Cutworms feast at night on your garden bounty

July 17, 2014 

Here in Mississippi we have the advantage of an extended growing season, and many people either have planted or are going to be planting their second crops of peppers and tomatoes. The drawback to this is that the wee beasties that love to munch on our tender young plants are at their population peak and pose a potentially devastating problem for our late season gardens. One of the most notorious of these pests is the cutworm.

Cutworms are easy to identify. They are fatter than most caterpillars, are rather slick looking and are dull brown or gray. When disturbed, they curl up into a "C" shape. They tend to be nocturnal in their habits (but will emerge to feed on a heavily overcast day). Cutworms spend the day hiding just below the surface of the soil, waiting for the sun to set. They emerge at dusk and begin chewing at the base of pretty much any plant they can reach.

If the worms are large enough, they will cut down the whole plant and then consume it at their leisure. For the most part, they prefer to consume young, tender plants on which to feed. Smaller cutworms will climb young plants and chew off individual stems to eat.

Fortunately for us, there are a number of ways to deal with these pests. First is the old tried and true method of spraying, spreading or dusting insecticide around the base of the plants. When the caterpillars climb out of the soil at night, they come in contact with the pesticide and die.

Those of you who prefer a less toxic method and have the time and energy to implement it can try a number of alternative methods.

If you have a fireplace, you can use the leftover ash to control the worms. A light sprinkling of the ash around each plant works by irritating the thin skin of the cutworm when it crawls across the treated surface. You don't want to apply too much of the ash because it turns the soil alkaline, and most garden plants like their roots to grow in a more acidic soil.

Another method is to place a small barricade around each plant. Cutworms aren't very agile and don't climb well, especially as they get older sand fatter. The barrier can be made from cut-up toilet paper tubes, or folded newspaper made into a circle. You also can use small cans, plastic bottles, aluminum foil or foam cups, but I prefer barriers that will break down over time. The barrier has to be placed 4 or 5 centimeters in the ground and needs to extend upward about the same distance. Of course, a barrier won't get rid of cutworms, and they may just turn around and attack plants that aren't defended. But at least you'll keep your veggies safe.

The final method can be a fun adventure for the entire family, at least if you have small kids. Take the munchkins and some reliable flashlights and go hunting for cutworms after dark. If you can keep the kids quiet long enough, you might even be able to hear the worms chewing on your tender young plants. Send the kids out to find the critters to pluck and stomp. A little gratuitous violence never hurt anyone and, in this case, it's good for the environment.

As always, if you have a pest problem, contact me through the Sun Herald.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535.

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