In simpler times, gardens and yards weren’t as scary

Erin Schanen


It’s always better to be a well-informed gardener, but I still miss simpler times before we knew about all the evil that can lurk in our yard and gardens.

Take for example the young 4-H member who won a blue ribbon at the Kansas State Fair for his bug collection project only to set off a panic when a judge recognized one of the bugs as the beautiful but dastardly spotted lanterfly. Until then, the insect, which has caused widespread destruction at vineyards, orchards, farms and forests in the Eastern United States, had never been spotted in Kansas and hasn’t yet shown up in Wisconsin. Although 4-H officials lauded the young man for helping to alert authorities to the presence of the invasive insect, I’ll bet he would have been happier having his blue ribbon without all the hubbub.

I feel the same about invasive jumping worms, which by now you’ve probably heard of if not seen. The worms, which thrash around near the surface of the soil, can quickly ruin the soil structure, which is bad for home gardens and potentially lethal in forests or agriculture settings. They were spotted in Wisconsin in 2014 and, by now, they are widespread in many areas, including Ozaukee County.

Although the worms die in freezing temperatures, their cocoons survive winter and can stick to plants, tools, machinery and even shoes, not to mention bulk soil and mulch. Which means it’s extremely easy for them to infiltrate new areas.

Back in the days before we knew about this soil invader, gardeners could be generous in sharing plants. But these days every plant exchange is prefaced by one question — “Do you have jumping worms?”

Gardeners who have identified the disgusting worms in their yards become kindred spirits, taking some comfort in our mutual suffering and at least being able to share plants. I still wash the roots of plants from other gardens because jumping worms don’t move that quickly from one area to another, so I like to think I have spots in the garden that they haven’t found yet.

In fact, jumping worms are now so pervasive that I sometimes forget about them, as I did last weekend when I offered to share some of the thousands of ostrich ferns I have with another gardener. I thought of it right before she plunged her shovel in the soil to start digging, asking her the question, “Do you have jumping worms?”

Turns out she doesn’t, or rather doesn’t think she does, so we washed all the soil off the roots before she left, and I instructed her to do it again at home just to be safe. But later I got a message from her saying she had concerns. I didn’t blame her and told her to feel free to put the ferns in the garbage.

My guess is that there’s a good chance she already has jumping worms in her garden, but I can get behind a better-safe-than-sorry approach. But I miss those days when sharing plants was a lot simpler.

The University of Wisconsin Arboretum is looking for people to assist in a community survey on jumping worms. Find out more at


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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