.

And when it comes to improving your soil health, a lot of blood, sweat and tears go into that dirt as well. Between soil testing, shoveling loads of compost, mixing in amendments or adding layers of mulch — it can be exhausting.

Save yourself the blisters and the aching back.

I’ve found an inexpensive way to improve the overall condition of your garden soil that only takes a few minutes to implement. I promise you won’t even break a sweat. Keep reading, and I’ll tell you all about it.

Our Accidental Discovery

This past spring, my sweetie and I decided to give no-dig gardening a try. After reading all of Cheryl’s articles concerning the topic, she convinced us it was the way to go.

You can read Cheryl’s fantastic articles below:

6 Reasons To Start A No Dig Garden + How To Get Started

12 Common Mistakes That No-Dig Gardeners Make

Because we started in the spring, we were a little behind. Most new no-dig gardens should be started in the winter to give your compost, straw, leaves, etc., a chance to break down.

Two new garden beds using the no-dig garden method.

We already knew we didn’t have the greatest soil from previous attempts at gardens in that location. But we figured we had to start somewhere, and I had already made up my mind that the rototiller wasn’t going to touch the soil again.

We were trying to think of things we could do to improve the soil while the garden was growing.

I knew we didn’t want to add more organic materials to break down once we had plants growing; that would throw off the carbon-nitrogen ratios in the soil.

I had also begun setting up my rooftop container garden for the season over at my apartment. I was using large heavy-duty storage totes, and I had to pick up a few more.

So, on a whim, I decided to hop in my car and head over to Walmart. As I walked up to the front of the store to pay for my totes, I had a sudden idea. I turned around and headed back to the Sports & Outdoors section, where I spent around $35 and got some weird looks from the young man that rang up my purchase.

Here we are now, as we put the garden to bed for the winter with the growing season behind us. I can say it’s the best $35 I’ve ever spent on my garden over the years.

Close up photo of a receipt, $34.67 is circled in pink highlighter.

What did I buy?

Worms.

ten red and blue cups of worm laying on the grass

Yup, that’s right, I bought live bate.

I purchased ten little cups of red wigglers.

I brought them home and unceremoniously dumped them out of their cups into our garden, where I left them to do their thing. I checked later that afternoon, and sure enough, they had all burrowed down into the soil.

A pile of worms that has been dumped onto the top of garden soil.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

We proceeded to have a wonderful growing season and enjoyed the best garden we’ve ever had. My sweetie and I were no-dig garden converts. (Although, I still can’t convince him to put a For Sale sign on his beloved rototiller.)

View of our garden in full production. The tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant and cabbage are all large and healthy.

As I picked eggplants and tomatoes and lettuce, I completely forgot about the new tenants living just below the soil.

It wasn’t until I pulled up our first beets that I remembered the worms. Down in the dirt, where I had just pulled a beet, were a couple of wriggling little tails.

A couple of small worms in the soil.

I was happy to see our little friends hadn’t all died or been eaten by the local robin population.

We both noticed worms whenever we pulled up root crops. This was not a common sight in years past. It was good to see.

Okay, great, Tracey. You’ve got worms in your soil.

What’s the big deal?

Close up of a pile of red wigglers

A good population of worms in your soil is like having a tiny army of wriggling rototillers beneath your feet. Worms are constantly eating decaying organic material in the soil and breaking it down.

Only they’re working all season long to mix and turn and move the soil and the nutrients in it without disturbing the naturally occurring soil microbiome.

The tunnels earthworms leave behind help to aerate the soil deeply and allow water to penetrate further. If water can get down deeper in the soil, roots will grow deeper, too, giving you healthier, more drought-resistant plants.

And of course, let’s not forget about amazing worm poop.

Worm castings (the non-9-year-old term for worm poo) are one of the most amazing fertilizers known to man. This stuff is like tiny football-shaped nuggets of gold!

Worm castings provide structure to the soil while keeping important nutrients from washing away with every rain. They retain water keeping your soil damp longer. They’re a great natural slow-release fertilizer. Did I mention naturally occurring compounds found in worm castings can also kill aphids and spider mites?

There is even research supporting higher yields of both fruiting and flowering plants thanks to the addition of worm castings in the soil.

Not bad for a bunch of invertebrates!

blue garden gloved hand holding a baby red wiggler, the worm is about an inch long

As I stood there in Walmart this past spring, it occurred to me that we needed a worm farm, and what better place to start one than directly in the soil?

Wormville – Population…Too Many to Count

Fast forward to this fall.

It wasn’t until we decided it was time to put the garden to rest that we saw the full impact of my purchase months before.

When I pulled up the first tomato plant to toss on the compost pile, I noticed worms down at the roots. And I don’t mean one or two. There were several dozen little wriggling worms of all different sizes hanging out of the roots. I shook them off to return to the soil and moved on to the next tomato plant.

Again, the roots were crawling with red wigglers.

And so it went as we pulled up the dead or dying plants for the year.

Out of curiosity, I scooped down into the dirt a few inches where we hadn’t pulled up plants and was met with worms there too. I repeated this all over the newly cleared garden, and I found worms everywhere.

three worms and worm cocoons in garden soil

Lots of worms!

I even dug below the layer of compost and organic matter we put down in the spring, right down into our crappy soil.

