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Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Garden Rant

By Amy Stewart

Worms, Personal Responsibility, and the New York Times

Oh, heavens to Betsy.  Another dust-up over our friend, the lowly earthworm.

Now, I'm as concerned over this issue of earthworms being non-native invaders of our forest as the next gardener--hell, you might say I wrote the book on the subject.  But when Anne Raver tackles earthworms in the pages of my beloved New York Times, I simply must rush to their defense.  Once again.

So here's the deal. Yes, the earthworms in your backyard are most likely non-native species like this lovely creature, Lumbricus terrestris, the nightcrawler.  You might also find another little darling, Eisenia fetida, the red wiggler.  Or an Asian species or two.  If you live in the North, your garden may have once been covered by glaciers, and whatever native earthworms had once been there--some ten thousand years ago--would have turned into popsicles long ago.  And these European and Asian newcomers hitched a ride with European settlers and, well, the rest is history.

But let's separate the fact from fiction, shall we?

FACT:  These non-native worms make themselves right at home in your yummy garden.

FICTION:  “Every time I would stick a trowel into the soil, worms would pop up or skitter away. They were so energized, not like the worms of my childhood.”  Oh, my dear Ms. Tiffany, grower of prize-winning hostas, I can promise you that worms have not changed since your childhood.  I, too, long for the days of mellow earthworms, back in that unhurried world of 1973, but trust me, earthworms are ancient creatures.  Your hostas will not rouse sufficient passion to stir them to new levels of activity not seen since the approach of the glaciers.

FACT:  There's no good way to get rid of earthworms once they've moved in.

FICTION: "The Department of Agriculture lists earthworms as beneficial organisms, so using a pesticide to kill them is technically illegal."  Huh?  It just so happens that the Code of Federal Regulations is pretty easy to search these days, and I can find no regulation outlawing the use of a pesticide to kill a worm, or regulating in any way how one kills a worm.  Cut it into pieces.  Step on it.  Eat it. Drown it in Diet Coke.  Really, have your way with it.  The USDA isn't concerned.

Now, I suppose that it may be a no-no to use a pesticide for anything other than its approved use, but it's the EPA's job to handle pesticide registration and regulation, not the USDA.   I know I'm getting a little policy-wonkish here, but come on, this is the NYT. I love you people because of your wonkish attention to detail.

FACT:  It's a bummer if you have a woodland garden that has been invaded by non-native earthworms, especially if they have set about to munch on the very duff layer that your woodland plants depend upon.

FICTION:  You should rid your garden of these worms by--and I'm not making this up--by applying "a hot Chinese mustard solution, made by mixing two cups Chinese mustard with 10 ½ quarts of water. Sink five coffee cans, tops and bottoms removed, about an inch into the ground of the marked area, then pour the mustard solution into the cans" to determine the extent of your worm problem, then if "you have no choice but to kill them, they can be put in alcohol, frozen or collected in a bag and sent to the landfill."

That's right.  The nation's paper of record suggests freezing your worms.  In the freezer.  Next to the gin and those peas you use as an ice pack.  You can also shoot them with your big gun, which I am sure you're about to go out and purchase as soon as your subscription to Garden & Gun shows up in your mailbox.  But first, you must go to Dean & Deluca and buy Chinese mustard, whatever that is, for $19 a pound to determine the extent of the problem. (Do they deliver? I hope so.)

What's missing from this article?  The Point.  It can be found here, almost:  "The Tiffanys realized, in retrospect, that they had been helping the worms proliferate by carting in mulch for paths and top-dressing plants with compost."  So you see, it's human behavior that the worms are responding to.  If you want to cultivate a native woodland garden, maybe you shouldn't--uh--pile it high with farm-fresh compost.  Leave it alone.  Let the woods do their whole Woods Thing.

But really, life is too short to go digging up earthworms and sending them to meet their maker in your freezer.  Relax.  Have a drink.  Resolve to save future loads of compost for your tomato patch.  If your prize-winning hostas aren't doing so great, try to remember that the whole point of the woodland garden was not supposed to be about winning a prize at the hosta show anyway.  It was supposed to be about shade, and tiny little birds hopping around in the undergrowth, and the cool dark scent of the earth.  Forgive the worms, skip the hosta convention, and just spend a little time in that woodland garden of  yours, being grateful for the fact that your biggest problem involves a blind, spineless creature that you, after all, invited to the party in the first place.

