caterpillar alert: who’s eating my cabbage and broccoli?

THINGS WERE GOING SO WELL. Even the most-vulnerable crops—the crucifers, or Brassicas, including cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, collards—were looking beautiful. Big, strong plants grown under row covers for about six weeks (successfully defeating flea beetles, at least) are suddenly under attack by small, velvety green caterpillars. What’s up, and what can I do about cabbage “worms”?

Though I cannot see without a hand magnifying lens if they have the requisite tiny markings, I’m betting from its overall appearance and velvety surface that this is the larval stage of the cabbage white butterfly, Pieris rapae, because I have also seen its adult stage flying around, a smallish butterfly with a couple of smudgy spots on each white wing.

This article from Missouri Botanical Garden is extremely detailed on my latest visitor, also known as the imported cabbage worm, and other pests of cabbage relatives, including cabbage looper and the caterpillar of the diamondback moth. The latter two caterpillars are smooth, not velvety, among other clues to differentiating among the three.

thecabbagewormsAs with all caterpillars, these can be controlled with the non-chemical biological control called b.t. (Bacillus thuringiensis), often sold as Dipel or Thuricide, but I don’t use it (tempted!). Nor do I use pyrethroids, which are also effective, apparently, but synthetic and not approved for organic production, or even natural pyrethrum/pyrethrin, which is permitted for organic use.

Instead, with my home-garden sized small number of plants, I’m making the rounds early and again late each morning, and hand-picking the sticky little beasts and—yes—squishing them. The challenging part is how well-camouflaged they are, often resting on leaf midribs as if they’re part of the plant. Go slowly, looking on top of and underneath each leaf; some will be tiny, just hatched.

After picking the pests, I rinse the plants, since the appearance of fresh tiny drops of gray-black excrement will signal the next time if, and perhaps just where, the hungry caterpillars are chewing. I wish I had left my row cover in place, to prevent the butterflies from laying eggs on the leaf undersides, or checked the undersides of leaves for eggs when I saw the butterflies; live and learn.

I’m putting out a welcome sign for various species of wasps that target and parasitize these unwanted caterpillars (there is a photo of their eggs on this page the Missouri Botanical website, at the bottom of the page). Most important: I’ll be certain to clean up extra carefully this year, to reduce the chance of overwintering pupae. I’m also reading up on weeds in the cabbage family (wild mustards, for instance, and shepherd’s purse, among others) with a sterner eye to removal.

The bad news: The imported cabbage worm will have multiple generations each season, so I guess this routine will become a familiar one. I don’t even really mind if they eat the tough outer leaves of the broccoli or Brussels sprouts plants. Somehow I don’t think they’ll respect any such boundaries, and are probably already eyeing the buds-to-be of the parts I’d hoped to serve up for my supper later this season. Damn.

Cross striped cabbage wormsP.S.–I’ve also been host to cross-striped cabbage worms (above) on occasion. More about that Brassica pest in this story.

  1. Michelle Becker says:

    I feel a similar resistance to using even organic pest control in our gardens, BUT, I’m doing it anyway for the cabbage loopers. I hand pick many critters but the cabbage worms are just too well disguised for me to rely on my eyesight. In our gardens, the cole crops are planted in one large area (that gets rotated from year to year) and this has been a boon year for caterpillars of all kinds. I noted your recent photo of a geranium turned to lace: same here at Stonewell Farm where even the petunias and the nicotiana have been chewed through,. We’re using Dipel. It works but requires multiple applications, unless one has been uber-vigilant and eliminated all the eggs and larvae hidden in the nooks and crannies of the underside of the foliage. I’m intigued by LaDonna’s suggestion of wood ashes and wonder why this would work? As a deterrent or as a knock-down after emergence?

  2. Kathy G says:

    This year I made a mini hoop-house out of remay (light wt. fiber covering) and flexible conduit. I’m keeping my brussel sprouts covered completely; works like a charm…no moths and great looking plants…. in fact the best & biggest I’ve ever grown. Yes I do open it to water the plants but close the ends afterwards so watering is a pain but worth it! Best of all,,,, no chemicals, even the ‘safe’ ones.

    1. margaret says:

      I am jealous, Kathy G.,and dreaming of a hoophouse myself. A friend’s husband made her one recently and I might have to hire him…

  3. Robin says:

    I “harvested” about 25 of these things this morning. And I have been doing it every day! I’m getting discouraged.

