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Helen Yemm: how to tackle worms on the lawn

A mistle thrush pulls a worm from a lawn
A mistle thrush pulls a worm from a lawn Credit: David Chapman /Alamy 

Worms have gone 
to work on my 
tiny lawn

The 18-month-old turf in my small city garden is being destroyed by a profusion of earth worms. Patches of turf turn yellow and grass gradually disappears being replaced by churned-up soil. When I dig down I find earth worms of all sizes. Please help. Unfortunately not many birds come to my garden to keep the worm population in check. I’ve enclosed a photo.

Mary Sudwell – via email

This is the absolutely worst and wormiest time of year, intensely irritating for those with small, shady lawns. As the weather dries out and spring arrives, so will the lawn start to recover naturally (even though it looks hopeless now) and the worms will go down under for the summer.

You will then be able to gently scuff the fine soil of the dried worm casts back into the lawn using the back of a lawn rake. Meanwhile, don’t dig the soil, don’t remove the worms – you will be on a hiding to nothing and actually their activities are helping to aerate your lawn, and at the same time dragging organic matter down into it. CastClear (castclear.co.uk), a product containing sulphur, will deter earthworms without killing them but repeated applications are necessary.

I notice (from your accompanying picture) a really bad area close to a stepping stone: and from your description I would guess that your lawn is poorly drained. Stick your garden fork into the turf to create air and drainage holes and if the grass does not start grow back in the next few weeks, re-seed (try Patch Magic from the garden centre).

In the long run, perhaps one solution would be to replace your stepping stone with a larger one or even several, to create a proper access path so you can avoid treading on the muddy lawn in winter.

Never too late

I have not been a good gardener for most of my life, but now I am retired I would like to make an effort with two flower beds in my garden. How should I set about improving the soil, prior to planting new shrubs?

Linda Shelley – via email

There are those that would have you make a four course meal out of basic soil improvement, but it need not be: whatever your soil type (light and sandy, heavy and sticky, or something in between) the way to improve it before you start planting or replanting a border is always the same: Add as much well-rotted, organic matter as you can muster. If you are in rhododendron country (acid soil) avoid spent mushroom compost which contains chalk. Animal manure should be pong and weed-seed free. Buy in bulk if you can.

Back-breaking double-digging is not imperative, and a fork is easier to use than a spade. Simply cover the bed with a xx in (10cm) deep layer of organic matter, plus a couple of fistfuls of bonemeal per square metre (or any slow-acting, long term fertiliser), and turn this in so that it is incorporated into the top xx-xxin (20-30cm) of topsoil. As you plant your shrubs, dig a hole twice the depth and width of the container in which they were sold, and incorporate more compost and bonemeal in the bottom of each before you plant, backfill and firm in the roots.

Newspaper compost

I am an avid composter and would like to compost my Daily Telegraph. Would the ‘ink’ compost too or would it accumulate in the veg plot, where most of my compost is used and if so would that make the crops inedible?​ Anne Taylor

You can most certainly compost your copies of the Daily Telegraph, since for some time now the ink used by the newspaper industry has been perfectly ‘safe’. The exception might be the colour supplements, which are printed on slightly different paper (and also the glossier-paper inserts that always seem to drop out on the doormat). The newspapers should be torn up or shredded in some way, and not just dumped in your bins ‘whole’, where they would form a solid wet wodge. And batches of paper, like torn-up cardboard, should be interspersed with other, preferably ‘green’ compostable material.

Used in solid, still-folded batches, newspapers make good ‘kneelers’ before you compost them, and can be used, too, to form a useful base for paths between raised beds or rows of veg – covered in a layer of bark for aesthetic reasons. And I know one gardener puts a layer of newspaper to compost unseen under the black plastic with which she covers her raised beds in winter – it is more or less broken down by the time she uncovers them in spring.