Earthworms are enthusiastic about my new lasagne garden.
I’m not growing lasagne. That’s the term for layering paper or cardboard over an area you want to reclaim and topping it off with compost materials. Come spring, you can plant directly into the casserole.
There’s nothing there now but a fat sludge of dark compost over the original weedy patch and cardboard, both of which are gone, and if you turn it over with a shovel, it looks like a blond brownie. Evidently the cardboard component attracted earthworms, and from the looks of it, the whole setup agreed with them. I certainly won’t argue with them and I don’t think the robins will either without a whole team on the tug-o-war. Some of the worms that have lurched out when I took a hoe to this began audibly galloping off quicker than I could find my camera, pointy-end first, with small shrubberies quaking several feet away. One of these suckers would set a heron back.
Cool! I thought. Everyone knows earthworms are good for the soil. I remember them from my youth. They lived in Daddy’s compost pile. No one on the block had a compost pile but my Daddy, and that plus the fact he voted for Adlai Stevenson set him apart. He’d send me to the compost pile to find an earthworm if we were going fishing.
If I fished with one of the ones I’ve been digging up here, I could finally snag a steelhead. Or possibly a tuna, or the Queen Mary. These ain’t bluegill worms.
So everyone knows earthworms aerate the soil and move nutrients around, which is a fancy way of saying they eat here and poop elsewhere. But it turns out that they’re not necessarily so benign. In fact, they’re damn near ruining forests wherever they find a way in. Which apparently they are doing because people toss their extra bait worms into the ditch. I’ve done it too. Didn’t know not to. Once they’re in, they’re immune to eviction.
And not a one of them is native. Our native earthworms got iced out with the glaciers. These are European imports, and as long as they confine themselves to our vegetable beds, they’re all right. But in our splendid deciduous forests, where a rich layer of detritus rules, or is supposed to, they can snack it all gone. Forests with earthworm populations quickly lose their plant wealth and become barren. And that is very encouraging for garlic mustard.
You might have heard of garlic mustard. This is another invasive, a plant, and knowledgeable people yank it up wherever they see it in the forest. This gives them that double glow of fighting the good fight and also demonstrating their knowledgeableness to their companions. Weirdly, though, although they are correct that mustard garlic is a bane of the forest, they might be perpetuating it by pulling it. It’s okay if it’s just a few pioneer plants, but it turns out that if there’s a big infestation of the stuff, it limits itself and dwindles after a while. It actually does better if it’s “managed” by removal. And there’s a huge correlation between garlic mustard invasions and (1) the presence of earthworms, and (2) the apparently related presence of deer. So says Dr. Berndt Blossey, conservation biologist, who has studied this. Keep the deer out and you lose the earthworms and the garlic mustard. Word is, you pretty much lose Lyme disease, too.
And, I feel compelled to add, you help out the salamanders, which are God’s favorite species, no matter what else you may have heard.
I’m not sure they’ve quite figured out how an overpopulation of deer leads to a surfeit of earthworms, but Dr. Blossey has a hundred bucks that says it’s so. There are way, way, way, way more deer than there used to be, all of them itchy. And way fewer big cats and wolves and the like. We should be hauling in more predators but people are right fussy about that.
So experts now recommend severe culling of deer, limiting them to five to seven per square mile. I can’t do it, personally. But y’all go ahead on. I’ll eat it.