Worms, Personal Responsibility, and the New York Times


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.


  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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. 🙂

  4. 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)

  5. 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…

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.)

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. Laughing. My. Ass. Off. Some people in the gardening world really need to relax a bit. Can you imagine telling a non-gardener that you’re ticked off because non-native earthworms ate your Hosta?! You’d be institutionalized!

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