    I have also seen a big, bright green grasshopper on the kale. I thought he might be eating the caterpillars but I guess he’s eating the leaves too.

  4. Rhonda Lawrence says:

    My problems………..Something is eating my potato plants. Entire lower leaves gone, and lower stems just “snipped” off as well as no leaves. Left beer under plant, no slugs, and I cannot find anything when I’m up early in the twilight! The plants are in a large pot!
    Second problem, rhubarb leaves being devoured! (Aren’t those leaves poisonous to humans???) I put beer in tuna cans and have found a ton of small slugs, earwigs and 2 huge slugs that I think were young banana slugs (The largest was 2″ X 2/3″ maybe). I will keep putting out the beer!

  5. Pat says:

    Rhonda, you might have rabbits eating your potatoes and rhubarb. Even though they’re supposed to be poisonous, I’ve watched them eat both!

  6. Lisa says:

    Great post! I just picked a few that would eating my radishes… I only plant them in the first place to keep other pests away from my beans & squash plants, which seem to be working! But I am how wanting to plant a fall harvest of broccoli & cabbage. In the spring I create a barrier with bamboo sticks covered with netting, the kind you’d use to make a petticoat from the fabric dept… It worked well in Spring as the butterflies couldn’t get to the leaves to lay their eggs, but now that they seem to be onto the radish, I am afraid they may crawl thru once hatched. Just an idea with the netting, as sunshine & water still get thru easily!

  7. Lisa says:

    p.s. How can we attract the parasitic wasp? Any I love the idea of tossing the worms out to bird, will keep the house cats entertained!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Lisa. Wish I knew. Will do some homework, but basically we need to attract the thing (insect) they wish to parasitize, right? :)

  8. Rita says:

    When I grew broccoli, I was amazed that when the plants grew to a certain height, the caterpillars disappeared. It took me awhile to realize that the certain height was just when the plant could support birds. ^__^

  9. Robin says:

    Me again. These cabbage worms consumed many hours of my time as well as quantities of my kale! My question is, when you do finally clean up your crop, do you compost these plants? I’m worried there will be some critters that will survive into spring even in the compost; I’m not sure mine gets hot enough, especially at this time of year. If you don’t compost, then what do you do to get rid of the stuff?

  10. Dd says:

    By the time I figured this one out, they had done mucho damage. Very helpful post. I’m on it for next year! I did haveli try of sprouts however.

  11. G says:

    I too have the little grubbers this year. Last year my cabbages were prize winners.
    My greens were awsume and now this year, they have distroyed every cabbage plant, broccoli, plant and all the greens. I am sick about this. All I seem to be doing this year, in my two organic box gardens, is feeding the critters. Certainly not me.

    I have carrots, corn, tomatoes, peppers, sugar snap peas, spinach, organic lettace and okra left, hopefully for now, with no sign of problems. Just never expected this infestation so fast and furious.

    Memphis, TN
    Organic Box Gardner

  12. Doreen says:

    I just came inside from yet another daily session of caterpillar-picking. My frustration comes from the fact that I have my greens bed fully netted off with an insect barrier netting. I really can’t figure out why I have caterpillars appearing, because a) there is no imaginable way I can see the cabbage whites getting under the netting; b) I haven’t even seen any cabbage whites in the yard for over two weeks; and c) in the month I have had this bed netted off, I have not seen any butterfly stuck inside the netting. Last year, with a much less secure netting, I routinely found butterflies stuck inside after they figured out a way to get in.

    If the adults were hatching from the soil (completely new soil, mostly bagged from “reputable” sources), I would still expect to see adults trying to get out of the netting. They’re determined enough to find any crack in the netting to get in, but not to get out! Where are my caterpillars coming from??? I am so disappointed that this wonderful timesaver netting has completely failed, and I can’t figure out why. I have very few leaves touching the netting, and those leaves have been undamaged, so I doubt adults are laying eggs though the mesh–last year, I used the petticoat material for my netting, and I can guarantee the adults will lay eggs through that material, so you’ll want to be sure you don’t have leaf-mesh contact.

    I’m trying BT again–it seemed to work a couple years ago, and it seems like the only viable option for me right now. So far, I’m not seeing great results, but I may need to purchase new BT concentrate. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work on leafminers….

