I have the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first to report jumping worms in Buffalo—they have invaded my garden. I have been learning how to adapt to living and gardening with these invaders, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned as they seem to be here to stay—and they have a power of movement that is both impressive and horrifying.
I first learned about jumping worms in Connie Oswald Stofko’s Buffalo-Niagara Gardening in June 2018. (If you are a WNY gardener and don’t know about Buffalo-Niagara Gardening, you should definitely check it out.) It was in one of those “look out for the invaders” kinds of articles, and I was pretty sure we had them that summer. But it was a busy summer, and even when we found these weird, spastic worms in our compost, I didn’t follow up because what was the likelihood of having these in our city garden? In the summer of 2019, however, there was clearly a problem and someone from the USDA came out and picked up some of my worms to confirm. Definitely jumping worms. Ugh.
By that time, it was clear that we had more than our share of these worms and they were making gardening considerably less fun.
The thing about these worms is that their presence is pretty obvious—they change the structure of the soil entirely. It doesn’t hold together anymore and falls away from the roots of trees and shrubs, leaving a sort of gingivitis effect. Ground covers including grass don’t do well and start dying back in spots. Soil doesn’t seem to hold water. When I started cleaning the gardens this spring of 2020, I could see immediately where the biggest infestations were.
The worst part of this is that the worms live near the surface of the soil and crawl on the top of grass—and I’m someone who really likes to sit in grass. I kind of crawl around the yard along the edges of the garden beds, enjoying both the grass and the weeding. I need to make very clear right here, right now that I am not squeamish. I have no issues with insects and never did with worms before now, either. The problem is that the jumping worms really like being on the edge of the grass, and when they are disturbed they flail around and pretty purposefully make their way to some sort of safety, which is often straight toward my feet and legs. This is awful, frankly. I utterly object to flailing, sort-of-wet worms being on my legs and feet! and I feel that this is reasonable. I do not consent!
I started weeding with a bucket for the worms in addition to the usual tub for the weeds, and I became a ruthless murderer of worms. The worms are amazing and athletic, worthy foes. They can crawl across my entire driveway if the sun isn’t on it. They can climb straight up the side of a bucket. I actually left the worm bucket inside the empty weed bucket and a worm climbed out of one, landed in the other, and climbed out of that one, too! Honestly. I’m not making this up.
So, I’ve had to figure out how to manage life with these jumping worms and have been trying to find ways of controlling them to some degree.
Here’s What I’ve Done
In the very back of my yard, I have a section we call “The Farm” or “The Back 40” where we have a raised bed for tomatoes, the compost, and beds with raspberries and blueberries, among other things. This area was one the worms just loved. They love the compost, they love the beds. When I was prepping the raised bed this spring I found a hundred of them easily. (I wish I could confess to exaggerating.) This means it was just awful for me to be there.
My solution—which I’m really proud of—was to put wood chips (undyed playground woodchips) between the beds. The worms remain in the beds (and probably under the chips), but they don’t move over the chips. I’ve at least found a way to keep them relatively contained, they don’t climb on my feet, and it’s a little bit neater in this part of the garden. So—a win!
I also learned—entirely by accident—that they don’t seem to enjoy acidic soil. I removed the last of the grass in my front garden this spring, and that was partly because I’m committed to not having lawn, but also because there was simply no longer any pleasure in sitting in grass that has so many of these worms! The mulch I used was pretty acidic (another unfortunate story for another time) and anecdotal evidence indicates that the worms aren’t happy there. Another win!
Fairly early on, in June of this year, I stopped using my worm bucket—except when too far away from driveways and sidewalks—and I just started tossing worms toward concrete (the driveway, the sidewalk). I’m sure a few made it back to the safety of soil, but many didn’t, and I had a few robin friends visiting whenever they found me in the garden. That was kind of nice actually. So, some worms died on the sidewalk, some fed my bird friends.
Finally, I’ve been supplementing some of the most degraded soil. The worms especially like to be near the edges of grass—so the grass can just fold over like a rug. They also like to be where there is a lot of leaf litter, and one of those places in my garden is under my huge and very old wisteria. I also have some geum rivale planted there (I love this native, by the way) and this prolific, low growing plant, seems to be another favorite of the invaders. At the end of last season, and once during this one, I’ve supplemented the soil, and this seems to be keeping the plants healthy. It has not slowed down the worms, but at least we’re not losing this battle so badly anymore. There’s that!
So, in sum
These invaders really are awful. Take them seriously and do every single thing you can to keep them from your garden!
- Ask your suppliers of compost and mulch and soil if they heat these products to greater than 104 degrees before you agree to purchase. DO NOT purchase anything not heated in this way.
- Talk to the folks at your nursery about whether they are doing anything about these worms before you bring plants into your garden.
- Talk to whoever wants to give you any plant that is not bare root before you bring this into your garden.
- Be very careful in bringing any worm into your garden–if you purchase worms or worm castings, for instance–make absolutely certain there is is no chance the seller is giving you a jumping worm.
I have always been able to peacefully cohabit my garden with all kinds of critters, but these take a lot of getting used to, frankly, and they are destructive. Hopefully, you can just enjoy your worm-free garden while I am managing the invaders in mine.
Some information about the Jumping Worms
Margaret Roach, “As Summer Takes Hold, So Do the Jumping Worms.” NY Times, 22 July 2020, updated July 24, 2020
Julia Rosen, “Cancel Earthworms: The “crazy worms” remaking forests aren’t your friendly neighborhood garden worms. Then again, those aren’t so great either.” The Atlantic. 23 January 2020.
Matthew Miller Jumping Worms: The Creepy, Damaging Invasive You Don’t Know Nature.org. 31 October 2016
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County. “Invasive Pests: Jumping Worm.” 14 October 2019
queenseyes. “We can now add “jumping earthworms” to the WNY invasive species list.” Buffalo Rising. 20 August 2020
WNY PRISM. Jumping Worms
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “Jumping Worms”
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, “Jumping Worms.”
Waterfalls, Reflections, and Jumping Worms, Walk in the Park 199 from July 2018. The video of the jumping worms begins at 22 minutes
SUNY Cortland. “Faculty, Students to Study Invasive Jumping Worms” 25 June 2019
And here are some downloadables–one a study on controlling with fire (totally not recommended in the city!) and two Cornell Cooperative Extension publications.