I’ve always been a fan of dirt.
I spent my youth enjoying its destructive properties. I demolished white bath towels, fresh socks and new school clothes with its grit and grime. However, in the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate the nourishing capabilities of soil and its delicate balance of nutrients.
Last fall, I filled my vegetable bed with a thick layer of compost and fresh earth, hoping the combination will feed my soon-to-be-planted seedlings.
To the naked eye, the bed’s been sitting idle for five months, cold, barren and exposed, but underneath its frosty surface lies a world of sleeping bacteria, slime-coated worms and fledgling fungi.
“Of all the myriad members of the soil food web, worms have the most interesting winter survival strategies. Before the soil freezes, common earthworms burrow down into the subsoil, below the frost line — as much as six feet deep,” according to boutea.com. “There they form a slime-coated ball and hibernate in a state called estivation. [Writer’s note: Other information I found describes estivation as triggered by extreme heat and/or drought] Because they are wrapped in mucous, they can survive for long periods without moisture until spring rains wake them from their slumber.”
Other types of worms refuse to set a downward path. Instead, they lay eggs in cocoons that hatch when weather conditions improve.
We’ve all known since childhood that the wigglin’ critters are good to have around. They improve the structure of the soil, increase the soil’s fertility, aid in a plant’s growth and health, detoxify some ground chemicals, improve water absorption, prevent erosion and hinder weed development.
Bacteria have membranes that don’t burst when their internal fluids freeze, so the simple little guys can hibernate all winter in their well-protected humus habitats. When they are active, bacteria help degrade organic matter, suppress diseases and transform the nutrients inside plants’ roots.
Fungi can be good. Fungi can be bad. However, most species don’t survive the winter. Instead, they set spores that begin to sprout as soon as the soil temperature increases. If you’re fortunate enough to maintain a healthy, winter soil, the good fungi will defend your new seedlings from the noxious breeds and improve spring growth by strengthening plant development.