    1. margaret says:

      How discouraging, Doreen. I always manage to squish enough eggs and new worms that I stay ahead of it, but I am pretty ruthless (every morning at dawn on patrol).

    1. margaret says:

      Hi Scarlet. Well, truthfully, i just do it between my thumb and third finger. (Gross, right?) A garden friend I work with sometimes simply uses her pruner to cut them in half (as she does slugs). Also gross! (But you asked, so I answered.) Easier on many people’s stomachs: take a small pail of water or soapy water out with you and simply drop everyone in.

  13. Mary says:

    Hello! I’ve notice those same green worms eating my cleome spider flower leaves. Some I started from seed didn’t make it. They ate the whole thing. Now they are trying to eat the larger ones. I knocked them off with a small stick and killed them. I like the soapy water idea. I’ve not had this issue in the past with them. They are trying to take over, but I plan to win!!
    Have a good day!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Mary. Ugh! :) And yes, apparently the cabbage worms like them (or so I have read; I don’t have any Cleome to test it out on!).

  14. Betsey says:

    Hello Mary, I, too have been plagued with cabbage moth larvae. Will you or have you pulled the plant out? I am at a loss with what to do since the leaves are so far gone and they have gotten to the small cabbage that was forming after so much care. If I cut it down will it start regrowth? I did cut down my collard green plant after it was also chewed upon. That was over wa week ago and no regrowth……Any help would be appreciated. Thanks and happy gardening!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Betsey. I have not had them get to that stage so far, but when they once attacked young plants I did pull the entire thing, root system and all, yes, and destroy it (not putting it in the compost near my garden, but I put it in the woods nearby). I don’t think of collards and cabbage as “cut and come again” in July, no, so I think you are better off sowing fresh seed now.

  15. Roy Ashton says:

    I think you may be over reacting butterflies are beautiful to have in your garden, lets not kill them. Pick the caterpillars of the leaves and put them in an open box with old cabbage leaves ect.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Roy. The cabbage white butterfly of which the cabbage worms are the larval form are an accidentally introduced pest to the American landscape, and extremely plentiful and widespread. The reason I squish the caterpillars (rather than spray even an organic caterpillar solution like Bt) is to affect this pests ONLY, not harm other Lepidoptera in their larval stages. Very important to be targeted in our pest control, I agree.

  16. Mary Brigode says:

    Margaret, This is my first year experimenting with Brussel Sprouts. They were growing beautifully until a couple weeks ago, the bottom leaves were attacked by something and died quickly. I pulled them off to keep from spreading to higher leaves. Will this keep those tiny sprouts by those leaves from growing? Should I have left the leaves? Thank you

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Mary. I’m assuming you have some leave left so the plant is fine other than having lost the bottom row or so? By this time in the season that should be fine. My plants have only tiny beginnings of sprouts at this point — not a good sign! — when usually the sprouts are of decent size in the fall already. We have had a crazy weather year here. Be sure to check daily for other pests, many of whom eat from the top down (so check the terminal bud or topmost growing point).

  17. TJ says:

    Why do my brussels grow so well but the sprouts either open up or rot on the stem? The plants grow over 5″ tall and seem very healthy.

  18. Judy says:

    Hello All,
    I read once that growing tomato plants near broccoli, foliage even touching each other, helps repel cabbage butterfly. In our garden (NH) it seems to work. In the years I’ve been doing it, we’ve had very few cabbage worms on the plants — last year (2013), only a couple caterpillars the whole summer. Giving the broccoli plants rich soil and keeping it moist with mulch, seems to help reduce the odor the broccoli plants give off that attracts the butterfly. Still, it’s the nearby tomato plants that have made the difference in caterpillar presence in our garden. Good luck to all of us this 2014 season! — Judy
    Good luck this year

    1. margaret says:

      Interesting, Judy — I don’t know much about companion planting tactics, but I will do some homework on this one, thanks to you.

    2. Chris says:

      I planted my broccoli right next to my tomato for this very reason. Sadly, it hasn’t worked in the slightest. No sooner than my broccoli had a couple of leaves on it, then the cabbage white caterpillars set upon it with a voracious appetite & now I have not much more than the veins & a light green bud trying to survive. So far I’ve picked about 25 caterpillars off it & I’m almost to the point of pulling it up & giving up for the season.

