9 May 2008
The Wonder of the Worm and a Cautionary Tale About Slugs
One of the downsides to gardening at this time of year is the torchlit slug hunts, wandering around in the dark prising hissing snails and impossibly sticky slugs off tender young runner beans and emerging salads. Years ago I lived in a house in Bristol with an impossibly sluggy garden which was host to my first gardening attempts. I came back from the pub one evening, collected a large plastic pot full of slugs and snails in order to transfer them to the front garden instead, away from my young salads. En route I stopped to make a cup of tea, which led to a chat, which led to more chats, and in the morning, when I came downstairs, I was greeted by the sight of an empty slug pot. Where they all went I never found out, but I often wonder if the current inhabitants are still puzzled to find slugs emerging from under the countertops. Anyway, I digress, for what I want to write about here is the wonderful creature that is the worm.
One of the upsides when slug hunting is the times when one spots, on a damp evening, the sight of a huge worm popping out on the surface to take the evening air before heading back down below again. It is a sight which is graceful to a degree comparable with the leap of a great whale above the waves. Impossibly long, they stretch themselves out and one gets a sense of the presence of this heaving mass of sentience beneath our feet without which we would not be alive.
Worms are extraordinary things. Charles Darwin was one of the first people to really study the worm, beginning his research in 1830, and first presenting a paper on the subject to the Geological Society in London in 1837. His painstaking research was summarised in a book he published in 1881 called “The Formation of Vegetable Mould” (not a title guaranteed to have them flying off the shelves nowadays). At its conclusion he wrote;
“The whole of the superficial mould over any expanse (a wordy Victorian way of describing topsoil) has passed and will pass again every few years, through the bodies of worms. The plough is one of the most ancient and valuable of man’s inventions; but long before it existed the land was regularly ploughed, and still continues to be ploughed, by earthworms”.
There are two kinds of worms one encounters when digging the garden. There is the red Lumbricus teyristers, which can grow up to a foot long, and is the splendid beast I occasionally find cavorting in my garden. Then there is the paler, fatter, greyish-blue species that burrow deeper and actually do more good for the soil, bringing up nutrients from deep down and drawing down nutrients from the surface.
Without worms we cannot garden, indeed without worms there would be very little life on this Earth. As Darwin also said, “it may be doubted whether there are any other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organised creatures”. I wonder whether we might actually define the principal purpose of any gardening as being to maximise the number of worms to which it is host, as it is from this that all productivity and fertility springs.
Some research suggests that there can be as many as 20 million earthworms in a single hectare of land, and that some worms might burrow as deep as 6 feet down. One famous British soil researcher once stated that in a well manured pasture, the weight of the cattle on top of the pasture will equal the weight of the worms below it.
Blackawton, a village near where I live in Devon, last Saturday held their annual Worm Charming event. People can enter in teams, or as individuals, and each person is allocated a square metre of ground at a location undisclosed until a few hours before the event. Everyone is allowed to bring one bottle of ‘potion’ to put on the ground in order to tempt the worms up, although they have to each drink a sip of their potion in advance to show it doesn’t contain anything excessively unpleasant.
Then they have a certain amount of time to sing, drum on the ground, do their worm dance, play Bob Marley CDs or whatever they think will draw these wondrous creatures from their loamy home. I’m not sure what the winner wins, but the competition is fierce. People have even been caught cheating, sneaking worms in up their sleeves or having the container with their potion in have a false bottom in which some worms are hidden.
So, sometime soon, at about 11pm, ideally either in the Spring or the Autumn (when worms are most active), take a torch out and sit next to your most fertile patch of soil and wait. You don’t need slug hunting as an excuse, and you won’t need your Bob Marley CDs or any particular dances. Just sit silently and observe, and hopefully before long (I say hopefully because if nothing happens you’ll all be writing to me to complain), you will get to see this amazing sight. When you do, give a thought to the writhing mass of wormy life beneath our feet and how much we owe this wonderful creature.
To encourage worms into our soils and into our gardens, we can do a number of things. One is to avoid digging whenever possible, as it destroys the complex system of tunnels and soil structure they have created. If you have to dig, don’t dig too deep. However, the main thing we can do is to provide organic matter, ideally from our own composting endeavours. The amazing research by the Good Gardeners Association into no-dig systems whereby organic matter is continually added to the top of the soil allowing the worms to incorporate it is really worth checking out.
Rebuilding the humus in our soils is a key part of any national strategy on carbon sequestration, indeed the devastating impact of our oil-based industrial agriculture on soil structure, fertility, worm population and humus levels has contributed significantly to our carbon emissions. So, learn to love the worm, we need them now more than ever and you never know, seeing them on a moonlit night might just take your breath away.