Learn to identify invasive jumping worms and remove them from your garden soil
Invasive jumping worms are in all parts of Vermont except for Essex and Orleans counties, according to Vermont Invasives. These earth worms can cause trouble because of their excessive consumption of organic matter that adversely affects biodiversity.
All Things Gardening listener Beth from Chesterfield, New Hampshire wrote in recently about a creepy crawly soil pest that goes by several aliases. Some of the more colorful monikers include: "wood alves," "Alabama jumpers," and "Jersey wriggles."
The offender we're talking about is the Asian snake worm. A non-native species that is now prolific all throughout New England, and according to Vermont Invasives, they are found statewide in all counties except for Essex and Orleans.
Vermont Invasives notes that all earthworms in Vermont are non-natives. The jumping variety probably arrived in North America decades ago, via plants and trees from Asia.
Currently, three species of jumping worms are found in the state, with approximately 70% of the population being the type that grows from 1-4 inches long, known as amynthas tokionesis.
The second most prolific type in the state, amynthas agrestis grows larger, from 3.5-5 inches long, and makes up about 25% of the Vermont jumping worm population.
These crawlers can be real party-poopers in your garden. Like the other non-native earth worms, they eat organic matter, like plant debris and aerate the soil, helping with drainage.
But snake worms eat a lot of organic matter, and they consume it much faster. That causes them to grow twice as fast and reproduce more quickly.
Snake worms also live in higher densities and can destroy forest soils as they gobble up organic matter along with tree and plant seeds, insects and other creatures.
When these guys are around, forest and garden soil is not living its best life. All of that heavy consumption of plant debris, seeds and insects leaves in its wake a less diverse ecosystem.
And jumping worms get their name from their behavior: when disturbed, they thrash and wriggle violently. They might even shed their tails!
Josef Görres with the Plant and Soil Science Department at the University of Vermont has a lot of helpful research and data on how to get rid of this invasive species, especially as they become more prolific in Vermonter's home gardens and compost piles.
Ways to mitigate jumping worms and how to identify them
To determine if you have the invasive jumping worm in your garden or compost, check for a few tell-tale signs.
- If there is what looks like coffee grounds on your soil surface, those are the castings of worms. And if you see a large amount of castings, that's a sign of jumping worms.
- Next, check the worm's appearance. If it has a white or lighter-colored band of tissue — called a "clitellum" — that encircles the entire worm near the head, then it is the invasive jumping worm. If the band does not go all the way around, it's an earthworm.
Once you're sure it's the invasive jumping worm in your soil, you can rid your garden of them with a recipe that will irritate the worms and get them to rise to the surface.
- Mix 1/3 of a cup of ground yellow mustard seed in a gallon of water and pour that onto the soil where you are seeing worm castings or the worms themselves.
- This concoction will irritate the worms so they rise to the surface. Once they do, pick them out of the soil and place them into a black plastic garbage bag. Lay that bag out onto the driveway or in a sunny spot for a day or so, then discard the bag.
And when cold weather returns, jumping worms will not survive the frost and freeze. Their cocoons, however, will. They can even dehydrate in winter and drought and rehydrate in warmer temperatures.
- To ensure the cocoons or worms aren't hitchhiking into your gardens via new plants that you've gotten from a neighbor or at a plant swap, do your due diligence and knock off all the soil before you plant it.
- As for keeping jumping worms out of your compost, ensure any jumping worms' demise by "cooking" them in your compost pile, as long as it reaches 130 degrees Fahrenheit for three days.
A question about attracting native pollinators with native ground covers
Q: I listened to your All Things Gardening segment about attracting pollinators to lawns by planting white clover, prunella, and creeping thyme. I checked to see if any of these are native to Vermont, and able to attract native pollinators. White clover isn't native to Vermont and only some kinds of prunella and creeping thyme might be native. I'm interested in planting for native bees, not honey bees. Could you make it clear whether you are making suggestions about native plants for native pollinators, or are you suggesting support for honey bees? - Fran, from Pollinator Pathways
A: Research from Dr. Marla Spivak the University of Minnesota took a look at that question. White clover is a Dutch variety from Europe, so it is not native. Prunella is native and there are also some native thyme varieties.
The "bee lab" that did the testing of planting ground covers to attract pollinators was able to count 53 different species of pollinating insects on those lawns. Even though the plants themselves may not be native, they could still act as attractants for native pollinators.
You can certainly plant all native ground covers to create a "bee lawn," though, with native prunella and thyme. Some native clovers, like buffalo clover, that you see in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic States, might be hard to find.
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