Cutworms in the Garden

Cutworms can quickly defoliate a plant and ruin garden crops. How do you know if it’s cutworms chewing on the leaves and stems?

How do you know if your garden problem is cutworms?

The short answer to that question is that whole stems will be cut off at the base. This is how the cutworm gets it’s name. The other part to that answer would be you won’t spot anything that could be doing the damage. It will seem to be a mystery.

Unlike many insects and worms that show up in a garden, the cutworm hides. When inspecting damaged leaves, you’ll likely see nothing. Cutworms sleep in the dirt during the day and feeds at night. Sneaky little buggers!

I noticed that something was eating my potato leaves. I was thinking “potato beetle” or slugs, and kept inspecting the plants and leaves closely. I saw nothing. Each day more leaves were eaten, and then the stalks began to fall – chewed off at the base. That clicked, because I know I’ve dealt with this before. Cutworms! Now, what is it they do? And how do I deal with them?

Organic Spray Did Not Help

I got my handy organic spray and sprayed the heck out of the plants. That didn’t seem to stop the problem one bit. I have two raised beds of potatoes and one was doing very poorly and then it began to show up in the other bed.

It was time for drastic measures. This meant researching online. Sure enough, it seemed the culprit was cutworms. I read that they overwinter in the soil and emerge in spring.

My Mistake

I believe I brought the cutworms into the raised beds when I added leaves from the yard as mulch. The potatoes were planted in dirt – new this year – from bags purchased at the local Home Depot, so I think the only way they could have been introduced was through the leaves and Spanish moss I added.

While researching the problem, I read that slugs will also eat potato leaves and mounding the soil around the plant will help. ( This page about slugs and potatoes is a good one for advice if you have that problem.)

I began scraping away all the leaves I had on top of the gardens and throwing it in the woods. Then I began digging up hills to mound around each of the plants. And that is when I saw it – a big cutworm! Altogether I found about 6 worms, large and small. One was greenish, one was pink and the small ones were black.

The pupae stage is when the worm / caterpillar has become a cocoon. The adult moth will emerge from this reddish orange shell to fly around and lay eggs that become more worms. But the worms are the worst in Spring – just in time for planting.

This hard orange-red thing in the dirt is cutworm pupa.
Cutworm pupa is reddish-orange

Getting Rid of Cutworms

My potato gardens are small. I have two raised beds with a total of 10 plants growing. I simply continued to dig around in the dirt searching for the worms.

Hand-picking

The cutworms I found were placed into my tray bird feeder and within a couple of minutes a cardinal was having the worms for a meal! This is a very simple way to get rid of the worms while helping out the birds. If you don’t have a tray feeder, just set them on a board or rock in the yard where birds visit. The birds come fast for the juicy meal.

I also went out at night to inspect the plants and found one more worm which I hand picked off. I continue to check for worms but haven’t found any more.

Eggshells and Coffee Grounds

Lots of online sites have advice about getting rid of these destructive worms, but I like to do so as naturally as possible. I had a few eggshells leftover from my eggshell seed starters project, so I crunched them up and sprinkled them around the base of the remaining potato plants. The only problem with this is that the shells get moved around when watering.

Also, the worms do not like coffee grounds so you could do the same thing with leftover grounds.

Eggshells sprinkled around the base of potato plants

Make a Collar

After checking on my potatoes, I came over to the other raised bed and one of the bean plants was totally chewed off! Just in case the cutworm was to blame, I made tin foil collars for the other plants. They have to be pushed down into the dirt and must surround the stalk.

This is best done when the plants are very young so the roots will not be disturbed. I used foil, but other things work. Think toilet paper and paper towel cardboard. Plastic cups, plastic bottles, and anything round and open will work.

Now my potato plants (in garden number 2) look like bare stalks. I’ll continue to check for worms and watch to see if the stalks come back.

Ways to Prevent Cutworm Problems

The worms emerge from eggs in Spring and they have been existing underground. Till the garden or dig down a few inches to search for the worms and remove them before planting. Take precautions by using the collars mentioned above – this is not that difficult to do if the garden is small.

Please visit this page at The Real Dirt Blog which is full of excellent information and advice about the cutworm.

How to know if you have cutworms in the garden, and what to do about them.

Read more here about cutworm stages: adult larvae and pupa drawings.



Cut Worms, Pill Bugs and Squash Vine Borers Invade My Space

My little garden has been growing like mad, but now the cut worms and other creatures are making a mess of it.

Cut Worms

I’ve seen black worms eating leaves, and they are not picky which plant they attack. These are the cutworms – pictures below. Cutworms can also nip a new seedling at the base and kill the entire plant, but these are concentrating on the leaves.

