Hum­ble gar­dener

In praise of the earth­worm - with­out whom none of this would be pos­si­ble

Sussex Life - - A Word About Wildlife -

We can spend all day plant­ing and prun­ing, weed­ing and seed­ing, grunt­ing and groan­ing in our gar­dens but it’s time to face the facts, folks. We gar­den­ers aren’t the ones who are do­ing the hard work. The real toil is in the soil – the en­gine room of the gar­den – be­cause down there, be­neath our wellies, earth­worms are wrig­gling, re­cy­cling and rein­car­nat­ing our gar­dens.

They’re so eas­ily taken for granted. An earth­worm isn’t much to look at. A tube made of mus­cles with a mouth at one end and a bum at the other but he and she (they’re hermaphrodites) is re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing your gar­den grow.

These bur­row­ing beau­ties re­ally mix up the mud. Some drag dead leaves deep un­der­ground while their worm­casts re­turn es­sen­tial min­er­als back to the sur­face. This im­proves soil struc­ture and their tiny tun­nels help with drainage and al­low aer­a­tion.

Cleopa­tra de­clared them to be sa­cred and Aris­to­tle called earth­worms “the in­testines of the soil.” In­deed, at some point every bit of your gar­den would have passed through a worm’s belly. They munch their way through dead or­ganic mat­ter and make it avail­able to even smaller de­com­posers – fungi and bac­te­ria – who break it down even fur­ther. The nu­tri­ents re­leased are re­ab­sorbed by our plants. What once was dead is re­turned to the liv­ing. It’s one of those ‘cir­cle of life’ things.

There’s about 3,000 dif­fer­ent earth­worm species world­wide, with around 27 na­tive species in Britain. There are lobs un­der your lawn and bran­dlings in your com­post bin. Some species live in leaf lit­ter, oth­ers dig deep in the soil. There could be up to two mil­lion worms work­ing un­der­ground in an area the size of a foot­ball pitch.

Earth­worms are part of a wildlife work­force that lives in your gar­den and pro­vides an es­sen­tial ser­vice for free. Birds, bees, bee­tles, fungi, hov­er­flies, woodlice and many oth­ers vol­un­teer for us as pol­li­na­tors, pest con­trollers, de­com­posers and re­cy­clers. All we need to do is give them a home and leave them to it and they’ll get on with the dirty work.

But it’s the earth­worm who is seen as the king­pin of the whole op­er­a­tion. “It may be doubted whether there are many other an­i­mals which have played so im­por­tant a part in the his­tory of the world as these lowly or­gan­ised crea­tures,” said Charles Dar­win – and I’m not go­ing to ar­gue with him. We just can’t live with­out them. So it’s about time we start pay­ing earth­worms some re­spect and at­ten­tion. Be­cause when we’re all dead and buried they’ll be pay­ing a whole lot of at­ten­tion to us.

ABOVE: Com­mon earth­worm (Lum­bri­cus ter­restris) on dug earth Sus­sex Wildlife Trust, Woods Mill, Hen­field, West Sus­sex BN5 9SD, 01273 492630

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