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Worm Time

Lots of rain, that spring. Screening compost, I marveled at all the earthworms. Pulling apart damp clumps of dark brown, half-rotted maple leaves, I’d find hundreds of half-inch worms packed together, as well as plenty of two- and three-inchers. And all over, tiny oval things looking like pale cream seeds, about 1/8 inch long: fresh cocoons more worms would hatch from. It was breeding time.

I’m a lazy composter; my compost piles run cool. With the rain, perfect habitat for _Lumbricus rubellus_ — the red compost worm, that needs rich humus. These worms stay in the top twelve inches of soil; in winter they descend maybe six inches more, roll up and go dormant. Egg capsules deposited in the fall also wait 'til their environment reaches 60º before hatching.

This was more than I’d ever seen. Trying to rub the compost through the riddle Ward made me (half-inch hardware cloth, caught in a wooden frame big enough to set atop my garden cart), I had to stop and pick out worms, and clumps of baby worms, to prevent their getting mashed, so often it took me forever to do the job.

I didn’t mind. Not only was I mesmerized by the proliferation of life I was uncovering, but I felt blessed by such potential benefit to my garden. These busy creatures would turn my lazy compost piles into gardener’s gold: not only breaking the material down faster, but neutralizing the pH, converting nutrients to forms plants can absorb, and enriching the soil with worm digestive enzymes.

Worms are icky, right? They’re strange, with bodies very different from ours. Cold-blooded. Mucus keeps their skins moist, to enable exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide — their only means of breathing. In light, they react by wiggling. So if I pick one up with bare fingers, that combination of strange, slimy, squirmy and cool still evokes the “eww” reaction in me. But that spring, my amazement at the mystery of these garden angels also evoked wonder — and that has stayed with me too.

These days I don’t bend over the cart to screen compost. If I need beautiful finished stuff, I’ll stand at my potting table and use the 11-inch round metal riddle I bought from a garden catalog. But usually I just let shovelfuls of compost finish decomposing by themselves in the garden.

Still it’s been so rainy, I’m curious what it looks like out there in the pile.

© Copyright 2005 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 6 May 2005

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