Thursday, April 09, 2009

Life is good! -- the worms and the weeds are back. Truth be told, I missed them both. They are the Yin and Yang of horticulture -- the complementary opposites that make the world of gardening such a rewarding place to be in.

And like these two concepts of Chinese philosophy -- slow, soft, cold, wet, and tranquil Yin; and fast, focused, hot, and aggressive Yang -- the two harbingers of horticulture spent their off seasons in very different ways.

The laidback one chilled out, literally.

"When temperatures drop or soils get too warm or dry, worms know what to do. If it starts getting chilly, many kinds of worms tunnel deep into the soil before it freezes. Worms 'migrate' downward, burrowing deeper to get past the frost. Sometimes they dig six feet deep! There they stay in their burrows, prisoners below soil frozen hard as rock and topped by ice and snow. They coil into a slime-coated ball and go into a sleep-like state called estivation, which is similar to hibernation for bears. (The mucous, or slime, keeps the worms from drying out.) Worms will survive in frozen or dry soils by estivation until conditions improve." (

While the Type A personality worked out.

"These weeds don't magically appear overnight; it just seems that way. They are called winter annuals. Most annuals germinate in the spring, flower in the early summer, set seed in the late summer or fall and then die. Winter annuals germinate in the fall, grow through the winter, bloom and set seed in the spring and die in the summer." (

We all probably would agree that worms are a gardener's B.F.F. They tunnel through the soil, bringing in oxygen, draining water, and creating space for plant roots. Their castings (a.k.a. "worm poop") provide valuable organic matter -- as much as 1/5 inch of new surface soil per year per acre -- yet are small enough, and sufficiently odorless that we bare-handed gardeners aren't aware at all of what is we are really handling and crawling around in. An acre of good garden soil may be home to as many as a million earthworms. And you didn't think you had many friends.

But why would I welcome back the weeds?

Truman Capote author of books such as "Breakfast at Tiffanys" and "In Cold Blood" had this to say about the literary value of the 1950's novel "On The Road" by Jack Kerouac, "That's not writing, that's typing."

In the same vain I would submit that raising plants in the absence of weeds "is not gardening, it's just growing." -- something that any five year old with a Chia Pet can do. But we plantsmen are of a sturdier stock than that.

There was a time in my gardening career when I thought of weeds as a good thing. "A weed is just a flower for which we haven't found a use." "A weed is just a flower THEY don't approve of." "A weeds is just a flower in the wrong place."

Of course all of the weeds that I was talking about back then belonged to other people. And I, being a perpetual apartment dweller from a non-horticultural family, felt totally free to pass judgment on how these other people should treat their invasive plants.

Worms on the other hand, if I thought them at all at that time, were simply disgusting little creatures that we were forced to dissect for no apparent reason back in some dimly remembered high school biology lab.

Then we bought a house. It had a yard. The yard had flowering stuff. Mars wanted more flowering stuff plus some edible stuff. Pretty soon so did I.

Worms quickly became that welcome sign of the gardening season when I turned that first garden fork's worth of fertile soil and a fat, juicy one wriggled to the top of the clod, took a quick bath in the warming sunlight, and eagerly leapt to the ground to do its work.

But weeds turned into those useless things that I didn't approve of because they always appeared in the wrong place.

Soon I realized that most of the joy that I felt in the garden comes not from planting and watering -- the things that most non-jardinieres mistakenly believe is the art of the craft.

It comes instead from plain old diggin' in the dirt -- all those small individual acts of preparation throughout the year that provide nurturing homes for incoming plants, and worms -- and, to my great surprise, from protecting that turf against unwanted invaders

Like Henry David Thoreau in his vegetable plot at Walden Pond:

"Daily the beans saw me come to their rescue armed with a hoe, and thin the ranks of their enemies, filling up the trenches with weedy dead. Many a lusty crest-waving Hector, that towered a whole foot above his crowding comrades, fell before my weapon and rolled in the dust."

Now that, my friend, is gardening.

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