Earthworms indicate rich garden soil

Posted May 01, 2009, at 5:08 p.m.

During the recent break from teaching, Marjorie and I spread two pickup loads of composted goat manure over the vegetable garden beds. When I began digging it into an old strawberry bed that had not been turned over for several years, I was pleased to find five or more earthworms in every forkful of soil.

We were both delighted. This abundance of earthworms where once there were none is the best indicator of our success in transforming thin, sandy, nutrient-starved ground into rich garden soil that will grow almost any vegetable, even long straight carrots.

But wait! How can someone who proselytizes to the doctrine of gardening only with native species be overjoyed at the sight of nonnative invasive earthworms in his own garden?

That’s right — earthworms are not native to Maine or any other eastern state. And in some states they have invaded forests, altering or eliminating understory vegetation, contributing to soil erosion, changing soil pH. Their ancestors arrived either in the ballast of ships or in soil surrounding the roots of valued plants. They came to this country from foreign lands and they prospered — a familiar story, come to think of it.

My delight was short lived. I am troubled by these earthworms and my role in their abundance. I can only hope that they remain in the garden beds and do not venture into the forest that surrounds the garden. Why would they wander away from the annual feast we set before them?

Meanwhile, I finally got the peas sown, a variety of snap pea called Sugar Ann, sweeter than candy eaten straight from the vine, three rows across the bed, birch branches for pea stakes. They should grow well among all those worm castings.

Golden canker on pagoda dogwoods

It helped my worm-troubled mind to find no sign of golden canker on the pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) in Marjorie’s garden. A fungus disease specific to the alternate-leaved dogwood species, golden canker has become more prevalent in recent years. The origin of the disease and the exact means by which it is spread is not known.

On a recent visit to the Berkshires, I noticed that over half of the wild pagoda dogwoods had this disease as evidenced by the bright golden yellow color of infected stems. Some of the infected branches had orange spots scattered over the yellow tissue. These spots are the fruiting bodies of the fungus. If unchecked, spores re-leased from theses fruiting bodies can infect the main trunk, causing death of the tree above the point of trunk infection.

Now is a good time to inspect pagoda dogwoods for any sign of golden canker and immediately remove any infected branches. Prune 4 to 6 inches below the golden yellow tissue on each infected branch. Between each cut, dip your pruning tool for at least 30 seconds into a solution of 10 percent bleach to avoid accidental spread of the disease. Burn or bury all of the infected branches. There are no fungicides that are effective in controlling this disease.

This is a stress-related disease and you can avoid or minimize future infections by reducing tree stress as much as possible. If you are planting a new pagoda dogwood, choose a cool, shaded sight. After planting, mulch the soil to help keep the tree’s roots cool and moist. Make sure that the tree receives sufficient water, approxi-mately 1 inch per week from rain or irrigation, particularly during periods of drought. And do not fertilize your tree unless a soil test indicates the need.

We love our pagoda dogwood. In a few more weeks, clusters of bright white flowers layered on its horizontal branches will brighten the shady corner of the garden where it grows.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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