The worms’ turn

As regular readers of this column may have gathered, I am an organic gardener of long standing. Not counting a sandbox corn crop at about age 8, I’ve been an organic grower since clearing and planting my first homestead in 1972. Equally pertinent to today’s column is the fact that nonagricultural circumstances led me to a third-floor, downtown condominium two years ago, which abruptly restricted my farmland to six south-facing windowsills plus some space in my office at Xpress (where I suppose you could say I am sharecropping).

Houseplants have also been part of my life through the years, but at the moment, they’re the whole game (outside of a brief and educational flirtation with hydroponics, reported last winter). And three cats are the only nonhuman mammals in the mix.

This could be said to have done to my gardening mojo what a ruby does to light in a laser, making it more intense and coherent. The soil conditions are literally within arm’s reach as I write this, and when either Katha or Havoc decides to till the soil at 5 a.m. — Pomonella, the 20-year-old, isn’t much for gardening these days — that soil is apt to rain on my pillow. So I am at once more distant from and closer to the ground.

Organic gardening embraces the philosophy of feeding the soil versus chemical agriculture’s focus on feeding the plant. Organicists believe that healthy plants emerge from living earth, the result of the biochemical breakdown of waste mixed with soil-borne and airborne elements. Non-organicists tend to focus more narrowly on plant chemistry, particularly on the big three elements — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — as well as maintaining a soil pH that best facilitates nutrient uptake. (I don’t mean to oversimplify; chemical agronomists are also aware of soil structure’s importance to root development, and thoughtful organic growers are well aware of soil chemistry. But in its extreme form, chemical agriculture abandons soil altogether and morphs into something more closely resembling hydroponic nurture.)

These days, agriculture writ large is facing a soil crisis. Due to heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, coupled with the export of waste, topsoil is disappearing and compacting.

Under natural conditions, plant and animal wastes are widely distributed in an ecosystem and gradually build topsoil. But under the modern food-production system, major nutrients are derived from natural gas (nitrogen) or mining (phosphorus and potassium), minor nutrients are absorbed from the soil and not replaced, the crop goes into animals (people) in a distant location, and the waste ends up far from the farm. This amounts to mining the soil, and on most farmland, topsoil is disappearing at a catastrophic rate.

One of the most profound ideas routinely glossed in history lessons is the crucial role that topsoil loss played in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Greece and Italy are still recovering from the clear-cutting and overgrazing that led to calamitous erosion.

Agro-chemicals, both nutrients and pesticides, are very bad for earthworms. In fact, earthworms are disappearing in America’s farm belt. And soil without earthworms, as Anita Bryant used to tell us in a different context, is like a day without sunshine. (Actually it’s more like a future without sunshine.)

Earthworms are totally awesome. Earthworms are essential; earthworms are magical. Earthworms are your buddies.

As my new favorite organics expert, Tanya Denckla (see “Deep Shade ‘Gardening,'” Aug. 4 Xpress), points out in The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food, “Earthworms are a gardener’s best friend. Their tunneling and production of nitrogen-rich castings (excrement) accomplish many important soil-improving tasks, free of charge.”

Denckla goes on to list and describe a dozen distinct functions of the lowly worm (read the book!), but it all follows from this: An earthworm is a lot like your digestive tract with all of the extraneous attachments removed. It’s the prototypical metabolic engine without the bells, whistles, headlights, chrome wheels, bucket seats, arms, legs, ears, noses and hairdos that make more complex creatures interesting as pets, friends, lovers or wildlife (sometimes all four).

Earthworms eat their way through life, converting and combining all they consume into nutrient forms plants can assimilate, leaving tunnels that both enhance water absorption and facilitate root growth, and vertically distributing nutrients in the topsoil. These tiny, perpetual rototillers are constantly churning — loosening the soil without rending roots and mangling toads, as our hapless, gas-powered simulacra do with such mechanical abandon.

Potted plants are very likely to suffer from compacted soil. Most gardeners, myself included, are inclined toward “feeding the plant” when it comes to container gardens. Liquid fertilizer is easy to apply, and one (this one, at any rate) may not make the leap from garden as ecosystem to potted geranium as ecosystem. Until recently, I never added new organic matter to my potted plants, except when re-potting. I just watered, fed and pruned.

Fast-growing plants and annuals are potted up often enough that compaction isn’t a huge problem. But my cacti (the oldest, probably about my age, has been potted since 1979) are slow growers and a genuine pain to transfer to bigger containers. Guided by my new laserlike awareness, I recently noted that the soil in the cactus pots tends toward adobe-dom. Accordingly, I began intermittently poking around with chopsticks to improve soil friability and enhance water absorption.

Concurrently, I was experiencing compost withdrawal. After many decades of cycling my organic waste stream into the garden (both from the kitchen and from a composting toilet), I felt all of the guilt of a lapsed Catholic or Baptist or Jew raised in a strict religious household. My daily pilgrimage to the garden mecca was no more!

And so, last fall, I bought a box of bait worms and commenced an experiment in condo vermiculture (the fancy name for worm farming). My new pets live in a sturdy plastic storage bin (once used to mouse-proof sweaters when I lived in the country with more fauna). They don’t come close to processing all of my veggie scraps, but at least I am back in the loop. This up-close-and-personal look at the ways of worms has made their rototillering very plain. When I feed them every week or so, I dig a furrow and mound dirt back over their meal. In just a few days, the surface is once again as flat as a pond — silently and imperceptibly leveled, one mouthful at a time.

The setting is undeniably romantic as well. From the first two dozen worms, the population has swelled into what looks to be a cast of thousands. (I quit naming them after awhile, and they are impossible to count without extensive sifting.)

Just two weeks ago, while chopsticking a cactus, everything I’ve just written congealed into an inescapable Truth, a lightning bolt of Wisdom: “What am I doing with the chopsticks, already? This,” I told myself sternly, “is a job for worms.”

Forthwith I distributed some of the vermi-herd into the larger pots, both at home and in the office. Katha discovered one little critter before it dug in (R.I.P.). But the rest are now happily ensconced in their new home, feeding the soil as is their wont.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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One thought on “The worms’ turn

  1. kathleen

    I purchased 9 potted berry plants 4 blueberry 2 blackberry and 2 raspberry. They looked like dead twigs at first, but after I placed an earthworm in one sad blackberry plant it was happy after only 3 days!! I saw lush green new growth. I went to a store a good ways from my house to buy bait worms; so we’ll see what happens next….

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