Our first major frost hit my part of Arizona a month ago, killing all tomato vines. I did my thanksgiving cleanup chores–removed all the vines and ground them into mulch. I noticed an ominous symptom on one a few of the heirloom varieties (Prudence Purple) that I removed—galled roots. This symptom when seen on tomato is evidence of Root Knot Nematode (RKN). More about RKN shortly. Nematodes are non-segmented worms, mostly free living in soil and feed on bacteria, fungi, small animals or each other. Nematodes are small, barely perceived without magnification but easily observed under low power microscopy. Most nematodes are principal components of the soil food web and are vital to its health and functioning. A few kinds (>30) are opportunistic plant feeders. Plant pathologists consider nematodes plant pathogens because they evoke complicated responses in plant physiology leading to the development of symptoms.
Plant parasitic nematodes have some common features and some rather diverse feeding habits and lifestyles. All plant parasitic nematodes have a stylet or spear at their mouth end that is used to puncture plant tissues and such the sap from their host. Looking under a dissecting microscope you may not be able to identify the genus of a nematode but you can tell if it is bad for plants by seeing the spear just behind its mouth. Plant Parasitic Nematodes (PPN) are either migratory or sedentary. All PPN reproduce by eggs and molt once inside the egg emerging as a second instar juvenile nematode. After a couple more molts the juveniles become adults. Male nematodes are less common than female worms. As adults they can keep feeding from plant to plant if they are ectoparasitic (feeding outside of the root) or they can settle down and make eggs inside a cyst or gall. Some nematodes are endoparasitic and once inside the root never leave it until their eggs hatch and juveniles swim off find another host.
Gardeners should be on the lookout for PPN by noticing symptoms of infection. The most common symptom caused by nematodes is stunting or reduced growth. There may be no other symptoms observable. When the number of PPN is quite large, yellowing or chlorosis can occur as the worms shut down a plant’s ability to take up water and minerals. RKN is the most common destructive plant parasitic nematodes for many gardeners. The gall symptoms on roots are indicative of an infested host. Galling can be light or complete, occurring on every root the plant has. RKN survives in soil for years even without a host because the eggs enter a dormant stage called cryptobiosis. Hatch is snychronous with susceptible roots that grow nearby. Root knot nematodes can build huge populations in a single growing season. Gardeners get nematodes by introducing contaminated soils that come with plants to their gardens. Since symptoms don’t show on plants with minor infections, people think they are buying healthy stock. Even with RKN, there may be juveniles in the soil that have not formed galls yet and when introduced to your garden they will develop later on susceptible plants.
RKN has a very wide host range. Fruit trees, impatiens, calendulas, and tomatoes are a few of its common hosts. Perennial plants can really develop high populations of RKN because the host is undisturbed and provides many seasons for the pathogen to develop. Once detected as galls on roots the plant should be removed and destroyed. RKN is particularly horrible for tomatoes and other annuals when it combines with fungi that also cause disease. RKN forms disease complexes with Fusarium which causes wilts. When tomatoes are infected with both RKN and Fusarium the symptoms are severe, and the plant will die relatively early in its life cycle often before a crop can develop.
Chipping or grinding and composting will kill most nematodes if you want to reuse your greenwaste. More likely RKN will survive as eggs in the soil. Soil samples that find just one RKN per gram of soil sample are considered hazardous as the worms can rapidly develop from these low populations. You may have heard that Marigolds will control RKN. Switching gardens to a non-host (crop rotation) does help decrease populations. And French marigolds and crucifers if tilled into soil as “green manure” will decrease RKN but these methods will not eliminate them from soil. There is a dose response to tilling in mustards so the more you incorporate the more RKN will be harmed. Some varieties are better than others. Fumigation provides a good level of control but is not feasible outside commercial agriculture. Soil solaraization with plastic tarps also controls nematodes in the upper regions of soil but there are usually many eggs that survive in lower soil profiles. The best control is not to plant susceptible plants.
Some tomato varieties are resistant to RKN. In fact VFN (Verticillium Fusarium and Nematode resistant) varieties should be chosen to avoid recurrent problems. The resistance to RKN in tomato is not complete and under high nematode populations and/or high temperatures the resistance can break down and even resistant varieties can develop galls and symptoms. There are no pesticides that home gardeners can use to kill nematodes. However there are biological controls of nematodes and since they are soil food web opportunists, increasing the diversity of organisms in soil tends to cut down on PPN. As always, fresh arborist chips applied as mulch will build a resilient soil food web and will slow the development of PPN harmful to garden plants.