Microscopic, eel-like roundworms. The most troublesome species in the garden are those that live and feed within plant roots most of their lives and those that live freely in the soil and feed on plant roots.
Root knot nematodes usually cause distinctive swellings, called galls, on the roots of affected plants. Infestations of these nematodes are fairly easy to recognize by digging up a few plants with symptoms, washing or gently tapping the soil from the roots, and examining the roots for galls. The nematodes feed and develop within the galls, which may grow to as large as 1-inch in diameter on some plants but are usually much smaller. The water- and nutrient-conducting abilities of the roots are damaged by the formation of the galls. Galls may crack or split open, especially on the roots of vegetable plants, allowing the entry of soilborne, disease-causing microorganisms.
Management of nematodes is difficult. The most reliable practices are preventive, including sanitation and choice of plant varieties. Existing infestations can be reduced through fallowing, crop rotation, or soil solarization. However, these methods reduce nematodes primarily in the top foot or so of the soil, so are effective only for about a year. They are suitable primarily for annual plants or to help young woody plants establish. Once an area or crop is infested, try to minimize damage by adjusting planting and harvesting dates and irrigation or by the use of soil amendments.
Nematodes are usually introduced into new areas with infested soil or plants. Prevent nematodes from entering your garden by using only nematode-free plants purchased from reliable nurseries. To prevent the spread of nematodes, avoid moving plants and soil from infested parts of the garden. Do not allow irrigation water from around infested plants to run off, as this spreads nematodes. Nematodes may be present in soil attached to tools and equipment used elsewhere, so clean tools thoroughly before using them in your garden.