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.

 

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Are you connected to Earth’s Natural Internet?


Are you connected to Earth’s Natural Internet?

By Bob Dailey

There is a fungus which grows in the soil on and around plant roots that is absolutely essential for plant health. In fact, this fungus is so important that some plant species cannot exist without it. Named mycorrhiza, which literally means “root fungus,” this organism creates a symbiotic relationship with plants. The amazing properties of this root fungus has prompted scientists to call it “Earth’s natural internet.”

If one digs into leaf mold, or into really good soil, tiny white filaments resembling spider webs can be seen spreading through the soil or leaves. This is mycorrhiza. Though deceptively small, a teaspoon of good soil can have eight or nine feet of the tiny strings.

Mycorrhizal fungi create a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, taking in minerals from the soil and delivering it to the plant, in exchange for sugars produced by the plant. Plant biologists have estimated that 95 percent of the plants investigated are either partially or completely dependent on these fungi- a testament to their importance. Orchids, for instance, are so dependent on mycorrhiza that even their seeds cannot germinate without it.

Once attached to plant roots, this fungus sends out tiny threads which extend out much further than the roots can extend.  Though they look like plant roots, these white filaments are what absorb nutrients. Since they have a great deal more range than the plant roots themselves and have significantly more surface area, they are able to find and take in significantly more water and nutrients than the plant roots can. Scientists have also discovered that mycorrhiza can store up nitrogen when it is plentiful, and then release it to the plant when there is a lack of nitrogen in the soil.  These fungi can also store water, which it releases to the plant in times of drought.

Plants that are not aided by these fungi may not be able to take up important nutrients such as phosphate or iron – which can lead to iron chlorosis or other plant deficiencies. Mycorrhiza can also play a protective role for plants in soils with high heavy metal concentrations, such as acidic or contaminated soils. These fungi are also suited for colonization of barren soils.

Soil-borne diseases (such as take-all patch and brown patch) are also serious problems for plants. Unfortunately, many residents are quick to apply fungicides at first signs of take-all or brown patch. While these fungicides will kill the bad fungi, it will also kill the mycorrhiza. A better method may be to inoculate the lawn with organic material that has high concentrations of mycorrhiza.

Studies are showing that plants colonized by mycorrhizal fungi are much more resistant to these and other diseases.  Scientists have also now determined that mycorrhizal fungi can also transport nutrients and water from plant to plant through extensive underground networks.

Operations like tilling can also kill mycorrhiza, although aeration prior to adding organic matter will do relatively little damage to it.  For floral or vegetable gardeners, many experts are recommending “no-till” methods.

Making black gold


Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.

~Jim Bishop

Although golden autumn colors are great to behold, those beautiful leaves also possess another type of treasure – black gold, which, when coaxed out, recycle earth’s bounty. “Black gold” is what gardeners call compost, that rich mixture of nutrients and decayed matter that works wonders on all plants.

Leaves contain nutrients that the plants have taken out of the ground through their roots, pumped up their stems and trunks, up to the organs that make food for them…the leaves. The leaves fall and decay. Those nutrients that were trapped in the leaves return back to the earth, where they are reused again by plants.

In a forest, it takes about two years from when the leaf hits the ground to when it becomes part of the soil. A backyard gardener, using a well-managed compost system, can make a fairly large amount of good, rich “black gold” in about three months.

The decaying process is carried out first by microbes. When you see smoke rising from a compost pile in the winter, it’s not because the sun has heated it. The reason is that billions of bacteria are actually dissolving the materials and it is they who are creating the heat. A well-constructed compost pile can heat up to 130 F or more.

Carbon

The microbes feed on the leaves  and other sources of carbon. This could be shredded newspaper, shredded cardboard, old hay, sawdust, small ranches and twigs and pine needles to name a few.

Nitrogen

The microbes need another ingredient – nitrogen –  to grow and reproduce. Nitrogen sources vary: coffee grounds, tea bags, grass clippings, kitchen scraps (but no meat or dairy), aged manure, alfalfa pellets (yes the same used as rabbit food), and cottonseed meal are a few.  Manure from chickens or herbivores is okay to use if it is aged, but carnivore or omnivore manure (pigs, dogs, cats) should be avoided as they may carry pathogens that the composting process will not kill. Weeds should also be avoided, unless they do not have seed heads.

Carbon-Nitrogen Ratios

Although there is a complicated formula to measure the exact  amounts of carbon and nitrogen materials required to start a compost operation, the general rule of thumb is equal weight of carbon and nitrogen. These should be mixed well – a cake mix, not a lasagna.

Water and oxygen

Since all living things need water, add water while mixing the materials. When finished, the compost pile should have the wetness of a wrung-out sponge. Now, it’s ready to start cooking. In two weeks, the compost should be ready to turn. A compost fork is the best way to turn it.

Turning the pile fluffs up the material and adds more oxygen to the mix. To turn, just take forkfuls from one pile and dump them into a second pile. Some gardeners like two or three compost bins to turn one into another. Remember to add water if needed.

After this, turn the pile every week or two. Now, the other, larger organisms will come into your compost pile: earthworms, pill bugs and other detritus-eating animals, further breaking down the materials.

In three months, all these materials will end up as good, organic compost, or black gold.

Types of bins

There are numerous compost bins on the market. Wire bins or bins that are open at the bottom seem to work best because they sit directly on the ground.  That way, earthworms and other organisms can access them. Additionally, open bins allow the air to circulate more freely. Drum bins work, but not as well as open bins.

The benefits of compost:

  • It recycles nutrients back into the soil. One of the things that make plants different from animals is that they make their own food. In order to do this, plants need essential elements like nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium and others.
  • It improves soil structure. Adding compost helps create “aggregates,” or tiny clusters of soil particles. Soil with a large amount of aggregates is full of tiny (some microscopic) channels and pockets, through which air and water can pass or accumulate in small amounts. Compost also helps with silt or clay soils, breaking them up so air and water can penetrate and plant roots can expand.
  • Compost conserves water. It’s a simple fact. Soil which has compost in it holds more moisture. Soil with five % organic matter can hold up to three quarts of water per cubic foot. Composted soil acts like a sponge. The compost helps soak up moisture. A pound of heavily composted soil can hold almost two pounds of water. Compost also inhibits evaporation of moisture in the soil. In drought conditions, composted soil continues to provide moisture to plants.