Worms and Leaves

I love composting. There are numerous reasons why but the most important is that the garden waste, grass clippings, plant prunings and vegetable scraps from the kitchen can all be utilised to create what Monty Don calls ‘Black Gold’. I have bins in the garden (three – one hot and two cold) and a bin and piles at the allotment. Not only does it mean that the kitchen waste can easily be dispensed with, the garden and allotment waste just gets cut up and dumped in the bins but the resulting compost goes back onto the garden to enrich and feed the soil. 

Within the bins, even the Hotbin as I saw the other day after emptying the ready compost, are all sorts of invertebrates busying themselves with the process of breaking down the vegetation but most importantly worms. I have loads of them in the cold compost. Where they come from is a mystery to me as they are a specific type of compost bin worm. Usually Brandlings, Reds or Dendra. They appear from seemingly nowhere and I love them. They are the very epitome of natures hard working workforce. If you add compost to your garden you will increase the amount of worms that are burrowing their way below the surface of the soil. They are ‘ecosystem engineers’ as the Earth Worm Society of Britain calls them (yes there is such an organisation as I have just found out).

Worms break down decomposing organic matter, they open up the structure of the soil allowing both water and air to circulate, in so doing they help to stop flooding by stopping compaction. They are what Charles Darwin called ‘natures ploughs’ because they mix the soil with the organic matter. This mixing encourages bacteria, fungi and nutrients which will feed your plants. I have been told and read that you can just leave your leaves laying on the surface because worms will come and pull them down into the soil. I have always been a bit sceptical of this claim. How do they know and how do they do it? 

Worms in the Hotbin

This Autumn I have dug up the grass nearest to the shed to create a perennial wildflower area. The grass was rubbish and full of perennial weeds that smothered any grass that was there no matter how hard I tried to hand weed them. And then there’s the matter of mowing. I wanted something that would look lovely and add further benefit to the garden wildlife and I didn’t have to mow. I prepared the soil as per the seeding instructions and scattered the seed and rolled the soil flat and hard (I remember we inherited a roller and it was tucked behind the shed. I think it’s the first time it has been used).

This area is underneath or near to the Acer and next door’s Robinia so gets a lot of leaf fall. The seeds have already germinated in this warm autumn weather and I didn’t want these tiny things to be suffocated by the cover of leaves so I have been carefully removing them. Intriguingly some of the leaves have been half buried. You might say pulled below the surface. The soil was so flat and rolled firm that the only explanation must be worms. The last time I cleared the patch (it is ending up a bit like painting the Forth Bridge) there were a few worm casts on the surface. So indeed the worms do pull the leaves below ground. 

The one thing I don’t add to my compost bins is the leaves. They take a much longer time to de-compose than other organic matter but are equally as fabulous as compost. Most of the leaves I now let naturally break down on the borders. For a long time I would clear them away for the sake of tidiness and I read once that they would harbour slugs and snails. Leaf litter, think of a forest floor, breaks down eventually to nutritious, humus-rich organic matter. I collect the leaves that fall on the gravel drive and new paths in the garden and out on the path outside the house and put them in an old dumpy bag that a delivery of gravel came in. I’ve just emptied last years leaves onto the borders and, low and behold, even though the fabric of the bag is thick and you just can’t image how they did it, mixed with the decomposed leaves were loads of incredible worms.

If you have room for a compost bin or a wormery or a even a small bag of leaves that can be tucked away out of sight I thoroughly recommend it. The compost you will get will be better than anything you can buy, is free and will, no doubt, be full of wonderful worms.

3 thoughts on “Worms and Leaves”

  1. That’s the problem – I don’t like worms!!!
    I know they are brilliant in all the ways you say but the thought of a wormery puts me in a dither!!!


  2. I’m impressed at your organisation and your compost really does look like ‘black gold!’ Definitely worth the effort.


  3. Hi Tessa. It’s always a joy to read your blog.
    Yeah, I love composting. My last job was as a maintenance gardener in private gardens, and we persuaded four of our clients to have us build them double compost boxes, each 6ft square, 4ft high, so as to have one box building and one rotting down. Also we made leaf-mould enclosures separately in two gardens, simple wire mesh, zip-tied to posts. All this good stuff was used to mulch their borders. The set-up cost the clients a few quid, but this was offset by the ease of weeding the improved soil, and them no longer being charged for taking their green waste away in the van.
    You know, years ago when Jo, Mum and I lived in Putney, one night I was on the front door steps. I was probably trying to figure out how to break in to our house because Mum never trusted me and I didn’t get a front-door key until I was 46 years old. Long story.
    It was very quiet, and the air was still and moist after rain. I was aware of a gentle rustling sound from our little front garden. I crouched down to investigate. In the orange light from a lamp-post I could see leaves up-ending in the soil, and being slowly pulled down into the ground. No, just for a change, I wasn’t tripping on acid, it really happened.
    Since then, I have worked in gardens with Ash and Horse Chestnut trees in them. In Autumn/winter, raking up the compound leaves from the lawns it was apparent that worms had been at work, as the leaflets had mostly rotted away, but there were many tough leaf petioles or midribs sticking up, half embedded into the turf.
    How does a worm pull a leaf into the ground? It doesn’t have a mouth to grab the leaf, or does it? Maybe it twines it’s body around the stalk and pulls it into the hole it’s made. Anyway, respect to the worms, I love ’em.
    Stay safe and have a lovely Christmas and New Year.


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