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Why no worms in leafmould?  RSS feed

 
kristina summer
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I've noticed that the wonderful spongy ground in the woodland/forrest, that's had years of layers of leafmould developing, has no worms or slugs in it. Why is that?

It makes me wonder about adding it as a soil conditioner to improve clay soil. I know leafmould is excellent for the fungi it provides the soil with (fantastic explanations by Ken Leavy on this site). But the worms don't seem to like it in it's natural habitat. I do like my worms!

 
Ken Peavey
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Leaf mold has not been given the amount of study and discussion that I think it deserves, so I enthusiastically welcome your questions. I don't have an answer here, but I can offer my observations.

Let me first identify my experimental variables.
I have not done much with leaf mold before 2010.
I'm in northern Florida, USDA Zone 8b/9a, depending on which map you look at. I get a few frosts each year, maybe a couple weeks of daytime highs in the 40s.
Average annual rainfall here is 54", more in the summer, quite dry in the winter. This area has been in some level of drought ranging from D1 to D3 from August '10 until earlier this year. I have added copious amounts of water to a particular heap which was close to the hose, but I don't bother adding water anymore. With daytime temps in the 90s for several months, there is no way I can keep a heap moist. I let the rain do the job.
My soil is over 98% sand.
Most of the trees around here are water oak, a couple of small pecans, a few laurel, 2 southern yellow pines, 3 loquat ( I leave these leaves in place), a couple of magnolia over the fence, a couple of pignut hickory, 2 tiny apple trees, and a lone lime that has yet to make it through the winter but keeps growing back despite my neglect. The preponderance of the leaves I work with are water oak.
I think results are highly dependent on the environment in which the leaves decay.

I've got several heaps of leaves around here of various ages.
When the leaves have been recently heaped, there are not many worms, bugs, or even fungi. It takes a while for this stuff to get going.
After a few months, when the weather is warm, I have examined a heap to find it thriving with critters, including worms. Mind you, 2 years of drought had decreased the worm population considerably. I am still hard pressed to find worms. I can find them in the middle aged heaps here and there when the heaps are moist.
In the older heaps, the once thriving critters are indeed fewer, including the worms.
As for the ground on the forested side of the back field, I have made no observations.
In areas of the garden where I have added leaves and leaf mold, I do find some worms. Not an abundance, but one here and there. I don't do much digging out there. I smother with leaves, let it do its thing, then start building compost where the beds will be. Any digging is done when I toss the compost with a bit of soil and when I set in plants. I'm not actively searching for worms. I'll strive to get out tomorrow to dig around, see what I find.

You have observed no worms in a mature woodland duff. What we need is more observations, more data points to come up with a pattern. Along with observations, it would be handy to pay attention to other details in order to come up with an explanation.

It is my understanding that worms feed on bacteria, which is why they thrive in composting environments and environments rich in bacterial decay. Leaf mold is produced primarily through fungal decomposition. There would be some bacterial activity, especially at the start. Leaves do have some nutrients when freshly fallen. Gathering them up can bring in some green material/weeds/grass, but not so much, I think, to maintain prolonged bacterial activity. I think a leaf heap would be attractive to worms for a limited period, after which they die off or move on.

Leaves tend to be acidic. While it is true that whatever passes through a worm tends to come out the back closer to pH neutral, once the bacterial phase winds down, the pH of the decaying leaves will stay more acidic, which may be unappealing to worms.

Leaf mold can be produced in low oxygen conditions. Leaf mold in a forest floor would not be turned and aerated. The worms need oxygen. Such an environment would not help them out. Worms dig plenty of tunnels, which greatly improves aeration, but decaying leaves do not maintain structural support which would result in destruction these tunnels. Then again, the ground is spongy and the mycellium gives the soil plenty of structure.

Near the edge of a woodland, there would be more diverse plant waste on the ground, but deep into the woods past the edge, the floor litter would be leaf dominant. This says less diet diversity. I'd think at least some worms would be around, but not as many a near an edge.

