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You might have worms…

Does this sound familiar? You buy some great looking veggie transplants, or maybe some flowering annuals for the garden. Or perhaps you’ve started some plants from seeds. You give them all the right care, but they seem to constantly look sad and wilted, no matter how wet the soil is. Or maybe they refused to grow, stalling in a permanent stunted state. Don’t despair. You’re not alone, and you may not have a terrible “brown thumb.” But… you might have worms.

Eww. Not like that.

The nematode nemeses…

While the Jurrassic-sized lubber grasshoppers may get all the attention this time of year, many plants grown in our sandy Florida soils have much bigger problems from microscopic pests called nematodes. These tiny micro-worms affect the root system, making it difficult for the plant to take up water and nutrients, even when abundantly available in the surrounding soil. This can cause serious struggles for a plant, especially as the weather gets hotter.

(And because a nematode-infested plant frequently looks desperately thirsty, a well-meaning gardener will often actually hasten it’s demise by drastically overwatering in a futile attempt to get it to perk back up…)

The most obvious sign that you have nematode issues will be if you yank out sad, wilted plants and find stunted, stubby, knotted, and/or gall-ridden roots, like these:

roots with nematode galls

Above: These nematode-infested cucumber vine roots were recently pulled out of a Port Richey garden. As the weather got hotter, the vines had aborted their flowers and fruits and began looking wilted nearly all the time.



Ok, so I think I might have nematodes. What can I do?

If you’ve got major nematode issues, there are a few things you can do to improve your success rate. One of the best strategies starts with plant selection – Choose varieties of plants that are either nematode-resistant or nematode-tolerant. (This may involve a little extra research before buying seeds or plants, but you’ll save yourself time and disappointment later on.) You might even gain some insight by looking around your neighborhood for which plants look like they’re struggling vs. thriving.

Practicing “soil solarization” can temporarily reduce nematode populations in a garden bed. So during the hottest months, consider giving the veggie gardening a rest, and get the beds ready for the fall growing season. (Side-note: Nematode “resistance” is sometimes temperature-dependent, so even a “resistant” variety that performs well during cooler months may struggle and wilt once the weather gets too hot.)

Adding lots of organic matter (compost, etc.) can sometimes help plants cope with nematode infestations. (For more on composting, check out this recent blog post.) But if your nematode issues are severe enough, container gardening or hydroponics may be better options, rather than trying to drastically alter your soil conditions.

For landscape plants, resistance and/or tolerance are critical. If you’ve had issues with a certain type of shrub/tree/turf and you suspect nematodes may have been to blame, it would be worth examining alternative options, rather than simply replacing plant material with more of the same.

Ready to learn more about nematodes, soil solarization, and plant selection for resistance/tolerance?

Links for more in-depth information can be found at:

Want help determining what’s “bugging” your plants? Your local UF/IFAS Extension office and Master Gardeners are here to help, throughout the state! Click to find your local office!

About UF/IFAS Extension:

UF/IFAS Extension serves as a source of non-biased, research-based information for the residents, businesses, and communities of Florida, providing educational materials and programs for adults and youth. We proudly “provide solutions for your life.”

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