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Some Thoughts on Spring Pansies and Summer Earthworms
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale

email: art@artdrysdale.com

Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at http://www.artdrysdale.com


April 30, 2000

The pansy is supreme right now. A decade ago, few gardeners used the pansy as an early colour provider in urns, window boxes and flowerbeds, as is the case today. Fifteen years ago, only a very few garden centres sold pansies whereas now, virtually every outlet that deals in plants during the spring season starts selling pansies (and violas) in March. My favourite poem about the Pansy, written a way back in 1934 by L. Young Correthers of San Diego, is even more appropriate now at this time of year, than 66 years ago. Here it is:

Did you ever pick a pansy Beside the garden walk? Did you ever hold him in your hand And try to make him talk? He just makes ugly faces And laughs at you and winks. You can tell from the way he carries on, All the terrible things he thinks.

Pansies (Viola tricolor hortensis) are biennials-that is they grow from seed one year, and put on their best blooming performance in the next year. Of increasing interest too are pansies which not only perform well the first spring, but continue flowering throughout the summer. Such is the case for the Newhouse giant pansies offered by only a couple of nurseries/garden centres in Ontario. The Newhouse pansies originated in the 30s and 40s with the Newhouse family of Kalamazoo Michigan. Charles and Alan Newhouse tell how their grandfather, Peter, began growing pansies on a 1 ha+ (3 acre) stretch of muck soil. He supplemented his income as a celery grower with the pansies. In the 60s and 70s Charles’ son Jake followed in his footsteps, buying more muck soil land and putting it into pansy production each August. A few years later, Jake and his son Chuck, were able to claim the world’s largest pansy farm, annually shipping million plants.

I talked to Chuck this week, and he says that although their perennial farm does not concentrate on pansies, they still grow the variety that Grandpa Peter sowed in the 30s and 40s. The hardy plants are shipped all over the U.S., including to Holland Valley Nursery in Newmarket (north of Toronto) and Maple Leaf Nurseries in the Niagara peninsula. Chuck emphasized that while their older varieties do flower all summer, and will over-winter well, they do not suggest gardeners grow them as a perennial. They are true biennials, and if left to grow in their third year, are often somewhat leggy. However, their hardiness means that if they are bought in the autumn and planted, they should perform well early the following spring.

This week, for the second time in recent months, I had a note from Donna Dawson, web mistress of the ICanGarden.com website, about dew worms. The question really was about how to 'control' them; i.e. get rid of them. I wrote her back a hasty reply questioning why anyone would want to get rid of what are unquestionably all gardeners’ best friends. Apparently it’s the casings on and 'bumps' they cause in lawns that is the concern.

Dew worms, or night crawlers (Lumbricus terrestris) have four pairs of bristle-like legs per segment. It is these that allow it to crawl. The worms may only be several centimetres in length but they are vital to the earth’s well being. They have no lungs; oxygen reaching its blood vessels through the moist, thin skin. There are no eyes but they can tell light from dark. They do have no less than five pairs of hearts, and can instantly feel the smallest of vibrations. Worms are hermaphrodites; each can mate with another and produce eggs. A cocoon is formed by the clitellum, the obvious band around each worm’s body. The cocoon slides forward onto the ground, its ends seal, and one or more of the enclosed eggs develop. Tiny look-alikes hatch from the cocoon and they grow up without any assistance from parents.

Earthworms spend most of their time tunnelling. They hunt for food at night. They always keep their rear ends anchored in their tunnels, elongating their bodies as only worms can, and retracting immediately if threatened. They can easily work through loosely packed soil, but can still make great progress in hard soil by swallowing the earth in their paths as they burrow. It’s the results of this technique that leads to the surface castings that are so beneficial to the soil.

When earthworms are caught and pulled from their tunnels usually their front ends ‘come apart’. This part has the ability to grow a new tail and once more become a whole worm. Gardeners looking to improve their soil’s organic content, and texture often buy earthworms (red wigglers are the type of choice) in bulk from suppliers, or may start colonies in their gardens to transfer to areas in need of soil improvement.

In a single hectare of soil there may be as many as seven million earthworms. Considering how well they enrich the soil by bringing deep sub-soil to the surface, by creating countless tiny runnels that allow rainwater to permeate rather than run off the surface, and by oxygenating the soil and enriching it with their castings, earthworms are surely the great unsung heroes of our planet.

Anyone wishing more information on worms should seek out the book Worms, by Lois and Louis Darling, published by William Morrow and Co., New York in 1972.

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