Posted by Amy on March 16, 2007 at 06:22 AM in Ministry of Controversy | Permalink



Very well stated but I hope you emailed this to Anne Raver, and sent her a copy of your book, because here, you are preaching to the choir and I for one am sitting with rapt attention!

Posted by: ginger | March 16, 2007 at 07:08 AM

Amy, it's good to see you in the mix again. Thanks for the well-worded worm rant. Just in case that's NOT a note of irony I hear in your voice, let me add that though Anne Raver is a very nice person who's farm my husband and I visited way back in our courting days, and though I have a number of intelligent and well-meaning friends and aquaintances at the New York Times, it is by no means unusual for that illustrious institution to print the results of lazy, misguided reporting, even aside from the scandalous examples we all know about.

Should you chance upon a copy of the Metro section during your much-awaited visit to the Bronx this Spring, don't believe everything you read.

Posted by: Molly | March 16, 2007 at 08:17 AM

I'm still laughing about the idea that worms were more laid back when we were kids. It was the seventies, after all :-)

Posted by: Colleen | March 16, 2007 at 09:11 AM

What is wrong with having worms in the soil?

Posted by: Barry M | March 16, 2007 at 10:14 AM

Earthworm Invasion, coming soon in a theatre near you. Havoc wreaking worms, shrinking hostas, energized deep diving worms on steroids! Be afraid, be very afraid. LOL

Are they serious cause I thought this article was hilarious. I live in Europe where these devastating earthworms come from and guess what? We still have forests, woodlands and whopping great hostas and all are thriving. :-)

Posted by: Yolanda Elizabet | March 16, 2007 at 10:32 AM

Hi-freakin'-larious and true.I read the article too and thought, what the? These people are nutjobs.

Best part of your posting; "Forgive the worms, skip the hosta convention, and just spend a little time in that woodland garden of yours, being grateful for the fact that your biggest problem involves a blind, spineless creature that you, after all, invited to the party in the first place."


Shoot, here in Texas if you got too many worms, you go fishin'. (Of course "Too many worms" is a myth, like el chupacabra)

Posted by: Martha | March 16, 2007 at 12:10 PM

Aren't we all invasive species, from someone's point of view?

But more importantly: I'll take those worms. Darwin loved worms, and so do I. Bring 'em on...

Posted by: Ed Bruske | March 16, 2007 at 12:14 PM

Oh hell. Somebody's sounded the alarm. Thanks a lot, Michael Gundale. If it weren't for you and your uppity college boy thesis, the world would still be happily ignorant of the dangers of worm invasion. I can just see folks heading out in their bathrobes to dump Chinese mustard on the ground. Run for your lives!

Posted by: K Wade | March 16, 2007 at 02:39 PM

I think it's what we grew in our gardens in the '70s that made the worms so mellow back then. ;-7

Posted by: Ellis Hollow | March 16, 2007 at 06:34 PM

Since when are worms invasive? Worms eat dead leaves and decaying organic matter and turn it into nutrients. These people must have worms confused with grubs that really do love to eat hostas. A can of beer sunk into the ground near hostas is a tried and true method for catching and killing grubs; this must be too Joe six pack for the NYT. Chinese mustard, freezing worms, worm problems, killing worms with alcohol......wrapping up assassinated worms and sending them to the landfill!!!!

Someone at the New York Times has obviously been drinking their bathwater.

Posted by: Jon Beard | March 16, 2007 at 07:01 PM

I read this much earlier and now I'm back. Extremely interesting and I'm glad I read it.

You know Amy, the only problem with this rant is that there is NO WAY any reasonable person could disagree with such a well reasoned, well stated argument from THE AUTHOR of the book on the subject.

I like it when things get rowdy over here.

Isn't anyone here in favor of frozen worms? Come on people!

And Martha: you are exactly correct too. Fishing. Yes.

(This is no fun.)

Posted by: The County Clerk | March 16, 2007 at 08:16 PM

worms of the world - unite

Posted by: dyson | March 17, 2007 at 09:23 AM

Brava, Amy. Love it.

