Potted plants come in every shape, size, and habitat. But one thing they all have in common? The ability to attract various worm-like creatures to their soil, either through animal carriers or cross-contamination when planting. However, those familiar with soil health know that worms, in general, can be very beneficial! But not all “worms” are worms and some can cause havoc for your plants. This quick guide reviews worms and wormlike insects you might find in your potted plants, how to identify them, and what to do if you find one.
Worms in Your Potted Plants: The Good…
To get started, we are going to take a closer look at the good worms you want to have present. When people first hear they have worms in the soils, they are most likely to think of the familiar earthworm that improves soil health. But there are also other types of worms you want to see involved with the aeration and decomposition of organic solids in the soil.
Earthworms or Red Wigglers
All earthworms are good to see in your pots, but red wigglers in particular are highly beneficial. This type of earthworm grows to only 2 to 3 inches in length, making them an ideal size for smaller spaces. They also are popular for adding to compost bins to help breakdown waste and naturally enrich the soil.
If you see them present, leave them be and support their lifecycle by adding in small scraps of composting materials to the top 2 to 3 inches of the pots every so often. In return, they will create nutrient rich waste for plant uptake, improve soil aeration, help keep soils from compacting and uptake moisture.
Bacterial and Fungal Nematodes
Nematodes look like a small, whitish tube, but there are many different types of nematodes– some of which can be harmful to your soils and plants. However, there are more than 30 beneficial nematodes, and are practically microscopic, so you have to depend on various ways to determine if they are helpful, or harmful.
If you see nematodes, chances are they are not a problem. Helpful nematodes often tolerate insecticide, herbicides, and fertilizers well and avoid accidental eradication. You can also add nematodes to your soils by purchasing them as a drench or spray, as they will help control harmful parasitic insects, and help mineralize soil solids for plant nutrition.
If you find your potted plants struggling to survive, and are unable to find any reason why, you may have a bad nematode, which will be explained below.
Insects in Your Potted Plants: The Bad…
Bad worms are not really worms, but are worm-like and can wreak havoc on your potted plants. If you notice these worms, or their destruction, you need to act fast to get rid of them. Because of the small spaces potted plants afford, destructive worms can quickly get out of hand and destroy your plants from the roots up fairly quickly.
Grubs (Grub Worms)
Grubs are actually the larval stage of a wide range of beetles. No matter the species of beetle, the presence of grubs is something you need to address right away. These whitish worms will be of various sizes depending on the species they are from, but they are all similar looking and will be curled up in a c-shape with 6 legs towards the head.
Eggs hatch in approximately 30 days and early stage larvae will feed on organic materials in the soil, but it won’t take long for them to begin feeding on the roots the plants within the pot. It only takes a few days for the plants to begin to wilt and die due to this destruction.
They will overwinter in pots as well before emerging as adults in the spring- which will then eat the foliage of the plant. Always turn and aerate your potted soil each spring to remove and kill any larvae present. And if you notice poor plants during the growing season, it might be worth digging up and searching for grubs. Luckily, helpful nematodes can quickly break a beetle’s life cycle to help you avoid issues with grubs- so treat your soils naturally with these “good worms”.
Parasitic nematodes are related to their helpful counterparts, and are more or less small enough to be practically microscopic. They live amongst your plants’ roots and will quickly eat through and destroy the root system of your plants, leaving behind death and destruction. Although they are small enough that they may not kill the entire plant, they will kill of parts of a plant and create patchy areas of decay, browning, and dea material. You also may notice stunted growth, or a complete lack of growth.
To combat these nematodes, have a well drained soil, be sure to mix your potting soils well each fall, winter and spring to bring any lingering survivors to the surface to die, and mic in organic materials in the spring before planting to help influence healthier nematode populations.
…and the Ugly
Ugly worm-like creatures don’t always mean they are bad or destructive. If you notice either of these in your potted soils you don’t have to worry about them, even though they are kind of creepy to see crawling or wriggling about. In fact, they are more helpful than anything, and should be left alone unless you absolutely see a need to move them.
Enchytraeids (Pot Worms)
Enchyraeids, or pot worms, look like white baby earthworms and are usually found in massive numbers. The sheer multitude of their population can often be alarming to gardeners when they turn over a shovelful of writhing masses, but have no fear, they are actually beneficial overall and will not harm your plants.
In short, they will help aerate the and breakdown matters in soils for plant nutrition, and will help in the overall soil composting process. If they get too populous, they will compete directly for foot with other beneficial worms, such as red wigglers, so you may want to scoop some out and find them new areas to live- such as a garden bed.
Millipedes have a long, blackish, or reddish brown body and at first glance might be mistaken for an earthworm when stationary. But these insects have many legs, hence their name, and crawl around looking for dark, moist conditions. Because of this they are often drawn to containers that are often watered, and may be seen under, around, or in your pots.
They are harmless to your soils and plants, although if your plant is in bad shape and is decaying, it may feed on it. They also will help break down organic materials for soil health- making them more beneficial than anything. They are harmless and cannot bite or sting a human, but they can be creepy- especially if accidentally moved indoors.
For the most part, any worm-like creature you come across in your potted plants, or garden for that matter, are most likely beneficial. Unless you see something you know as harmful, such as an obvious grub, or have concerns about an ailing plant- you don’t need to worry about the critters you may notice while digging in your potting soils.
Earthworms, beneficial nematodes, pot worms, and even millipedes can help improve soils and create a healthier growing environment (even if they do look a little creepy). If you have any questions, please let us know below, and, as always, please share!