The tumbled over Red Russian kale seedling brought back old memories. It was like seeing the work of an old friend — or, rather, an old enemy. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a cutworm at work in my garden that I couldn’t even get angry at it.
I scratched around at the base of the plant to try and find the bugger. Too late, fortunately for him or her because its fate would then have been a two-finger crush. The cutworm in a friend’s garden I visited last spring was not so lucky.
The bad thing about cutworms are that they chop down young, tender seedlings. At that age, seedlings’ roots lack the energy to grow new leaves; the plants die. (I wonder how the cutworm benefits from lopping back the seedling; the felled plant usually doesn’t get eaten.)
The good thing about cutworms is that, in my experience, they are few and far between — just one or two every few years.
Also, on a garden scale, they’re easy to control, if needed. They prepare for their meal by wrapping their bodies around the plant stems. When I feared them more, I would cut cardboard rolls at the center of paper towels or toilet tissue into lengths of about 1-1/2 inches long, slit one site, fit it around the seedling, press it into the ground, and tape it back closed. A bit tedious, I must admit.
Then I read that cutworms can be fooled. They only attack soft, young seedlings. A thin stick or toothpick slid partway into the ground next to a seedling makes a cutworm think the plant is a woody plant and, hence, out of its league. Since I didn’t find the culprit in my garden, I slid thin sticks next to nearby seedlings. For my friend’s garden, I returned from her kitchen with a handful of toothpicks and instructed her teenage son what to do with them.
Except for today, I haven’t taken precautionary measures against cutworms for many years. Especially every morning, robins, catbirds, and mourning doves are pecking around the ground in my garden; I suspect that’s one explanation for the lack of cutworms.
A Good Parasite
A week or so ago, I saw another old “friend” in the vegetable garden. I noticed that leaflets had been thoroughly stripped from one region of one tomato plant. Obviously, a tomato hornworm, a voracious and rapid diner, was lurking somewhere amongst the existing foliage. A cause for panic? No!
The culprit, a green, velvety caterpillar with widely spaced, thin white stripes and some rows of black dots, is undoubtedly intimidating.
Besides its voracious appetite — you can hear it chomping away — it is the size of an adult pinky.
Still, not to worry. Like cutworms, tomato hornworms turn up in my garden only every few years. And again, like hornworms, they seem to arrive, or show evidence, solo.
I did not reach out to crush the hornworm when I saw her because her back was riddled with what looked like grains of white rice standing on end. Those “rice kernels” are actually the eggs of a parasite that in short order turns that beautiful body to an ugly mush. It’s a dog eat dog world out there.
A Call for Action with This One
I can’t be so complacent about all pests that can turn up in my vegetable garden. Probably the worst one that causes problems every year is one or more of the caterpillars now, as I write, chewing away on the leaves of cabbage and its kin. The symptoms are quite evident: holy . . . whoops, holey . . . leaves upon which is deposited dark green caterpillar poop.
A close eye is needed on cabbage and its kin because one day there’ll be no damage and next time you look, leaves are riddled with holes and poop.
And then, action is necessary. Hand-picking is one option. I choose to use the biological insecticide B.t., short for Bacillus thurengiensis and commonly sold under such names a Dipel or Thuricide. It should be used with restraint because the insects can — and, in some cases, have — developed resistance to this useful pesticide which is very specific in what it harms and what it leaves alone.
Now that I mention it, excuse me for 10 minutes while I mix up a batch of spray for my cabbages, Brussels sprouts, and kale plants . . .
I’m back. The caterpillars seem to prefer cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower over kale, which is fine with me because kale is my favorite of the lot.
Many predators, including certain wasps and beetles, diseases, birds, and bats, keep these caterpillar pests under control. Evidently not enough, though, in my garden.