Garden Infestation: Cabbage Worms

Garden Infestation: Cabbage Worms

Today I feel like giving up on gardening. My hose is leaking at both the beginning and end of the line, one of my raspberry bushes grew a strawberry instead, and there was a bee on my neck. But that’s not the worst of it! When I went out to water my two small square foot gardens today (more about that method here), I found that my broccoli and cabbage plants had basically been decimated by cabbage worms. Their leaves were more “hole” than “leaf”, and it looked as if a horrible hail storm had come through. A hail storm with teeth!

Cabbage destroyed by cabbage worms
Nearly destroyed cabbage
Broccoli eaten by cabbage worms
Poor sad broccoli

Cabbage Worms

In the past few days I have noticed maybe a dozen small holes in the leaves, enough to make me realize that I had some kind of bug situation. I wasn’t too terribly worried about it yet, but this morning I went to my favorite garden expert for advice: my mom. She said to try insect soap and diatomaceous earth first as more natural methods, and if those didn’t work, to use a stronger powdered pesticide. She even said she’d share hers with me so I didn’t have to buy them. I had a plan!

But that was before I discovered The Infestation.

Before I put my bug plan into action, I went out to water and was met with the terrible scene described above. After seeing the awful damage done to my broccoli and cabbage, I leaned in for a closer inspection. That’s when I noticed a few fat, bright green caterpillars living happily on the leaves, munching away without a care in the world. The little buggers were brilliantly camouflaged and very hard to see.

Cabbage worms caterpillars on broccoli and cabbage
Close up of the caterpillars blending in perfectly with the leaves. Do you see all three?

Apparently these are one of four types of pests collectively called “cabbage worms”. Their moth counterparts, sometimes mistaken for butterflies, are small and white. Picking the cabbage worms off, like I did, seems to be the best cure, but as they say… an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! Next year I will definitely do some companion planting to help keep the moths and worms away from the start. (A friend of mine recommends dill, hyssop, thyme, rosemary, and wormwood.) SF Guide has more on these pests and how to get rid of them: SFGate HomeGuides Cabbage Pests.

The Battle for my Garden

I quickly ran inside and grabbed my camera, a bowl, and a pair of tweezers to help pull them off (sorry, I just can’t do it with my bare hands – maybe some day I will be a brave and weathered Bug Warrior, but today is not that day!). I started plucking worms as fast as I could, but I never could have guessed how many I would find. Within five minutes I had TWENTY FIVE cabbage worms in my bowl, from just two of my six plants!! Yes, I did want to cry, thank you for asking. They must have sensed that they were in danger when I counted because they made a sudden break for it as a group. I pushed them back down the sides and brought the bowl to my chickens, who I’ve bribed with treats trained to come when I call.

Cabbage worms from broccoli plants
Thirteen caterpillars of different sizes from just one plant

As you can see below, the Cabbage Worm Buffet was a big hit! Watching the bugs meet their demise felt like sweet, sweet revenge. After about 30 seconds the bowl was empty, and I went back to my bug hunt. Pepper caught on quickly and stayed at my side, eating them straight from the tweezers before I could even get them in the bowl. I stopped counting around 40, but I know I had at least 60 worms before I was finished. There were several little clumps of eggs, too, which I tried to scrape off the leaves as best I could. (The chickens enjoyed eating these, too. Chicken caviar?).

Chickens eating cabbage worms
Clockwise from top: Bijou, Gypsy, and Pepper
Cabbage worm eggs
The little dark spot in the middle is a clump of eggs

I probably sweat a gallon out there in the 90-degree heat, and I’m sure the neighbors heard me yelling at the kids to stop spraying me with the hose… but I think it was a successful endeavor. I got as many worms and eggs as I could find. There are probably a dozen more that I missed, and the eggs I couldn’t get will be hatching soon. But I refuse to admit defeat. Yes, I wanted to give up today, but I won’t let some setbacks – or even downright failures – stop me from pressing on. I believe the end result will be worth all the work!

Update

I’m happy to say that, a month later, my cabbage and broccoli are doing very well! I never used a pesticide of any kind. I have caught just a few worms here and there, and chased off some of the butterflies, but nothing major. Using a pesticide would probably keep them away, but I like knowing my garden was cared for naturally! One plant, the one that had the very worst damage, has grown a beautiful little head of cabbage for me. Two of my broccoli plants have finally started to grow tiny broccoli heads, and the remaining three plants are slowly gaining their health back.

Cabbage growing after cabbage worms almost destroyed it
Look at this adorable little cabbage growing despite the odds!
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