Who knew all that about worms?

2016-04-14 12.08.39Tuesday 18th September 2018 – Dr Frank AshwoodEarthworms

Earthworms are recognised ecosystem engineers, proving invaluable services to humanity and transforming and improving the soil habitat for other organisms. Most naturalists are aware of their fundamental ecological importance, but few have detailed knowledge of any of our 30 or so native British species. Frank’s PhD was entitled ‘Woodland Restoration on Landfill Sites: Earthworm Activity and Ecosystem Service Provision’. He is a soil ecologist working within Forest Research’s soil sustainability research group. Here Frank will describe earthworms’ behind-the-scenes work, which underlies the productivity and diversity of the natural systems we see every day.

Brilliant  talk last night at the first Bath Nats indoor meeting of the season. Who knew, for instance, how many different species there are, or how to tell the head from the tail and even how mature they might be? Who knew exactly how they move, and that they achieve this with tiny – almost invisible bony ‘feet’.  Sea fishermen would know how fiercely a lugworm can resist being pulled out of the sand, but I never knew the mechanism by which it achieves this strength, (the ‘bony’ feet are sharp, like teeth). There was so much to take in, but for me, the take-away point was that digging – i.e. disrupting the upper soil layer does the earthworms no good at all. I’ve always wondered if the “no-dig” school had any scientific underpinning at all, but last night we had it in (sorry) spadefuls! Here’s a link to The Earthworm Society of Britain should you be interested in becoming a field recorder or just winning a surprise victory in a pub quiz – https://www.earthwormsoc.org.uk

However, when you’re faced with an allotment that looks like a weed infested field interlaced with an impermeable layer of old plastic carpet, there doesn’t seem much future in covering it with more black plastic and hoping when you come back in six months, you’ll be digging in a foot of weed free loam.  That’s to say, digging is the only show in town. Bindweed, couch grass and creeping buttercup – to name but three – laugh at black plastic and regard weed control mat as a kind of play pen.  At which point many new allotmenteers either give up altogether or turn to glyphosate to do the work for them.

So my second take home point from the talk is that if digging is disruptive to worms, glyphosate and most other chemicals are downright poisonous. As always the point is not to allow the perfect to drive out the good, and the fact is that digging is the hard but necessary first step in creating good soil on the allotment.  Once you’ve got the upper hand, which might take a couple of seasons of weeding and hoeing, but during which you’ll still be able to grow things; then you can ease up on the digging and use deep mulches to feed the worms and the soil at the same time.

As it happens we were moving in the ‘no-dig’ direction in any case and I’ve already started a trial and I’m breaking at least two of the gardening dogma at once.  I’ve sown some very late carrots in two adjoining cold frames – one lot straight into Sylva Grow compost and the other into composted manure – so that’s apparently certain to result in forked roots according to the rules.  The other broken rule is that I didn’t dig the underlying soil at all and so the compost is lying on undug (but weed free) ground. We’ll see the results of my trial in the spring and I’ll post about it good or bad. 2018-08-29 16.08.33

The hole in the corner of the frame was almost certainly made by a rat.  They’re ubiquitous in Bath: just one of the things the Council wouldn’t like to be better known!

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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