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The Unkindest Cutworm of All

March 30, 2012

By Maggie Dwyer permalink

This year I have learned about cutworms. The hard way.

I don’t recall ever seeing them in my garden before. When seedlings were lopped off it was usually snails doing the damage to my bean sprouts. This year I saw the gray-black greasy muscular caterpillars when I worked the soil but I didn’t know what they were. Until my tomato bedding plants started falling over like trees being logged in the night.

I am planting much earlier than usual. My neighbor has always insisted that tomatoes won’t grow if you plant before Easter, and in previous years, it was still cool enough that they didn’t thrive when placed in cool soil. Perhaps the worms were there and I never saw them because they stopped munching before I planted. I realize in hindsight that I spotted representatives of both the culprit moth and worm when I put out beer to get rid of snails in mid-March.

I consulted a tomato thread at Dirt Doctor and they were identified. I’ve tried several treatments, with some success. Good thing I got the tomatoes for cheap, so I can afford to replant. I took a dilute mix of orange oil and water to spray the ground around some plants, and the next day found a dead worm near one of my tomatoes. I dropped citrus peel and segments (from some dried out clementines) and that seems to have repelled the worms near a couple of plants. Meanwhile, I’ve found more damage. They have chewed major chunks out of some of my iris and have leveled a couple of small Swiss chard. I suspect some onions have also been tasted by these annoying juveniles.

Last weekend when I was doing some serious weeding and digging, I found several per square foot of garden soil, each just under the surface. These, to the left, were accumulated in about 15 minutes of weeding.

I linked to this image from a web page at North Carolina State University.
Tonight I will water then put out beneficial nematodes. I will use some BT very close around the plants (no broadcast, I don’t want to harm butterflies). I found a couple of the stages in my bowls of beer in early March, but they aren’t so consistently drawn to beer that it is worth trying to lure them in, and I don’t think these worms climb well. I am having success by sinking plastic containers into the soil around my tomatoes – they don’t seem to be interested in burrowing under the plastic or climbing over.

I’ll replant tomatoes this weekend. I dug around in my recycle bin to pull out various cylindrical plastic containers to cut up and use to protect the base of the plants until they’re bigger and hardened.

Many of the crop plants I prefer are in the tobacco family – tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, and peppers. Until I resolve this problem with the tomatoes, the rest of the garden will have to wait. Treating for cutworms now may also help control the voracious cousin, the tobacco hornworm. (See my essay Without A Trace for that beefy green guy. I like them – just not in my back yard!)

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