The thunderstorm ended an hour ago. It was a pounding rain, a gully washer that drenched the yard. We're talking deluge here: There are puddles on the lawn, and earthworms on the patio.

This is my cue to grab a pail and rush outside. Not to bail out the lawn. My job is to save the worms.

Without my help, they're doomed.

Hard rains flood their burrows and drives hundreds of earthworms out of the lawn and onto the pavement, where they wriggle about, awaiting their fate. Left alone, their days are numbered. Some are squashed underfoot. Others are picked off by birds. Desiccation claims the remaining worms, whose crusty carcasses litter the pavement, leaving body outlines reminiscent so many homicide investigations.

I feel bad for the victims. After all, earthworms are a gardener's best friends. Nature's plows, they've been called. Charles Darwin singled them out as the most important creatures on earth. Worms do a zillion things to enrich the soil. Which is why they should never die on cement.

My worms will never suffer so.

After each storm, I rush outside to scoop my little pals off the patio, the driveway, and the busy street in front of my house. I saved one lucky fellow from an 18-wheeler that was bearing down on him. He was the fattest worm I ever saw. Almost the flattest.

I gather the worms with my fingers, or an old spoon, being careful not to cut them. (A severed worm will grow a new head if most of its body is intact.) I place the worms in a bucket, where they promptly tie themselves in knots. At dusk, I dump them in the garden, when the birds aren't looking.

Eventually the worms unravel and slip beneath the soil. I believe they are happy; one did a back flip on its way underground.

I've spared more than 500 earthworms this spring; however, my motives are selfish ones. I expect these little recycling machines to repay me by improving the health of my garden.

Earthworms do this naturally. They are indefatigable workers who eat their way through the soft spring loam, ingesting bits of organic matter and secreting rich dark pellets, or castings, which resemble coffee grounds and contain 10 times the nutrients of normal soil.

Many garden centers market these worm castings as fertilizer. My earthworms produce it for nothing and provide free delivery to hungry plants, which see the castings as nitrogen pizzas with potash toppings.

Burrowing earthworms also serve as underground rototillers, churning up dirt and aerating the soil to help it breathe. Some adventurous worms plow 6 feet deep, returning home with mouthfuls of exotic minerals that plants themselves could never reach.

All of this commotion improves soil texture, drainage and microbiotic health. Perennial garden beds, which are seldom tilled, profit especially from earthworm activity. So do lawns. Worms clean up lawns by eating unsightly thatch, the roots and rhizomes of dead grass plants. They turn the thatch into humus, or finished compost.

Earthworms may live five years, so it pays to keep them happy. Worms are most productive in early spring and fall, when they are within 3 inches of ground level. Extreme heat drives them deep underground, or toward a well-mulched garden where the soil is cool. A summer mulch of straw or compost ensures that they'll stick around. A winter mulch keeps them from freezing.

My worms have never complained. I've promised them an organic lifestyle, void of the chemical sprays that they abhor. Studies show that a single pesticide application to a lawn or garden may kill as many as 90 percent of the earthworms there.

Worms are sensitive also to the use of synthetic fertilizers. Cover the garden with granular plant food, and watch them bail out.

But call me first. I'll bring my bucket right over.

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