I planted cucumbers on June 19 and expected them to take off in the warm weather and soil, but they kept wilting in the noonday sun. So I watered more. They continued to wilt every afternoon. When they weren’t wilting, they were barely growing. Finally, I yanked one plant out of the ground to check its roots and it all made sense.

Swollen roots with knots here and there, a perfect example of damage from root knot nematodes.

What are root knot nematodes?

Root knot nematodes are microscopic worms that live in the soil and feed on plant roots. They insert a mouthpart called a stylet into a root cell and suck out nutrients. This causes swelling (“knots”) and impairs the root’s ability to take up water such that even if there is plenty of moisture in the soil, a plant will wilt.

The knots on the roots also impair the ability of the roots to transport nutrients up to the plant’s leaves. In a previous garden about ten years ago, I had a bed of peppers that were stunted and yielded poorly. They didn’t wilt; they just didn’t grow well. Initially, I guessed it was lack of soil fertility, but toward the end of the summer I pulled the plants out to discover the nematode knots all over the roots. So even in fertile soil, an infected plant won’t be able to use the soil nutrients like it otherwise would.

Root knot nematodes prefer warm, moist, and sandy soil, according to this page on nematode management guidelines from the University of California. That aligns with my experience. All of the nematode infections that I’ve observed have happened during summer and have been in sandy or loamy soil.

How to deal with root knot nematodes?

What can you do about these pathogenic critters? I’ll tell you what I’ve done, and what I’m going to do, and why. But first, what do you make of this curious sight:

This is the vegetable bed where the infected cucumbers were. There were three plants that I removed near that blue bucket. Remaining in the bed are basil, carrots, green onion, kale, watermelon, and cosmos flowers in the back. Why aren’t they wilting? Are they not also being attacked by the root knot nematodes?

Non hosts

I dug around to check. The roots of the basil plants looked perfect, showing no swelling or knots. Some plants are considered non hosts for root knot nematodes. In other words, for whatever reason, the nematodes don’t feed on them. This page has a list of nematode host plants and basil is not listed.

Resistant varieties

Right next to the cucumbers was an Arava melon plant that had shown some wilting, but not quite as much as the cucumbers. Still, I found that there were lots of knots on its roots, and I removed the plant.

Arava melon plant with root knot nematodes.

But next to that Arava melon was a Crimson Sweet watermelon plant. The watermelon is growing fine, and I dug around its roots and couldn’t see any knots.

These plants are all similar: melons, watermelons, and cucumbers. They are all cucurbits — in the plant family Cucurbitaceae. And melons in general are listed as host plants to root knot nematodes on the list mentioned above.

Nonetheless, it is known that some varieties of host plants are more resistant to nematodes than others. This is the case with tomatoes, for example, where you’ll find certain varieties with capital letters listed after their name. It might read “VFN.” If “N” is listed, then the variety is known to be resistant to nematodes.

Apparently, the watermelon variety ‘Crimson Sweet’ has some resistance to root knot nematodes, as judged by the performance of my plant and the lack of knots on its roots.

Plant early

The carrots in that bed haven’t grown as well as some of my other carrot sowings, so I wasn’t surprised to find some nematode knots when I pulled some up.

The carrots in this bed are one of my later sowings, done in April. It’s possible that had I sowed the carrots in January results would have been better. The soil is cooler in January than in April — and especially compared to here in July. And as that page from the University of California notes, root knot nematodes thrive in warm soil. In fact, it says that at soil temperatures below 64 degrees the nematodes cannot penetrate roots at all.

Fallowing

What to do now with this bed that is populated with root knot nematodes? Can I get rid of them? Doesn’t seem possible. But there are things that I can do to keep the population down and the future damage low. Planting the bed to non-host plants and resistant varieties will reduce the population because it gives the nematodes little to feed on.

An extreme version of this approach would be fallowing the bed — that is, planting nothing. Without any roots to feed on their numbers will diminish.

However: “Nematodes can survive for a year or more in soil as eggs or cysts,” says the California Master Gardener Handbook. So, even through fallowing, you’re not expecting to eradicate the nematodes, but only to reduce the population.

Turning the soil before or as you fallow is said to help. “Fallowing is more effective if soil is plowed and exposed to sun,” says the UC pest management guideline page for root knot nematodes.

Soil solarization

There is one final practice that can reduce the population of root knot nematodes in that bed, which is soil solarization. This entails laying a plastic tarp over the soil to heat it up so much that it kills the nematodes. The plastic tarp should be left in place for 4 to 6 weeks during the hottest part of summer. Even then, it is effective only in the upper level of soil.

I’ve never tried soil solarization, and I don’t plan on trying it just yet. In the past, I’ve gotten acceptable control over root knot nematodes with it. But it is a tool that I will keep in mind in case other practices prove insufficient.

Summary

Keep root knot nematodes in mind this summer if you see that a vegetable plant is growing slowly and wilting often even though you think you’ve given it enough water, or if a plant is not growing and yielding as well as you think it should. Dig around to check its roots. If you see knots, then you’ve found the culprit.

What to do then? Plant non hosts or resistant varieties; plant in the cool season and plant summer vegetables as early as possible; fallow the area; and consider solarizing the soil.

By the way, no need to feel sorry for me and my diseased cucumber plants. Luckily, some Green Fingers in another part of the garden that I planted earlier are still producing well. The kids definitely aren’t starving.

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