  19. JILLIAN says:

    (I left a comment before but I don’t see it showing up)
    Hey there-
    I am new to gardening. Also new to growing the Packman Broccoli plant. I have these worms on 6 of my plants. The broccoli still appears to be young. How do you know it’s time to pull the broccoli plant?
    Currently, I am picking these guys off daily.
    Have not used any solutions.
    Jillian Johnston

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jillian. Cut the central head (or biggest heads if there are more than one) with a knife (don’t pull the plant!) and see if you get subsequent side shoots, which you should — like later little heads, or florets. Don’t wait to cut too long; do it when the heads are tight. Keep the plant well watered to it resprouts.

  20. Barbara says:

    In past years I’ve dealt with cabbage worms, but this year something much bigger has been eating my broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and cabbage. One day they were doing beautifully, and the next the leaves were gone as well as the central stalk. I noticed a hole had been dig into the garden under the fence. I’m assuming it is a groundhog. In many years of living in rural NH, I have never encountered this. Any suggestions?

    1. margaret says:

      Traps! I use live cage-type traps near the burrow, often the kind with two doors that open (either end), and bait with apple or cantaloupe, for instance, or a trapper’s paste I mail-order. Note that woodchucks feed usually around dawn/dusk, and if you leave the traps open all night you will probably get raccoons and skunks and maybe possums. I pay a licensed nuisance wildlife handler to relocate the ones I catch (it is illegal to move the off your property yourself) or you can have a person like that come do the entire process. Most local farmers here shoot them, and there are traps professionals use that destroy the animals, so that is your other option — but not in an area where there are pets or other desired animals! (Hence my using live traps.)

  21. Mary Brigode says:

    I keep planting kale in our church garden, and by the time it is 4-5 inches high, it is full of holes. Can’t see any bugs. We do not use any chemicals, but I’ve heard that mixing dish wash liquid and hot pepper with water and spraying will keep bugs away. I would love your thoughts. Thanks

  22. anthony vaughn says:

    Good news !!! for only ” $ 5.00 ” your cabbage worm problem would be over !!! Go to Walmart Super Centerand buy you some plant dust called ” Worry Free ” it has a picture of the green cabbage worm on the front of it. water your plants first, and then sprinkle a heavy coat on your brousells sprout plants, the next day, they will be dead as a door nail.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Anthony. I don’t and won’t use it (even though theoretically it’s made of pyrethrin, derived from an extract of chrysanthemum flowers originally) because it (according to UC Davis) has a medium rating for its potential toxicity to bees and to other beneficial insects — meaning it can harm other creatures besides the cabbage worms.

      As it says on the manufacturer’s website: “Kills and controls a broad spectrum of pests that it contacts.” It is made by a chemical company that also markets Sevin (insecticide) and Daconil fungicide), among other toxic products, another reason I would not purchase it. Also: On their own website, they say: “This product is highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment on blooming crops or weeds.”

      Just because an insecticide or other garden chemical derives from a botanical source does not mean it is safe to introduce into our garden environments or the broader environment, where we rely on a delicate balance of beneficial creatures.

      I hand-pick the worms, and better yet squish eggs beforehand, and remove all the Brassica plants with a thorough fall cleanup to reduce overwintering issues. I switch around where I plant my Brassicas year to year as well, as far apart as I can.

  23. Josie says:

    Thank you for your excellent article. It’s good to have support for mechanical rather than chemical pest control. I am relatively new to gardening and am wanting to learn the “kindest gentlest” way to share my garden without losing it, and your attitude is just lovely.

    1. margaret says:

      You’re welcome, Josie. If I have an upswing in a pest, I tend to relocate that crop for a year (or even skip it altogether) or time it differently — like skip the earlier sowings and only do the late ones. Anything that helps keep things in check (along with vigilance and squishing!).

  24. Sarah says:

    So I haven’t tried it yet but I was just talking to a friend of mine about my cabbage worm problem. She recently moved to the US from Australia where she gardened quite a bit. She said everyone there makes fake white butterflies out of plastic bag cuttings or paper and hangs them off of sticks with thread over their cabbage. Apparently the butterflies are territorial so if they see another butterfly over the plants, they’ll move on. Again, no personal experience but I’ll be trying it in the spring.

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