Cutworm eating fennel
Cutworm eating fennel

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Black spots are tiny worms

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Small worms huddled together

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Tiny cutworms living underneath a cucumber leaf

It turns out getting rid of the cutworm is easier than getting rid of the other pest, the pill bug. I can pick the worms off the plants. The large ones are fairly easy to spot, and my garden is small. I plopped them into my tray bird feeder and the cardinals came and had a meal!

Pill Bugs

My other problem is all the tiny bugs, which I believe are Pill Bugs. They are everywhere from huddled along the wooden sides of the raised bed, to deep down under the soil. And I’ve found them munching on my cucumbers too.

At first I thought these were a form of the cutworm. These bugs range from tiny to fingernail size. I thought they were harmless, but have found them eating the vegetables, so they need to go.

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Along the inside edge of the raised bed

As I was inspecting the garden, I found colonies of the pill bug along the edges of the garden. Too many to pick off. And as I dig, I find more underground!

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Single pill bug

I’m always looking for organic, natural ways to deter destructive bugs because I don’t use harmful sprays in my yard.

I read that the cutworm will eat corn meal and that will kill it. I’m hesitant to use cornmeal because of the raccoons that visit my yard each night.  I don’t want them digging through my garden because they smell corn!

One site suggested using Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth. I just happened to have some of that!  It’s made of crushed fossils which cut open bug that crawl across it which causes them to die.  I sprinkled it over the dirt in my garden paying attention to the edges.

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Pill bugs roll into a ball when disturbed

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Bug on the cuke – hard to see, but he’s there a little left of center.

Besides these two destructive pests, I’ve got worms boring into my cucumbers and summer squash. While I was outside dealing with these bugs, an orange wasp (it’s really a moth, but looks like a big bee) was buzzing around my garden. Come to find out it is a squash vine borer moth looking to lay it’s eggs in my garden!  The link has a photo of what those eggs look like.

The link above will give you lots of info about how to prevent the borer moth from laying it’s eggs all over the vegetables.

One idea is to use a Floating row cover.  If the moth can’t get to the crops, it can’t lay the eggs.

Another suggestion which I found to be a simple try is to place a yellow bowl of water in the garden to attract the moth and drown it.

Troubles With Worms in the May Vegetable Garden

I would ordinarily consider May to be the beginning of vegetable growing season, but already I am giving up on one of my tomato plants and the summer squash.  Worms are doing a number on everything else, and I am not sure it’s worth having a garden at this point.

Almost as soon as I planted the squash I had trouble with blossom end rot. I began watering less, and added a fertilizer with calcium.

I managed to pick two very small squash, but that is it. Other than those two, every squash that has grown, on both plants, has wizzled up and rotted. One squash plant has no flowers and no squash. The other has flowers and little squash, but all the squash are doing the same thing.

summer squash plant with yellow flowers
The summer squash began fine, then went downhill

I will be pulling up the plants and putting something else in the fabric bags. I do have zucchini seeds which I may try. Summer means fresh squash to me, and I hate that I can’t seem to grow it here.

Tomatoes should be easy to grow here in Florida. Tomatoes like sun and lots of water. Of the two plants I bought, one is a “celebrity” which is still doing okay. Currently it has around 8 tomatoes growing.

The other plant didn’t even have a name, and that one has bit the dust. The leaves began to turn brown and then the green tomatoes are rotting and falling off the vine.

I’ve grown tomatoes for many years, and very successfully, in New Hampshire. Just one year I had a problem with late blight. I don’t have blight this time, but I don’t know what the issue is. Honestly, I think the plant may have simply been bad stock. I hate having to buy my vegetables from a big box store.

green tomatoes
This tomato plant turned brown and the tomatoes are rotting off the vine.

Also I have been overrun with cutworms. They are eating the leaves of nearly every plant I have in the garden. I started picking them off by hand, but many of the leaves are already chewed. Being more vigilant will help, I hope. It’s been very rainy, which keeps me inside. Garden pests can get out of control if they are not caught quickly.

These worms are eating everything from the cucumber leaves to the tomatoes, basil and pepper plants.  Cutworms can also cut off the new stems of seedlings.  I don’t have that problem.

cut worm
Cut worm that fell into the birdbath

The squash and cucumbers have another kind of worm which bores into the vegetable and makes it mushy.  They also eat through the stems which makes the rest of the vine droop and die, like in my photo.  For more info on growing cucumbers and dealing with the pickleworm, read the post at the Central Florida Garden blog.  It seems there haven’t been too many newer posts, but I intend to search it for useful information.

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All in all, I am disappointed in my May garden.  The orange ruffle hibiscus still has fuzzy mites on the leaves even though I have sprayed and trimmed it way back.  I’ve seen this same circular white ring on the backs of some of my pepper plants.  That is all I need!  I didn’t have half these problems in the North.  No wonder I don’t see farms around here!

Hot pepper plant with chewed leaves
Hot pepper plant with chewed leaves

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