Pedogenesis in Rain Gardens: The Role of Earthworms and Other Organisms in Long-Term Soil Development
Ayers, Emily Mitchell
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As bioretention comes into widespread use, it has become increasingly important to understand the development of bioretention soils over time. The objective of this research is to investigate the development of bioretention soils and the importance of ecological processes in the performance of rain gardens. The research includes descriptive studies of pre-existing rain garden soil profiles, laboratory experiments quantifying the effect of earthworms on infiltration rates, and a simulation model describing the influence of earthworms and soil organic matter on infiltration. Surveys of several different rain gardens of various ages provide the first detailed descriptions of rain garden soil profiles. The study revealed a great deal of biological activity in rain gardens, and evidence of pedogenesis even in very young sites. The uppermost soil layers were found to be enriched with organic matter, plant roots, and soil organisms. The field sites surveyed showed no signs of clogging due to the trapping of suspended solids carried in stormwater runoff. Some evidence was found of higher than expected infiltration rates at the field sites, which may be attributable to the effects of bioturbation by living organisms. The ability of earthworms to mitigate the effects of trapped suspended solids on bioretention soils was assessed in the laboratory. Results show that earthworms are capable of maintaining the infiltration rate of bioretention soils, but that their effects have a high degree of variability. This variability is attributed to soil aggregate instability caused by the oversimplification of the ecosystem. Other organisms play a significant role in stabilizing earthworm burrows and casts, and may be essential ingredients in a self-maintaining bioretention ecosystem. A simulation model of the action of earthworms on soil infiltration rates was developed in order to illustrate the physical processes taking place as a result of earthworm activity. The model was calibrated using data from the field study and microcosm experiment. This research is intended to provide a first glimpse into the biological processes at work in rain garden soils. The research shows that soil organisms are present in rain gardens, and suggests that their impact on bioretention performance may be significant.