Jumping worms

An invasive jumping worm, bottom, next to a common nightcrawler.

I feel like I should simply repeat last week’s discussion regarding the impact frequent and often heavy rain is having on gardens, especially vegetable gardens. Since vegetable gardens typically involve more attention than do flower gardens, the disruption of routine tasks is more discouraging.

I have spread straw between some rows of vegetables and that allows me to do a little weeding, but my supply of straw is far short of what is needed. That is a downside of having a very large garden, the purpose of which has been to supply most of the vegetables we consume throughout the year. I’ll be getting more straw, but the weeds are taking hold faster than I can keep up. Aside from the competition for space and nutrients, weeds are often hosts for pests and diseases. So, for the time being, weeding must be a priority.

It is especially important to remove weeds before they flower and set seed. Some of our most common garden weeds are capable of producing thousands of seeds. For example, one pigweed can yield 100,000 seeds; a lambsquarters plant may produce over 70,000 seeds; and purslane might drop over 50,000 seeds at maturity. Those figures alone are enough to spur me to get on my hands and knees to weed ... and maybe to pray that we get a few days break from the incessant rains.


Between prayers ... uh, weeding, here are some diversions:

  • Be on the lookout for cucumber beetles, bean beetles, potato beetles, and Japanese beetles. These six-legged critters are all active now and will feed on the leaves of their host vegetables. It is quite easy to hand pick these beetles, but if they become overwhelming, applications of neem oil or spinosad-based product will safely reduce the beetle population to a tolerable level.
  • Check summer squash and cucumbers at least every two days and harvest the young fruit. They are coming on fast. Frequent harvesting will stimulate more flower and fruit formation.
  • Sow seeds of other crops, e.g. root crops, bush beans and lettuce, in the space vacated by the end of the pea harvest. If no interest in planting more crops, then sow seed of a cover crop, such as sudan-sorghum or buckwheat. This is a great way to enhance the organic matter content of garden soil and also retard weed development.
  • Dig, divide, and transplant bearded irises after they have completed their bloom. Trim the leaves back to about eight inches before replanting. Such division of iris should be done every three or four years.
  • Keep deadheading annuals, such as marigolds, zinnias, calendulas, snapdragons and cosmos.
  • Don’t be frightened if you find giant wasps digging holes in the ground in your yard. These are not the Asian Giant Hornets found in southwestern Canada or northwest Washington State. These still have a frightening name, but only if you are a cicada. These wasps are known as cicada killers. They are solitary wasps, that is, they do not form colonies, such as other wasps do. As their name implies, they feed on cicadas. Only the female has a stinger, but unlike aggressive yellow jackets and hornets, she is unlikely to sting you unless she is threatened.


Q: Help! My sister who lives in the Midwest is all about eradicating the deadly invasive jumping worms. Now every worm I see in my garden looks like it is jumping to me. Do we have jumping worms in the Berkshires? They are supposedly easy to identify, but not to me ... Do we need to take action? Any guidance you can offer would be a big help.

— Sleepless in West Stockbridge

Dear Sleepless: First, may I suggest you skip late evening cups of caffeinated coffee? With regard to jumping worms, also called snake worms and crazy worms, we do have them in Berkshire County. Originally from Korea and Japan, these worms get their common names from their thrashing snake-like movements when disturbed.

Unlike the earthworms of European origin that we are most familiar with, jumping worms are typically found in large numbers near the soil surface, i.e. the upper six inches, where they voraciously feed on organic matter, such as leaf litter. I frequently find them just beneath the mulch in my vegetable garden.

This worm has become a serious problem in forests, where the regeneration of trees and other native vegetation is dependent upon that organic layer. Among the distinguishing features of a jumping worm is the smooth whitish band, called the clitellum, encircling the body not far from the head. In other earthworms, the clitellum is pinkish and located near the center of the body. Also, the clitellum of our familiar earthworm is saddle-like and does not encircle the worm’s body.

Currently there are neither products nor effective means of managing the large populations of this worm. Since jumping worms pose a threat to the survival of maple-dominant forests and the related maple syrup industry, scientists at the University of Vermont are actively researching methods of controlling the worms. Hopefully, that last statement helps relieve your insomnia.

Garden Journal columnist Ron Kujawski began gardening at an early age on his family's onion farm in upstate New York. Although now retired, he spent most of his career teaching at the UMass Extension Service.