How much leaf mold is too much? I've got a pile of compost out there with weeds growing all over. I've got a pile of leaf mold that is ready for use that only has a couple of vines. In the thread Building soil: what to do with leaf mulch I talked about how much leaf mold to add, offering 10% leafmold as still improving soil. The percentage of leaf mold in the soil of a forest floor can be significantly higher.

Hmmm...

Science lives on data, but is driven by hunches. I have a hunch you are right in that very few worms live in a mature duff.
All we gotta figure out is the Why.

CALLING ALL PERMIES!
Give your woodland floors a good look. Where do you find worms, what are the environmental conditions, and specifically, do you find worms in forest floors with abundant leaf mold?

As for using it as a soil conditioner, I strongly support this notion.
In my garden area I have 4'x50 areas to which the only thing I have done is cover them with 6 inches of leaves. These areas have grown up with grass and weeds, as have areas that have been left untouched. The amended areas show more growth, faster growth (I mow the whole place), and a noticable difference in color. The weeds have more stems, leaves, and blossoms. The grass is a darker green, with a clear line of demarcation. You can pick out the treated areas at a glance from 100 feet away.
If you are hesitant, consider experimenting with a small area, perhaps 4'x4' to see what happens.
I would love to hear your results.
 
Ken Peavey
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Slugs
I don't know the much about slugs other than they are slimy, white, and can Frig Up a cabbage.

 
Renate Howard
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Worms are not native to the USA. The glaciers wiped them out. All the worms here have come from other places, and our woodlands are not adapted to having worms. What I have observed in my woods was that worms eat leaf mold up, so in order to have leaf mold you have to eliminate worms. In my "woods" back when I had a 1-acre lot, there was a little bit of leaf mold when I first arrived. The neighbors all cut their trees to put grass underneath so the wood lot became just the 1/4 acre on my property. The worms would get active as the weather warmed and eat every last bit of fallen leaf so that by midsummer when the trees really needed that mulch to protect their roots and retain soil moisture, there was only bare dirt. Unfortunately the trees in my woods were predominately maple with shallow roots so there wasn't much of an understory to speak of.
 
Stan Wilson
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Location: Missoula, MT.
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Worms are not indigenous to the continent and so are not part of a forest environment. I'm just getting back into the permi scene after and absence to get my BA in Am. History. I study shit, literally. Speaking of shit and worms, I have two tubs of red wiggler worms for sale, ten dollars per quart yogurt container and my first finished humanure compost, it is beautiful. Contact me to talk permaculture, worms, or the carbon sequestering super powers of composting, or the history of shit! Via Con Compost! Stan
 
David Hartley
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There are a few worms and a stink ton of slugs in the coastal woodlands of the PNW
 
Jeff R Hodgins
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earth worms generaly live in the ground and red wigglers aka compost worms live in manure and other high energy food sources not leaves alone
 
Aljaz Plankl
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kristina summer wrote:I've noticed that the wonderful spongy ground in the woodland/forrest, that's had years of layers of leafmould developing, has no worms or slugs in it. Why is that?

It makes me wonder about adding it as a soil conditioner to improve clay soil. I know leafmould is excellent for the fungi it provides the soil with (fantastic explanations by Ken Leavy on this site). But the worms don't seem to like it in it's natural habitat. I do like my worms!



Worms don't like acidic ground, you won't find them in forests.
Learned that from Mark Vander Meer in this video.

Use leaf mold in your garden, with help of compost, ash, other organic mater... wonderful stuff is leaf mold.
Our garden is completly covered with leaf mold during winter.
 
Al Senner
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Location: southeast SD (zone 4b/5a)
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Interesting side note. I recently read an article put out by the Ojibwe nation speaking on the decline of native vegetation diversity in Wisconsin forests because of earthworms. Sugar maples and wildflowers were the main source of worry.
 
Barry Fitzgerald
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Location: Welland, Ontario, Canada
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From my observations, you will find worms in leaf mould of Maple and Poplar leaves. They are not found in oak nor walnut leaves. I have also found worms under cow pies in barren areas that I never expected any would be around.
I conclude that if you provide the right environment, they will find it it and utilise it.
 
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