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Worm Problems

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A: Are night crawlers a good thing to have in a healthy lawn? My lawn looks fine, but it is almost impossible to walk on; even with shoes, it feels like walking on rocks. No one can play on it, and that is why I have a lawn.

Q: Like many things in life, having too many of something can cause problems. Night crawlers create tall piles of soil called casts that can cause mowing and even walking problems. Worms of all kinds are nature?s rototillers. They open large pores in the soil for air and water to move into the soil. They pull organic matter from the surface down into the tunnels.

Worms, and especially night crawlers, are not native to many parts of the country, where they are now found. For instance, Minnesota has at least 15 species of non-native invasive worms. They are found in lawns in regions that were under glaciers and have no native worms. Worms are found in irrigated lawns in desert regions that couldn?t support worms without the extra water.

They are a mixed blessing in lawns, but in forested areas they are devouring the organic matter and dead leaves much faster than nature can replenish the organic matter. In some northern forested areas where there are no native worms, the forest ecology is changing due to night crawlers and other worms. Forest soil is loose, with a thick layer of organic matter called duff on top. Ferns, tree seedlings and wildflowers all grow best in this soft soil. Worms eat the duff and the soil becomes compacted, leading to erosion problems. The native plants die and non-native invasive plants that grow in compacted soil take over.

So, how do you reduce or eliminate them in your lawn? You could find someone who wants to use them for fishing and let them take as many as they want. They might use the traditional worm grunting method of driving a stake into the ground and drawing a steel file across it to create a low grunting sound. Apparently, this vibration mimics the sound and movement that a mole makes as it burrows through the soil.

Flooding the soil at night can bring some worms to the surface, not because they are drowning, as worms can survive being under water for a long time, but because they are looking for mating partners.

When it rains, the conditions above ground become favorable for the worms to move around without drying out. They don?t like bright lights, so you may need to cover your flashlights with red plastic to dim the glare.

Since water itself is not going to bring that many to the surface, especially in the daylight, you could add liquid soap, hot pepper powder or mustard powder to help drive them out. Treat small areas of the lawn at a time so that you can catch them all before they go back into the ground. Put them in a bucket and give them to your favorite fisherman.

As far as I know, there are no chemical treatments that are designed to kill worms, although it is well known that regular lawn care treatments with insecticides for grubs and inorganic lawn fertilizers kill many worms. If you have a worm problem, then you have been doing a good job of taking care of your lawn without these chemicals. If the mustard water treatment doesn?t get rid of enough of them, then a non-organic lawn care treatment may work. A single treatment of Sevin for grub control has been reported to kill around 30 percent of the worms. Following label directions for additional treatments, you can reduce the population further. The flip side, of course, is that if you want more worms in your lawn, then stop or reduce the use of non-organic insecticides and lawn fertilizers.

If you have an irrigated lawn, then cutting back on watering will make the soil less desirable for worms. If you have fewer worms, you may not have enough casts to cause problems.

Once the worms are gone from the artificial environment of a lawn, you may have to step in and do some of the aerating they have been doing for free. Typical lawns have poor soil to begin with, and the worms help mix the organic matter into the soil while they make the tunnels. Eventually, you will need to do core aerations to make up for the lack of worms.

How do we stop overall worm invasion? If you are a fisherman, then don?t dump out your worms (of any kind) onto the shoreline of any lake, river or stream. This is especially true of store-bought worms and fishing areas in northern areas that have no native worms. On their own, worms only move about a half mile over dozens of years. If you are a composter or vermicomposter, do not move the worms to other locations. The worm compost should be frozen for several weeks to kill the eggs before moving it to new locations.

Email questions to Jeff Rugg at info@greenerview.com. To find out more about Jeff Rugg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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