by Connie Oswald Stofko
Asian jumping worms can damage your soil, making it difficult for plants to grow in your garden. Jumping worms have been identified in Erie County and may be in other parts of Western New York, too.
The bad news is that there’s not much we can do to get rid of Asian jumping worms.
The good news is that we can try to prevent spreading them. Don’t share soil– your garden soil could contain jumping worms or their eggs without you knowing it. That means you have to be careful when you’re sharing plants from your garden in a plant sale or plant exchange.
You can help by reporting whether or not you see jumping worms in your garden.
What are Asian jumping worms?
Asian jumping worms are an invasive species. They got the name because they jump and thrash when handled, said Andrea Locke, coordinator for Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) in Western New York.
Jumping worms make it hard for many plants (including garden plants) to grow, and they threaten even the most well-tended lawns, according to this new factsheet for gardeners on Asian jumping worms.
Humans can spread jumping worms without realizing it, carrying egg cases (cocoons) in soil, mulch, potted plants and landscaping equipment. The egg cases can even be transported in the treads of shoes and tires.
Jumping worms have been officially identified in Erie County, and they are located throughout Erie County, according to Locke.
There are three species that we’re concerned about: Amynthas agrestis, Amynthas tokioensis and Metaphire hilgendorfi.
Note: The common earthworms that we’re familiar with are invasive, too, Locke said. They are so widespread that there’s nothing that can be done about them now. However, they don’t do as much damage as Asian jumping worms do. See more here.
Report if you have jumping worms–and if you don’t
Knowing where Asian jumping worms are now as well as where they haven’t gotten to yet is important. If we know that the jumping worms aren’t in an area yet, we can take measures to prevent their spread, Locke said.
“If it’s not in a particular area, we can be careful about moving the soil around,” she explained.
If jumping worms are identified in a location, there isn’t much that can be done to manage them, but it is helpful to see where they are and how the population is spreading.
Professionals add their sightings to iMapInvasives and the public is encouraged to report there, too. Even if you have reported jumping worms in (or not in) your yard before, you are encouraged to report again.
“Reporting annually is very helpful to us,” Locke said.
What to look for
Each Asian jumping worm lives only one year. Air and soil temperatures have been cool for several weeks, so right now the worms may still be at the egg stage or be very small worms, Locke said. That makes them harder to identifiy; they’re easier to identify later in the season. (See the photos at the top of this article or on this factsheet.) When they’re larger, it’s pretty easy to tell an Asian jumping worm and a common earthworm apart.
You can also look at the consistency of your soil. If it’s the consistency of coffee grounds, you may have jumping worms. However, if you have just a few jumping worms, your soil may not be showing the effects yet; the soil may not have reached the point where you would notice, Locke said. It may take a few years.
Rather than dig holes in your garden to get a look at worms, use this mustard technique from the factsheet to drive worms up to the surface. Mix one gallon of water with 1/3 cup of ground yellow mustard seed and pour it slowly into the soil. Worms will come to the surface and you can look to see if any of them are jumping worms. (This method is safe for most plants. The mustard is not lethal to earthworms. It’s also not an effective control for jumping worms.)
What to do if you’re exchanging plants
“It’s plant trading season,” Locke said, “and people may be moving contaminated soil.”
Locke strongly suggests taking your plant to the bare root stage. Get all the soil off so you’re not transporting little jumping worms or eggs.
You could then transplant the plant in a pot with a soilless potting mix.
Don’t donate plants if you have soil the consistency of coffee grounds in your yard, she said.
Locke noted that nurseries are able to maintain “clean soil.”
Plants that are sold at Mischler’s Florist and Greenhouses in Williamsville are in one of two types of planting mediums, Mark Yadon, vice president at Mischler’s. The first is Cornell mix, a soilless potting mix made of peatmoss and perlite.
The other is their own soil which includes compost. The soil mixture is steam pasturized at 180 degrees for 30 minutes to kill not only worms, but diseases and other harmful organisms, Yadon said. They never reuse soil.
Tip: Gardeners should avoid using their garden soil in containers, Yadon said. Using potting soil instead of garden soil keeps out organisms such as pythium and phytophthora, which cause rot in plants; larvae of fungus gnats, which can damage roots, and Japanese beetles.
Materials are brought in from various sources, mixed together and turned. They continue to be composted, with the piles smoking because of the heat caused by the decomposition during the winter. The materials mixed now won’t be sold until next spring. By then, there’s nothing detrimental in the soil, he said.
What to do if you have Asian jumping worms
There aren’t good ways to manage Asian jumping worms, Locke said. If you find Asian jumping worms in your yard, the best you can do is to collect them by hand.
You can use the mustard method described in the section on “What to look for” to drive the worms to the surface. Pick out the Asian jumping worms one by one.
You can drop the jumping worms into alcohol. Or drop the worms in a plastic bag and place the bag in your freezer, or set the bag with the worms in the sun to kill them.
Don’t depend on your passive composting pile to get hot enough to kill Asian jumping worm eggs, she noted. Temperatures have to be above 140 degrees Fahrenheit to kill the eggs. (I had a full compost bin with a good ratio of carbon and nitrogen material, and the hottest it got this spring was 130 degrees in one spot. It’s difficult to get a home compost bin hot enough to kill pathogens or worms.)