Charles Darwin and worms

by James Alexander-Sinclair

Darwin kept worms in tanks in his study and spent many hours observing their behavior, assessing their intelligence and measuring their sensitivity to heat, cold and light.

Hand holding clod of soil with earthworm2009 is likely to be stuffed with articles, books and programmes about Charles Darwin. It is the year of Darwin’s 200th birthday and also the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, his best known work. The BBC are marking the occasion with Darwin Season 2009.

I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't yet read the whole book (at the moment I am rather swept up in the 2009 Oor Wullie annual and a fantastic book about the battle for the Mediterranean in the 16th century, Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley) but, like most people, I get the gist. Natural selection, man descended from apes, evolution etc. All life-changing science that caused major upsets at the time as it contradicted both the Bible and conventional scientific thinking. Even today it upsets the creationists.

Another of Darwin’s works, a book not actually published until a year before his death in 1882, concerned the seemingly humble subject of earthworms. The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms outlined the contribution made by worms to the decomposition of vegetable matter (fallen leaves, dead plant material etc) and thus to the fertility of the soil.

Darwin kept worms in tanks in his study and spent many hours observing their behavior, assessing their intelligence and measuring their sensitivity to heat, cold and light. He breathed on them while chewing tobacco or cotton wool soaked in vinegar to test their sense of smell. He proved that they have no sense of hearing by shouting at them and playing the bassoon. He did, however, notice their sensitivity to vibration, a phenomenon central to the various worm charming festivals. Two of the biggest are held annually in the villages of Blackawton, Devon and Willaston, Cheshire.

Today it is pretty much universally agreed that worms are good news. The only objections come from those who strive for the completely perfect lawn — worm casts can cause a bit of trouble, especially to a perfect putt. In my late-1970s copy of The Lawn Expert, the great Dr Hessayon recommends spraying turf with worm killer, which seems a bit strict for a domestic lawn. Mostly, however, we encourage worms to colonise our borders in order to aerate and feed the soil; all that mulch which we heap upon our gardens is drawn down into the earth by worms. We love worms in our compost heap and many of us have specifically designed wormeries to turn kitchen waste into super-concentrated plant food.

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin and Long Live the Earthworm.

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Gardeners' World Web User 14/01/2009 at 17:21

Oh goody Darwin Season. Did you know that a zoo-keeper once noticed that the orang-utan was reading two books - the Bible and Darwin's The Origin of Species. In surprise he asked the ape, "Why are you reading both those books"? "Well," said the orang-utang, "I just wanted to know if I was my brother's keeper or my keeper's brother."

Gardeners' World Web User 14/01/2009 at 20:55

In this present garden I'm lucky enough to have lots of worms, but in my first garden, I was lucky if I saw two, and I'm not convinced it wasn't the same one twice!

Gardeners' World Web User 15/01/2009 at 17:36

When Captain John Smith took control of the settlement at Jamestown, Virginia and implemented his ethos of 'no work no food'. Then already european worms were beginning their equally successful career on the continent. So much so, that they are regarded as a pest on the west coast as they increase the fertility of the soil making it viable for weed species to take over from the indigenous plants!

Gardeners' World Web User 18/01/2009 at 13:46

I am lucky to be Malaysian, living in Petaling Jaya. I have worms thriving in my garden as I am into worm farming (composting to you). I use horse dung as the base and lots of fruit waste (mainly watermelon skin). Of course, worms grow naturally in my garden as I am always digging up the soil to loosen it, transplanting, burying dead fish from my aquarium, etc. Question: Do worms prefer soil mixed with horse dung or can they do with horse dung and fruit waste only in the worm farm? Or do they thrive better in the ground?

Gardeners' World Web User 18/01/2009 at 20:36

If you use soil it will make the worm bin very heavy. The worms need a 'base' like moist coconut fibre, then you can just add the fruit waste.

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