If a teenage kid who loves spending most of his waking day cultivating a vegetable garden is the definition of a geek, or a nerd—then I qualified in spades. But you know what? …I really could NOT have cared less. Back then; worrying about what other people thought of me was not high on my list of priorities. My very “un-cool” wardrobe attested to that (K-mart jeans, a couple sweat shirts, and a favorite flannel shirt).
I loved the entire process of gardening—from preparing the earth, to making the straight rows, planting the seeds, fertilizing, cultivating, and finally, the enormous satisfaction of harvesting our own fruits and veggies. When my dad’s “Organic Gardening” magazine arrived in the mail every month, I read it cover-to-cover, and couldn’t wait to try the various methods I read in it. Oh yeah, I was a nerd BIG TIME!
But this story is supposed to be about something unbelievable, and what could possibly be stunning and stupefying about gardening? Well, I’ll tell ya:
As I mention above, the concept of organic gardening was very appealing to me; and one of the basic premises of gardening organically is the use of mulch. I came to worship mulching, and I spent much of my time in search of materials that lent itself to it. Mulch is any organic, plant-based material; such as leaves, hay, straw, kitchen waste, animal manure, and grass clippings. I never stopped searching for it, gathering it, collecting it, bagging it, and then bringing it back to our family truck garden out behind our house, so I could MULCH it. After four years of non-stop dumping of organic materials into that large garden, it’s soil became so rich and black with humus that I could push my hands down into it up to my elbows with very little effort. For loam, it was a work of art Man!
But, I hear you say, “what about the unbelievable part?”
Early in the summer of ’75 my old man scored some old straw bales. Straw is what’s left of wheat or barley stalks after the seed has been harvested off it, and it makes GREAT mulch in that it doesn’t have to be “aged” in a mulch pit first. Hay bales, on the other hand, makes even better mulch, but the problem with hay is that it is filled with weed seeds that will immediately start sprouting, which means hoeing up the little weeds for weeks, until all the weed seeds are done germinating. Now, I would NEVER turn down hay—its fertilization properties are quite superior to straw; but, as I say, it takes some work. So, getting some clean, weed-free straw bales was awesome. Plus, it looks great around flowers and plants. I used it around the line of daffodils on the front border of our garden for aesthetics, and around our strawberries to keep the berries clean while they ripened. Good stuff that straw!
So, where is the unbelievable?
It rained the night after I had spread the dozen or so bales of straw over much of the garden. It was a late May shower that gave the soil a much-needed soaking just in time for the beginning of growing season. The next morning, I walked out to the garden to inspect its progress. The sun was bright in a cloudless sky; the air was fresh, moist, and still. Walking across our sopping lawn, I knew I’d never be able to walk the garden rows for the mud, but I figured to walk its perimeter just the same. When I approached the front edge planted with gladiolas, that’s when a chill went up my spine.
During the night, someone, or some mysterious force, had taken the individual straw stalks and had evidently carefully pressed each one into the mud, so that they stuck straight up into the air. Never having seen anything remotely like it, I stood there staring at those thousands of yellow stems poking perfectly perpendicular into the air, like an artificial lawn of extra long toothpicks. They poked out of the muddy, rain-smoothed soil about one stalk for each two or three square inches of garden area. There were no footprints to be seen, neither human nor animal, in the soft muddy garden soil. Actually, there was NOTHING anywhere that I could perceive that could possibly explain this strange phenomenon.
That fact that it seemed so inexplicable made me determined to figure it out. I knew it was some sort of natural occurrence; I just had to find it. I walked slowly up the side of the garden and continued to stare at the ground, my spine tingling deliciously at the mystery in front of me, occasionally stopping to cross my arms or to scratch my head. What the hell did that? By now, some of you already know what it was, but it took me a few more minutes to sort it out.
I crouched low to take a closer look at the forest of straw stems poking out of my garden soil. It looked even more intriguing from that lower angle, because I could see that virtually every single piece of straw had found its way into the soil, seemingly against all physical laws of science, AND common sense. Then I noticed a few traces of some thin trails across the mud leading to some of the stalks. I recognized them instantly as worm trails! A light went on in my head and I felt like a complete idiot, although a relieved one, that I had, at last, figured out the enigma of the straw.
That garden was so rich in humus and organic waste that it was, to all intents and purposes, a worm ranch. Every gardener worth his salt knows that the presence of earthworms is a sign of healthy and productive soil, and that worms help make it that way, AND keeps it that way. But even I had not realized how many damn worms were in that ground. A nightcrawler, especially after a night of rain, will come up and out, keeping their rear end locked tightly in their burrow, in search of any organic material suitable for eating that they can latch onto and then pull down into their tunnel. That’s what happened to my straw. These hungry annelids, denizens of the fertile loam of my garden, had groped out from their holes, found a piece of delicious straw, and then happily dragged it straight down into their underground homes for their dining pleasure. For a short time, it sure freaked me out. Bon Appétit my little worm friends!