What would you say to free garden help?

Someone who would be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help aerate, fertilize, rototill and do other necessary work?

How would you feel if I told you that you might already have that helper?

Earthworms have the potential to do more to maintain a beautiful property than you could ever imagine.

Studies have shown soil is the most important ingredient to a garden's success. Why?

Ninety percent of a plant's problems occur below ground. Without good soil, you won't have a garden for long.

With healthy soil, a plant will be able to better resist insects and diseases, will be less dependent on fertilizer and look better in the long run.

Let's look at these below-ground creatures to understand what they are doing to provide a better environment for our plants and lawns.

Fortunately for us, earthworms are able to eat their weight many times over in any given day.

They break down organic matter to help improve soil fertility, aerate the soil and improve drainage.

Worms also excrete organic matter that is full of all the key nutrients needed for healthy plants: phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron and sulfur.

Worms mix organic and inorganic materials together by distributing nutrients and organic matter throughout the soil profile.

These little creatures will outwork even the best rototiller money can buy. That is why we've been known to bring worms to installation projects with poor soil conditions.

Another benefit earthworms provide: plant roots spread rapidly in worm tunnels not only because it's an easy path to the subsoil but because the tunnels are rich in organic matter and nutrients.

There is also some evidence the slimy substance worms leave behind contain hormones that stimulate plant growth.

Does your lawn and gardens have earthworms?

A property with healthy soil will contain millions of earthworms. The problem is a lot of insecticides used for grub control kill not only grubs but many beneficial organisms including worms.

What you end up with is a dead soil dependent on fertilizers.

Worms are most active in the spring and fall. They tend to escape weather extremes by burrowing deep into the soil.

To check for worm activity, look for small balls of soil on the soil surface.

Worms will also appear on the soil surface immediately after a rain.

If you are curious about worm activity on your own property and don't feel like waiting for the next rain storm or you're looking for a fun thing to do with children, here is a trick.

Mix one tablespoon of dry mustard in a quart of water and pour it in a concentrated area.

In a couple of minutes, worms should come to the surface, to the amazement of any child.

If the trick doesn't work, your soil most likely has some issues. It would be a good time to buy some compost and a rototiller, or you could just add some worms to your soil.

They're not just for fishing any more!

Richard Schipul is the owner of Designing Eden in New Milford. He holds a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture and an associate's degree in horticulture, and is a nationally certified landscape designer through the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and a Connecticut certified nurseryman.