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How to Keep Caterpillars off Plants: an Effective Cutworm Treatment

An effective cutworm treatment, other than to simply keep caterpillars off plants, might be to get them to eat each other! Mine seem to be cannibals- at least when one of them is dead.

Ok, not your usual way to start a post, but I watched and photographed one cutworm eating another one. I was out checking the brassicas under my row cover because even though I have successfully prevented the cabbage moths from landing to lay their eggs, the plants were still getting eaten! aarrgghh. After all that work. So, I checked the soil around the plants and found CUT WORMS!!! I squished one before thinking, “hey, I should chronicle this for my blog!” So, I took both worms inside and put them on some paper towel on the kitchen counter.

I went online to do some research so I could determine if what I had found were cutworms. The OMAFRA (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs) had fantastic information on identification and control that you can find here.

What I did learn is that there are lots of different types of cutworms, but what they have in common is that you can usually identify them not only by their markings but by the fact that they curl up when you touch them.

What happened next might surprise you. I walked away from the critters, much to my husband’s chagrin…”Are you going to just leave them on the counter?” lol. Of course! How far can they go?

I wasn’t prepared for the sight I met when I went back a few minutes later…

He started by eating off all of the other caterpillar’s skin. This process lasted a few hours.

What was left was basically a tube of minced, green leaves that the dead caterpillar had eaten before his tragic demise. Then, because this is a cutworm, he decided to cut his dead buddy in half.

After that, I figured he’d eat the rest and then be tired out, resting. This is what I fond the next morning because I forgot to confine the live cutworm:

We still haven’t found the rogue cutworm. “I told you so” was certainly the phrase of the morning when we woke up to find one cut worm eaten, and his predator nowhere to be found.

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO PREVENT CUT WORMS?

  • Some people swear by putting a physical barrier around young plants by using half of a toilet paper roll, shoved into the ground around it. However, other people say that it is ineffective because the caterpillars just crawl underneath
  • I have had success with sprinkling eggshells around my plants (knock on wood) This prevents them from migrating on the soil from plant to plant.
  • Some people also suggest coffee grounds. These soft-bodied caterpillars don’t enjoy the feeling of anything scratchy on their bellies, which deters them.
  • There are, of course, chemical pesticides. I don’t’ use them and won’t condone their use because of the other damage these do in our environment.
  • Die-hards go out at night when they are actively crawling around on top of the garden soil and on your plants and use the PICK AND SQUISH technique. I’m sure that if you have poultry they would love to eat the fruits of this type of labor! lol
  • I saw a toad in my garden and gave him a toad house.

  • Toads like caterpillars and I actually watched my toad eat a cutworm! Bring on the toads.

Cutworms over-winter in your soil. To prevent them in the spring, you can:

  • either need to prevent the moths from laying eggs the year before by using row cover
  • tilling the soil in the early spring and letting some other critters come on the soil to eat the young worms (chickens, ducks, etc.)
  • not plant a cover crop. Apparently, the moths love to lay eggs on tall grasses and weeds, and they aren’t particular on the variety. Try using mulch instead for preserving the integrity of your garden nutrients over the winter to help prevent cut worms in the spring.

I am no expert on cutworms. I just know I have them in my soil and now have to be extremely diligent to prevent them from eating all of my hard work!

If you have expertise in cutworm treatment, or other organic pest control techniques you have tried and have either succeeded or failed with, please leave a comment below.

Have a wormy day! (with only the good kind of composting worms. )

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