I have a caterpillar problem in my garden! They are known as cabbage worms and are one of the most common insects to attack veggie gardens in Canada, United States and Mexico. There are 3 different types of these caterpillars and I have the “Imported Cabbageworm.” They are velvety to the touch, bright green, a thin yellow stripe down its back and it produces green droppings on the plants as it eats.
Where did they come from?The cabbage white butterfly! You will see them often in early spring to late fall. They are easy to detect because they don’t particularly fly, rather float with the air currents. They typically are white with a black spot on each wing.
What do they eat?
Everything! Well almost…. They especially love the brassica family, everything from broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and leafy greens.
How do I know I have them?
I realized I had some sort of pest because there were holes chewed through my lettuce, kale and broccoli. Some of the leaves were even skeletalized! Often the holes were chewed from the center of the leaf and in some cases whole leaves were being eaten. Look for them on the back of the plant leaves. Once they grew larger, I found them sitting on the top of the leaves. The larger ones also produce large green droppings, so you will realize that you have a caterpillar somewhere on that plant.
How do I remove this pest from my organic garden?
Basically check your plants often. Since I already have them, I am now checking the back of the leaves every afternoon/evening when they most commonly eat. I then remove them from our garden. I also check for tiny white specks on the back of the leaves, which are most likely the eggs. I will probably do this for the next 2 weeks. I have a small garden so this can be seriously damaging to our production. On the other hand, I have only found about 10 small caterpillars (no bigger than the width of my pinky finger) and 2 larger ones (about 1 inch long), so I consider myself lucky in terms of how bad it can get.
Another old gardener’s trick that I learned from a dear friend of mine with 70 years of gardening experience said to sprinkle flour on your plants. Do this after it rains or in the morning after a dew. The caterpillars will eat the flour, become bloated and die.
If you do have a serious problem with them you could purchase bacillus thuringiensis from a garden center. It is a biological/naturally occurring bacterial organism that is non-toxic to humans and animals, and is often used by organic growers. Caterpillars are just repulsed by it! You can purchase it in a dust or spray.
How can I prevent it from happening?
Since this was my first time planting a garden in this location, I did not realize how avid the white butterfly was here. Next time I will probably put floating row covers, or nylon netting overtop of my plants. This would prevent the butterfly from being able to lay eggs on my plants in the first place. Also rotating your crops is a good idea every season.
I hope our garden will survive this infestation. It’s pretty far along in terms of its growth, but one of our kale plants has been hit pretty hard. Once these caterpillars eat most of the leaves the plants cannot photosynthesize and eventually die. I’m going to try the ole sprinkle flour on the plants trick and see if this works. Wish me luck!
In other news I was able to harvest some of our “cut and come again” butter lettuce! Not that you want to hear about food after reading all about caterpillars, but the lettuce was delicious, soft and buttery :) A couple tips for picking this "cut and come again" lettuce:
~Always pick the outer leaves of the plant. They are usually the biggest and more mature.
~Once you think a leaf is big enough to eat, then pick it! This will encourage more growth from your lettuce.
~Pull the leaf downwards to harvest the leaf, opposed to pulling on the leaf.
~If you do end up cutting most or all of the lettuce leaves then leave about an inch of growth on the plant and it should grow back again in time.
~I usually get about 4-6 harvests off of each lettuce plant through out the season. The lettuce leaves usually keep in the fridge for about 3 days. They are so young and tender that we usually eat them before they get a chance to make their way into our fridge.
I hope you harvest lots of your own lettuce, rather than deal with pesky bugs in your garden! Happy Veggie Gardening to you all :)