Posted by: Claire | March 22, 2007 at 07:54 AM

My husband and I have laughed at "city folk" for years! It's amazing. We can act like dumb country hicks and watch city people take credit when we suggest the "practical answer."This lady with the hostas should not only go enjoy her woodland, she needs to kick of her shoes, go barefoot and reconnect with all that compost! I bet she wears some of those designer gardening gloves that cost $120, too. Give me a break.

Posted by: Mary Ann McGwin | March 23, 2007 at 08:50 AM

I couldn't get over how she was blaming the worms on the decline of her hosta. Since when do worms eat living vegetation? They come in to clean up the dead.

Her accusation that the worms where destroying her garden sent me raving.

Posted by: Jenn | April 06, 2007 at 01:05 PM

Sorry, I am late for the party.  But, I thought it might be appropriate that I weigh in a couple more thoughts to this thread. 

Back on October 1, 2005, the EarthWorm Digest published an article that was a reprint from the Science News that was first written on November 30, 2002 referring to the invading earthworms in the Minnesota National Forest.

Since then, there have been at least four other articles and some online forum discussion that have been posted on the EarthWorm Digest website referring to this subject matter.  Anyone can use the search function on the top right of the Home Page of the website and reference the material.

With over 40,000 new unique visitors visiting the EarthWorm Digest every month, there isn’t a week that goes by where someone questions the staff’s official position concerning this subject matter.  Recently, the inquiries have been daily.

After reading Ms. Raver’s article last month in the New York Times

I discussed the topic with my close friend, Dr. Clive Edwards, of Ohio State University.  Last time I checked, Clive had written over twenty-eight books and eighty published papers regarding earthworm biology.  I thought he would be the man to ask regarding the invasive earthworm species supposedly devouring the forest floor of the Minnesota north woods.

Just as I expected, when I called Clive he was relaxing at home sitting in a comfortable chair, speaking of the niceties of a perfectly formed slipper.  He promptly reminded me of the fact that most of our earthworm species in North America areas where the glaciers were present were wiped out. Nearly all of the modern day species in those areas are transplants from other regions of the world.

I was told a while back, one of Clive’s former students needed to write a paper on earthworms.  So, they picked a northern Minnesota forest and wrote about how the earthworms were doing their natural thing on the forest floor. The student wanted to write a paper that would have impact.  He mentioned earthworms hurting plants.  One thing led to another and the press got a hold of it.  The student succeeded.

Clive clearly reminded me that these earthworm species who inhabit the northern forest floors are not the same type of species as the composting earthworms that people are interested in when requesting earthworm bins, etc.. 

Of course, Clive and I were interested in reading the end of Ms. Raver’s article when she cautiously informed all of us,

 To avoid having so many worms in the first place, be sure not to feed them by spreading wood chips or compost in paths in the forest. Do not toss grass clippings, another favorite worm food, next to the woods, either. And do not toss out fishing worms or red wrigglers by throwing them on the ground or in a pond (they do not drown).  If worms are destroying your woodland plants and you have no choice but to kill them, they can be put in alcohol, frozen or collected in a bag and sent to the landfill.”

After I hung up the telephone with Clive, I was trying to comprehend the last sentence of Ms. Raver’s article correctly.  I was attempting to visualize the exercise of the earthworm collection in my yard as she wrote, “If worms are destroying your woodland plants and you have no choice but to kill them, they can be put in alcohol, frozen or collected in a bag and sent to the landfill.”

Hmmmm. . .I don’t think so.  It seems to me that one student wanted to make a name for himself, one New York Times writer wanted notoriety and here I am talking to Clive on what position we should take regarding this issue.  We both know about native, non-native, exotic and invasive species of earthworms.  We both clearly understand what is happening in Minnesota.

So, when a New York Times journalist is writing about how to eradicate the nuisance, here is our position.  I do not think it is a good thing to over-react to a story that states, “Your grandmother was wrong all these years.”   Clive is correct.  As we all get older and wiser, I was thinking about the little things that are really important in life.  Things like. . . a nice fitting slipper can really make a difference.


Jamie Melvin

Executive Director

EarthWorm Digest

Posted by: Jamie | May 06, 2007 at 03:05 PM


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