Earthworms and the art of grass cutting


“It’s time to mow the grass.” This was one of the most dreaded statements of my young life. Our acre-and-a-half lawn loomed, a seemingly unending expanse of a green enemy that required regular haircuts. Even with a self-powered lawn mower, the process required several hours of sweaty, unfulfilling work.

We never bagged the grass clippings. Instead they lay where they fell. In a day or two, the clippings disappeared. Wondering where those clipping went never occurred to me. I was just glad that we didn’t have to empty heavy grass catchers.

The ground beneath the lawn was full of earthworms. Just throw a pan of soapy water on the lawn, wait a few minutes, and collect enough worms to catch a mess of perch from our pond.  I didn’t make the connection between the earthworms, the lush green grass, and the disappearing grass clippings. Nor did we understand the part they played in the enormous ecosystem that lived under our very feet.

Charles Darwin, almost a century and a half ago, did understand. His book, “Earthworms”, published in 1881, was the result of years of study into these seemingly insignificant creatures.  In his manuscript he noted “It may be doubted whether there are as many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.”

It wasn’t until I read this study that I realized that earthworms were the major reason that the grass clippings were disappearing. At night, they emerge from the earth and pull the clippings down into the soil, where they eat and digest them. The bacteria in the worms’ digestive tract breaks down and inoculates the material with beneficial bacteria. This then passes into the soil.

The bacteria then join untold millions of other bacteria, protozoans, microscopic insects and fungi to convert the soil into a rich mélange, which in turn, provides nutrients to the grass (and other plants).

Had I understood this process when I was mowing the lawn, the odious chore would have turned miraculously into an interesting and fulfilling science experiment. University research now confirms that children who understand this relationship develop important skills and healthy qualities.

Involving youngsters in the relationship between healthy soils and plants, including lawns, vegetable gardens and flower gardening, instills healthy qualities.

  • Knowledge of this unseen world instills a real sense of accomplishment and responsible attitudes.
  • Delving into the way plants and soil interact increases skills such as problem solving and nurturing
  • Understanding this allows them to understand and accept delayed gratification, failure and success.
  • The attitudes it instills helps them increase their abilities in science, art, reading and social studies.
  • Involvement in these disciplines helps develop interaction between parents and children
  • It encourages the development of positive relationships.
  • It expands their understanding of a work ethic.

And, who knows. It might even encourage them to gripe less when they have to cut the grass or eat their vegetables.

 

Zen and The Art of Composting


Abundant earthworms a sign of healthy soil

I love making compost as much as I love actually putting it in my garden. Last week found me turning my bin of cooking compost. The process of putting the pitchfork in, bending my knees and swinging my torso to drop the load into a new pile reminds me of Tai Chi. I find that practicing fluid, unhurried movements – fork to pile, swing to the new pile, dump the detritus onto the new pile, and then swinging back for another fork load, becomes a spiritual exercise as well as a physical one.

In my mind’s eye, I see a complete ecosystem of organisms, from the tiniest bacteria to the fat earthworms that wriggle in and out of the decaying vegetation. There is a certain thrill to the fact that I am part of the process of this cycle of life…and death.

I can’t see the microscopic bacteria, amoebas, mites and protozoans, but I can see their handiwork as they consume nitrogen and sugars from the green and brown materials I have mixed together in this nature cake. I can see the smoke rise and feel the heat as their billions multiply, die and are consumed by larger, but still microscopic  predators – themselves destined for the same fate by even larger organisms. Composting is one of the most “mindful” activities I can think of. I’m not going to belabor the Zen thing, but you get the idea.

Earthworms begin to populate the pile when it cools. I pick out worm every tenth load or so and throw it into a bucket…not for fishing (although I do like to fish), but to add to the worm population in my vegetable garden. I throw in some rotting vegetation for the worms to eat and hide in while I finish turning the pile.

I turn my pile every week or two, until I’ve got good, rich, dark humus, letting it heat up as bacteria begin to multiply again. I could go on about mesophilic and thermophilic bacteria species that alternately heat and cool the pile, but I’m going to spare you the agony. Just know that as the pile heats up, the worms head for cooler pastures, only to return when the pile cools off again.

Earthworms are fascinating creatures. They eat decaying, green vegetation, apple cores and even coffee grounds. That goes through the enzymes and bacteria in their gut and comes out in rich worm castings, which is a euphemism for… well…you know. The castings are also filled with beneficial bacteria which continues to inoculate the soil long after it has left the worm.

A good population of earthworms in an acre-foot of soil can turn eight tons of soil per year. That’s over 1,613 cubic yards. My small pickup can carry about one cubic yard of soil, so that gives you an idea of how much earthworms work.

I’ve always said that if you have earthworms in your soil, you have good soil. Some experts argue that good soil attracts earthworms, while others say that earthworms make good soil. Either way works for me.

Many of the earthworms found here are not indigenous to North America. Instead, they came from Europe. Early colonists – the Jamestown settlers, the Spanish conquistadores, the French, Dutch and German farmers – unknowingly brought native European worms over in plant soil. Once having breached the ocean, the annelids (that’s a generic name for them) didn’t need human assistance to spread themselves across the continent. In some cases they replaced populations of native worms. In other cases they took over areas that had no worms. In Canada and the Upper Midwest, where glaciers scraped the soil from the rock 10,000 years ago, European worms exploited this niche successfully.

Here in Southeast Texas, scientists tell me that we have abundant populations of European species, as well about a 100 native species. Believe me, I can’t tell the difference, although I have no doubt the worms can.

Charles Darwin was one of the first contributors to the study of earthworms. In fact, he published The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations of their Habits, the compilation of years of studying the lowly creature. In fact, the book actually outsold his previous book, On the Origin of Species. Read more about Darwin  and his worm studies here.

Photograph by Cliff Roe Photography