Earthworms and the art of grass cutting


“It’s time to mow the grass.” This was one of the most dreaded statements of my young life. Our acre-and-a-half lawn loomed, a seemingly unending expanse of a green enemy that required regular haircuts. Even with a self-powered lawn mower, the process required several hours of sweaty, unfulfilling work.

We never bagged the grass clippings. Instead they lay where they fell. In a day or two, the clippings disappeared. Wondering where those clipping went never occurred to me. I was just glad that we didn’t have to empty heavy grass catchers.

The ground beneath the lawn was full of earthworms. Just throw a pan of soapy water on the lawn, wait a few minutes, and collect enough worms to catch a mess of perch from our pond.  I didn’t make the connection between the earthworms, the lush green grass, and the disappearing grass clippings. Nor did we understand the part they played in the enormous ecosystem that lived under our very feet.

Charles Darwin, almost a century and a half ago, did understand. His book, “Earthworms”, published in 1881, was the result of years of study into these seemingly insignificant creatures.  In his manuscript he noted “It may be doubted whether there are as many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.”

It wasn’t until I read this study that I realized that earthworms were the major reason that the grass clippings were disappearing. At night, they emerge from the earth and pull the clippings down into the soil, where they eat and digest them. The bacteria in the worms’ digestive tract breaks down and inoculates the material with beneficial bacteria. This then passes into the soil.

The bacteria then join untold millions of other bacteria, protozoans, microscopic insects and fungi to convert the soil into a rich mélange, which in turn, provides nutrients to the grass (and other plants).

Had I understood this process when I was mowing the lawn, the odious chore would have turned miraculously into an interesting and fulfilling science experiment. University research now confirms that children who understand this relationship develop important skills and healthy qualities.

Involving youngsters in the relationship between healthy soils and plants, including lawns, vegetable gardens and flower gardening, instills healthy qualities.

  • Knowledge of this unseen world instills a real sense of accomplishment and responsible attitudes.
  • Delving into the way plants and soil interact increases skills such as problem solving and nurturing
  • Understanding this allows them to understand and accept delayed gratification, failure and success.
  • The attitudes it instills helps them increase their abilities in science, art, reading and social studies.
  • Involvement in these disciplines helps develop interaction between parents and children
  • It encourages the development of positive relationships.
  • It expands their understanding of a work ethic.

And, who knows. It might even encourage them to gripe less when they have to cut the grass or eat their vegetables.

You can start cleaning up your gardens now…perhaps


My yard is a ragged mess. Many of my plants were damaged by the hard freeze in January.  In years past, I have waited until March to begin pruning damaged vegetation, but the pecan tree outside my window has swollen buds. According to gardening folklore, pecan trees begin to bud after the last freeze has passed and spring weather is truly here. I’m not sure about that, but I have begun pruning already.

There are a number of plants which are designated “herbaceous perennials.” This means that although the part of the plant above ground dies back, the root system is still alive. They will sprout again from the roots if the roots have survived cold weather. There are many plants falling into this category. Hibiscus is one of those. I have only the two varieties of Texas Star hibiscus, red and white, but they have already begun to sprout from the base of the previous year’s growth.

Because of mild winters here, many plants can stand moderately cold weather, and short periods below freezing. However, hard freezes like the one we had in January, froze many of these back, leaving them brown, wilted, and, for the most part, just plain ugly.

All of my salvia has died back to the ground. I’m not worried though. Salvia has a strong root system and I see some sprouts already. Same thing with Turk’s Cap, both the small varieties and the “giant” varieties.

Thus, I’m pruning – a lot. Here are some chores you can do now to clean up your flower beds and gardens, and get ready for spring beauty. If you’re not sure whether a certain plant is a perennial or not, there are lists available from Texas A&M and other universities. You might also try Texas Earthkind – a compendium of annuals and perennials. Simply conduct an internet search for Texas Earthkind.

I’m a pretty ruthless pruner. If I do see growth from the root system, I will cut the dead part back to the ground. If I’m not sure, I take a pocket knife, and gently scrape off the first layer of bark or skin of the plant, about have the size of a little finger nail. If I see green under the scrape, that part of the plant is still viable, and you shouldn’t cut it back. For larger plants you may want to make several scrapes down the stem. That’s because the top of the stem may have died, but the bottom part of the stem is alive. I am pruning some of these back, but not all the way to the green. That’s because I’m still a little cautious. If I cut these below the green, they may sprout out there – and if there is another freeze, the sprouting plants may suffer. I’ll cut some of the dead parts off, but I’ll wait until March to cut the back to the green part.

Salvia, phlox, lantana, butterfly bush, Copper Canyon daisy, coneflower, Brugmansia, yarrow, tansy, gaura, Turk’s Cap, I generally cut back mercilessly to the ground. While I’m at it, the rock roses, Carolina jessamine, esperanza, and many other plants are going to get a good haircut.

Interestingly, my crinums were the first to go under the knife. If you’ve raised crinums, you know that they are pretty indestructible, but the tips of the blades will freeze, and the damaged ends will stick to the tips of adjoining leaves and then blacken. These I cut just below the blackened area, and it’s okay to do that now. Some gardeners cut them all the way back to the bulb, but I like to keep as much foliage as I can. I also pulled out dead blades which had fallen to the ground.

Some of my native irises suffered a bit of freeze damage. I just trimmed these back below the dead leaves. I did the same with daylilies.