Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Nature's gardeners

On a damp evening, the patio slabs wet with moisture, I am surprised by the number of earthworms that have emerged. A good number are stretched across the slabs, one end tethered in the narrow band of soil that separates each slab from its neighbour. It is clear that the worms are after the fallen hazel leaves; one such leaf is in the process of being dragged into the soil by an unseen worm. Viewed as a whole it is as if a single creature lurks beneath the patio, the worms its tendrils seeking out nourishment from the surface above.

The worms are alert and most retreat to their burrows as I cross the patio to the garden beyond. They are not sluggish but draw back into their burrows with a swift movement that suggests a certain elasticity to their tubular bodies. The sense of elasticity is further emphasised by the distance over which some of the worms appear to have stretched their bodies. Perhaps most surprising of all are the few worms that have emerged from the narrowest of cracks within the concrete path or from around the drain cover. It is a reminder that while the surface may appear impervious and lifeless, it is only a thin skin below which a myriad of creatures continue with their lives.

These look like common earthworms, one of a number of species that dwell within the garden soil here at home. The different species may be found at different depths within the soil profile and not all of them emerge on the surface when temperature and humidity are favourable. Unusually, common earthworms not only forage on the surface for dead leaves and other plant material, they also mate here, as the occasional sighting will testify. Earthworms have an obvious external segmentation to their tubular bodies and it is this that contributes to their amazing ability to extend and then rapidly contract their body length.

Chance encounters like this underline the numbers present within the garden and the quantity of plant material that they must recycle over the course of the year. Come morning, the only sign of their presence will be a few dozen worm casts and the occasion leaf, half submerged in the soil.

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