Only it wasn’t so crappy anymore.

the hole I dug down into the soil, there are worms throughout the layers of soil

The worms were there too. And not only were there worms, but the soil had improved. With just my hand, I was able to scoop down into it. It wasn’t compacted like concrete the way it had been in previous years.

I was also finding empty worm cocoons everywhere in the soil, which is always a good sign.

Did you know?

Close up of empty worm cocoons laying in the dirt

Many folks see the tiny little lemon-shaped pods in the soil and assume they’re looking at seeds. Worm farmers may even think they’re looking at worm eggs. However, these small millet seed-like pods are actually worm cocoons, and the eggs are inside the cocoon.

Finding these empty cocoons in your soil is a sign of good soil health.

Last spring, those ten tubs of worms moved into our garden and got busy. We’ve tucked the garden and the worms in for the winter, and I have no doubt that come spring, we’ll have beautiful soil to plant in. I can’t wait to see what the worms can do in a year’s time to our garden.

blue garden gloved hand holding a tiny nightcrawler

If you’re looking for easy ways to improve your garden without a ton of work, grab your car keys and go buy some worms. Or just do what most of us do these days and buy a box of worms on the internet. You can buy 100 red wrigglers from Uncle Jim on Amazon at this page – the reviews are fantastic.

This might be the easiest soil amendment you’ve ever added. You don’t even have to use a shovel.

What Worms Should I Add?

Stick to worms you’ll naturally find in your own soil, such as nightcrawlers or red wigglers. Choosing worms native to your area means they’ll be more suited to the soil and temperatures in your garden.

Small nightcrawler in the dirt

When Can I Add Worms to My Garden?

You can add worms to your garden as long as it’s warmer than 32F outside and the ground isn’t frozen. They need to be able to burrow down in the earth.

The best time to add worms to your soil is before anything is planted. You want to give them time to burrow in and start making babies and worm castings.

Early spring, as soon as the temperatures warm up is a great time. It’s when I added our worms, and we got great results.

Fall, just after you’re done gardening for the year, is also a great time to toss a few cups of worms in the garden. They will have plenty to eat with the leftover, dying root systems of the plants you grew. And they’ll have a lot longer to work before you use the soil to grow again.

You can even add them while your garden is in full swing. They only eat decaying material, so they won’t be snacking on your plants beneath the soil.

What Do the Worms Do During the Winter?

When you look out your window to see your garden covered with a blanket of snow, your population of little wriggling gardeners will all be burrowed deep in the soil, hibernating. Yes, just like bears or many other animals, worms hibernate.

When the temperatures rise, and the soil warms up, they’ll be back to work in the garden just like you.

a view of my sweetie's backyard and our garden

Not too bad for $35 and a car ride, right? And with our newly adopted no-dig method of gardening, our worms will continue making new generations of worms each year.

Related Reading:

Why You Need More Earthworms In Your Soil & How To Get Them

Worm Castings – Nature’s Most Amazing Soil Amendment

Why You Should Add Mycorrhizae To Your Soil – Stronger Roots & Healthier Plants

How To Make an Easy DIY Worm Tower for Under $15 (or FREE!)


Get the famous Rural Sprout newsletter delivered to your inbox.

Including Sunday ramblings from our editor, Tracey, as well as “What’s Up Wednesday” our roundup of what’s in season and new article updates and alerts.

We respect your email privacy


Tracey Besemer

Hey there, my name is Tracey. I’m the editor-in-chief here at Rural Sprout.

Many of our readers already know me from our popular Sunday newsletters. (You are signed up for our newsletters, right?) Each Sunday, I send a friendly missive from my neck of the woods in Pennsylvania. It’s a bit like sitting on the front porch with a friend, discussing our gardens over a cup of tea.

Originally from upstate NY, I’m now an honorary Pennsylvanian, having lived here for the past 18 years.

I grew up spending weekends on my dad’s off-the-grid homestead, where I spent much of my childhood roaming the woods and getting my hands dirty.

I learned how to do things most little kids haven’t done in over a century.

Whether it was pressing apples in the fall for homemade cider, trudging through the early spring snows of upstate NY to tap trees for maple syrup, or canning everything that grew in the garden in the summer - there were always new adventures with each season.

As an adult, I continue to draw on the skills I learned as a kid. I love my Wi-Fi and knowing pizza is only a phone call away. And I’m okay with never revisiting the adventure that is using an outhouse in the middle of January.

These days, I tend to be almost a homesteader.

I take an eclectic approach to homesteading, utilizing modern convenience where I want and choosing the rustic ways of my childhood as they suit me.

I’m a firm believer in self-sufficiency, no matter where you live, and the power and pride that comes from doing something for yourself.

I’ve always had a garden, even when the only space available was the roof of my apartment building. I’ve been knitting since age seven, and I spin and dye my own wool as well. If you can ferment it, it’s probably in my pantry or on my kitchen counter. And I can’t go more than a few days without a trip into the woods looking for mushrooms, edible plants, or the sound of the wind in the trees.

You can follow my personal (crazy) homesteading adventures on Almost a Homesteader and Instagram as @aahomesteader.

Peace, love, and dirt under your nails,

Tracey
[simple-author-box]