When this gardening season started, I never imagined I’d be doing research on identifying cutworms and how to get rid of cutworms. I’ve been gardening for over a decade and never came across a cutworm before. Then again, I’ve never started a garden in a former horse pasture before!
Cutworms are destructive little worms and will quickly decimate your garden. The only good thing I can think of that came out of our cutworm experience this year was discovering them before we planted any of our seedling transplants out. This allowed me to be proactive about preventing cutworm damage.
What is a Cutworm?
The first time I found a cutworm in our new garden space, I actually threw it aside and kept raking the beds. Then I found another one. And another one. Once I lost count of how many cutworms I was finding in the dirt, I realized these little buggers could be problematic and needed to identify them. I took a few pictures to make identification easier and started researching.
A cutworm is the larvae of a species of moth that is most often found in the top inch or two of soil. The most common type of cutworm climbs up the stem of a young plant, wraps around it and cuts it down as it feeds on it. Hence the name! When disturbed, the cutworms curl up in to a “C” shape.
A cutworm’s lifecycle is short so these buggers won’t be an issue all season. I guess that’s a good thing, but they’re still a pain to deal with! By early summer, a cutworm should be moving into the next life phase of a pupae (cocoon). Once I started finding the moth pupae instead of the worms, I was pretty excited since I knew our danger zone was passing!
Organically Get Rid of Cutworms
I did a lot of research and asked about cutworms in several homesteading and gardening forums I’m in. We will never use a toxic pesticide in our gardens so it was important to find natural, organic methods to get rid of cutworms in our garden. Here’s what we found out:
1. Diatomaceous Earth. This was the most recommended natural remedy to get rid of cutworms. Diatomaceous Earth kills soft bodied insects (you can find it here). This is a great option for some folks. Unfortunately for us we did not try this method since we read that it will also kill bees if it gets on them. Our honey bee hives are right next to our vegetable garden so I didn’t want to chance it.
2. Expose the cutworms and let the birds feast. We just happened to be putting in our new garden when we discovered the cutworms. Our garden is about 7000 square feet and a former horse pasture. This first year we decided to till the soil. By tilling the soil, it turned over the grass clods where the cutworms were hiding out. The killdeer, sparrows, starlings and robins flocked to the garden and feasted for days. If you have chickens, figure out a way to let them into the garden to eat the cutworms without them eating your seedlings!
3. Plant collars. Since cutworms wrap around the plant stem to cut it off, plant collars can be really helpful. You can buy plant collars, but look at the price of these things! We’re too frugal for that option. Instead we collected toilet paper rolls for a few weeks. I cut them in half and put them around my smallest seedlings when transplanting them out. This worked great for the broccoli and cabbage seedlings since they were small enough to fit down inside the paper tube. The tube should go at least an inch down into the soil and an inch above. I’ve heard from some folks that also used paper towel tubes cut in thirds and tin cans with both ends cut off.
4. Stem protectors. For our larger plant starts, like tomatoes and tomatillos, we used nails for stem protectors. Some folks said they used toothpicks or plastic drinking straws cut into shorter pieces. My husband is a contractor so we just happen to have a lot of nails around so chose this option. Basically the idea is to put something tall around the stem of the plant to prevent the cutworm from wrapping around and cutting it.
5. Pick and squish. This is the least pleasant option but very effective. Cutworms come out to eat at night so you can go out at dawn, dusk or night with a light. You can also find the cutworms in the soil by digging down a few inches below the soil level. I usually found them when I was raking in a new garden bed or digging a hole to plant a seedling. They can be a bit tricky to kill since they’re squishy. I’ve found the most effective method is sitting the cutworm on a rock and chopping it in half or squishing it with another rock. It actually can become quite gratifying to squish ’em if you have a big enough problem like we do!
Having to plant our seedling transplants out in collars or putting up stem protectors was extra work in the garden, but it was worth it. So far we have not lost a single plant to a cutworm (but the drought is a whole other story!). I still continue to find the little beasts, but they’re becoming fewer and far between. Since the moths lay their eggs in tall grasses, we’re hoping we won’t have a cutworm issue in the garden next year since it is no longer a horse pasture!
Have you ever had to deal with cutworms in the garden? Do you have any tips to share?