Can of worms

Like most people who have eyes and ears and minds that are open, I learn something new every day – but sometimes it’s good to get out and actually be “schooled”. Now that the gardens aren’t commandeering every moment of our time and every scrap of energy in our minds and bodies, we can give ourselves the chance to be taught by something/someone else outside of our daily realm. For Gail and me it’s a winter ritual to go to the RI Nursery and Landscape Assoc. (RINLA) Conference and Trade Show.RINLA conference stuff…

I attended the RINLA Conference yesterday and as usual came back with my mind humming and my world a little rattled. Sometimes it’s not just that I don’t already have access to the information that’s being shared but find by listening to someone else (usually an expert) speak about it, I am handed a new way to process or think about the information. For instance, during the panel discussion on invasives (what’s currently being done to limit/control invasive species in RI and MA), Dr. Sue Gordon from URI mentioned worms. She said that as a kid she remembers crashing around the forest in leaf litter that was up to her knees. Now-a-days forest leaf litter is only ever inches thick. Native worms in the U.S. were wiped out in the last ice age and what we’ve got now (we all know this) are European immigrants and we’ve been taught as gardeners to love and feed these lowly dirt munchers. Well. Perhaps too much of a good thing is not so good after all. Worms are not meant to be in our forests and leaf litter that breaks down too quickly is not good for forest ecology (see Teeming with Microbes by J. Lowenfels and W. Lewis). Native plants get stressed and opportunistic invasives get the strangle hold and the balance goes all out of whack. Dr. Gordon who also manages Kinney Azalea Gardens in South County said that she can’t keep a root ball around her nursery plants because the worms have made the soil so friable. Have you ever had worms in a potted plant? Because now that I think of it, it’s awfully hard to keep a wormy pot watered… Maybe – could it be that we shouldn’t go quite so crazy adding organic matter to our gardens – especially those of us in places that have been teetering on the edges of drought? I don’t mean to say that we should stop making compost or ammending the soil in our gardens but I do think we might have to keep an ever more vigilant eye out for all kinds of potential invasives in our local landscapes. And we’ll have to learn methods of moderation. (Doesn’t come down to “all things in moderation”?) And I think we should keep getting “schooled” by the experts. Have you learned or heard anything that rattled your world this winter? (For lists of Blithewold’s winter educational offerings click here and here.) At RINLA I learned more than I knew about using native plants too – stay tuned for that post later (when I’ve done some more reading on the subject!).

8 thoughts on “Can of worms

  1. I’m still not sure what to think about this whole ‘worm’ crisis, Kris. I read something about it a while back, and I’m working through Life in the Soil right now. I do agree with you–all things in moderation –well, most things in moderation, some things not at all. It bears more thinking about, but I’m not about to wage war on my worm populations.

  2. Jodi, I’m not sure what to think of it either and wouldn’t want to suggest any kind of war on worms – there’s a reason they were brought here – we need them! But the world is changing and worm populations keep growing – they don’t have many predators to keep them in check – and I’m glad to have been made aware that “it bears more thinking about”!

  3. First it was “worms are bad for prairies.” Now they’re bad for forests! I think at this point we’re stuck with them. All these cautionary tales are just so much water under the proverbial bridge. We know now that the simple solution of importing some plant/animal/bug is not necessarily the best solution. I don’t think this new worm news is going to change my gardening practices in the Woodland Garden, but it has in my little faux praire. I use virtually no mulch there (excepting a bit of shredded hardwood around the Phlox paniculata). My favorite phrasing of the maxim is “In all things, moderation.” We can only hope that our society will start taking that to heart.

  4. Mr. McG’s D, The prairies just don’t get a break do they? I didn’t realize they were having worm problems. But then again worm problems in general are pretty new to me! I think sometimes even if we practice moderation, life (worms too) can get away from us especially if we’re not paying attention. I’m going to start paying more attention.

  5. National Geographic did a spot on this subject this year. Check out the article on the Jamestown Indians and how the Europeans changed the ecology of the east coast within weeks. As I remember, the European worms got here in the soil the ships used as ballast; they unloaded the worm-laden foreign soil as they added goods to ship back to Europe. The worms proliferated on the mounds of leaf litter in the Virginia forests that would have been several feet thick in places.

    As for soil ecology, really we’re only beginning to understand how it works. The organic movement has made us more aware of this, and it is doing wonders to revolutionize the way we think about agriculture but it has had the downside of introducing several questionable practices like promoting vermiculture. The practice is commendable, but it poses the risk of introducing a foreign worm–the red worm into an non-native environment. Is this any different than what the Jamestown settlers did when they unloaded their worm-laden ballast? Worms aren’t the only source of controversy–the popular addition of commercial mycorrhize could potentially have problems. Like the yeast bacteria that makes sourdough, every region has its native mycorrhize in the soils already. By adding commercial mycorrhize to the soil, you are introduce yet another non-native species. What kind of effect it will have on native populations isn’t certain, as it’s a newer practice.

    Personally, rather than second guessing ourselves in the garden, I think the best solution for any kind of conservation is to use what you’ve got and plant native/indigenous plants, a philosophy I’ve had to embrace even more now that I’ve moved into the western U.S.

    Wow, this is long and rant-ish. Sorry!

  6. Susan, Rant away! I was hoping you’d chime in on this. Thank you for passing along the National Geographic article. (I found it here: It would appear that anytime we move around in the world we bring something potentially unwelcome with us. I think for better or worse we’re stuck with the worms and a global ecology. Although I learned more about the reasons for planting natives (and plan on reading up and writing about what I learned) I would have a hard time giving up some of our exotics. I do think we should keep a vigilant eye on them and I’ll take your advice as a reminder to be a good plant and placement matchmaker. If the right plant is in the right location, we shouldn’t have to do much to help both plant and location thrive.

  7. Yes, with globalization, things now move around more than every before, but there’s a difference between a sea urchin from China hitching a ride on a container ship and someone deliberately introducing, oh say, a bag of Asian ladybugs in their backyard because they are more voracious than their American counterparts.

    I agree that there is a place for exotics, but are there natives in our gardens too? “Right plant right location” should mean more though than planting a rose bush in a sunny spot. Many of our natives are being improved right now, baptisia and echinacea being prominent stand-outs, and that is a very encouraging step in the right direction. As gardeners we need to look to the plants in our region. As much as I love lavenders, I try to use agastaches and penstemons because when I hike into the mountains, that’s what I will find, not to mention that the native penstemons of the West are incredible.

    We need to not just consider plants because they will do well in our environment–that’s the English approach–but choose plants from our environment. The English neglected their own native plants at the expense of foreign introductions to such a degree that their native plant heritage is virtually lost. Twenty years ago the idea of this happening in North America seemed unfathomable, but the rate at which we are losing our open spaces to climate change and encroaching populations, as gardeners we need to preserve our native plant species. As Al says, it’s a moral issue.

  8. Susan, You are taking the words right out of my mouth – though I haven’t finished doing my homework on the subject yet! I do plan on getting into the topic of planting with natives – I learned something at RINLA that astonished me though it won’t be news to you. And when I do post (probably in February as people are putting in their plant orders), I’ll link back to this discussion – and hope you join in again. You touched a chord with “as much as I love lavenders…” Relocating to the Canary Islands is one option for me I suppose…

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