As a gardener, you love an abundant, colourful spread, filled with fresh blooms or a variety of delicious fruits or vegetables, reaching up to the sun and giving you a beautiful bounty every day of spring and summer.
I do too! But I know that pests can take their toll on anyone’s garden, no matter how experienced you are with all things green.
All too soon, you may notice that something is taking bites from your foliage, and even the veggies and fruits themselves if these creatures aren’t dealt with promptly.
But when they are in the caterpillar stage they can wreak havoc on your garden, and become frustratingly pervasive, all the while happily munching away on all your hard work. You put in the time, the toil and the love and care necessary for growing a spectacular garden, only to see it chewed into lace by industrious, ravenous caterpillars in just two or three days! But you can deal with these critters, once and for all — honest!
Here are my easy ways to control caterpillars in the garden; all it takes are a few supplies and a stomach for the “yuck” factor to be rid of them once and for all. These measures enable you to watch your garden grow to full glory, no pests in sight.
Pluck them off.
This is not for the faint of heart, so if you’re at all queasy about picking them off barehanded put on a pair of latex dish gloves. Go out early in the morning and pick the little offenders off by hand.
Instead of squishing them beneath your boot, plunge them into a bucket of water with some added dish soap and they will soon drown. That way, you won’t feel quite as put off by the “visuals” of dead caterpillars beneath your shoes.
Use an environmentally friendly insecticide.
Depending on the kind of garden you’re growing, there is undoubtedly a product available that will kill caterpillars, but not other important creatures like honeybees and other “good” insects. Go to your local garden supply store and explain what you’re growing, and no doubt they’ll offer a product that does the job but doesn’t harm other bugs.
Protecting the environment is more important than ever, so use a spray or wash the leaves with a product that doesn’t drain the soil of nutrients, cause damage to healthy plants, or cause harm to a pet kitty that may enjoy wandering through your garden.
You can make a home grown solution if you prefer. Usually, four cups of water, a teaspoon of dish soap and a tablespoon of garlic powder, mixed thoroughly, is enough to do the trick. Wash the leaves and stems in the solution, and it should kill many, if not all the caterpillars in your garden. Keep an eye out for a resurgence over the following few days, and if necessary, repeat the cycle.
Grow plants that attract insects that eat caterpillars.
Aster is famous for attracting all the “right” bugs, as is Yarrow. The insects that come to a garden with these plants just love “chowing down” on caterpillars, and so they do a lot of the pest control for you.
Speaking of pest control.
Erecting a bird feeder near the garden is a wonderful way to help our feathered friends, and in return, they will gladly munch away on all the caterpillars they can find. In spring and summer birds have babies to feed, so you’ll be amazed at the number of insects — not only caterpillars but pests of all kinds — that birds will eat out of the garden.
If you’re worried about your kitty getting too close and you finding dead birds everywhere, just place a collar with a bell around its neck. That gives the birds ample warning that a predator is nearby.
Use a burlap sac to get rid of tree caterpillars.
If you have a tree in the garden that has been infested, you can still get rid of them without toxic insecticides. (Gypsy moth caterpillars, in particular, love trees.) Wrap a burlap sack around the tree, or tack it to the trunk with an easy opening, and the caterpillars will crawl in all day long.
They hate the heat, you see and are always looking for a spot that’s cool and dark, and a burlap sack presents them with the perfect escape. Then, just before dusk, quickly tie up the sack and — once again — plunge it into warm, soapy water. Voila! No more tree caterpillars.
Move them elsewhere.
If you really are too tender of heart to kill them, or don’t even want to retrieve dead caterpillars once you’ve sprayed with insecticide, trap them and move them elsewhere, perhaps to a public space of some sort. (Ask the proprietor before you do this, if it’s private space, or your local council if the land is public, like a park.)
It seems like an enormous amount of effort for a few dozen caterpillars, but some folks just don’t have a taste for killing them, and we understand. If this sounds like you, the best time to trap them is early morning. Pluck them from your plants, put them in a shoebox or another appropriate container, and get on with finding them a new home.
Don’t plant the foods caterpillars love.
One bright spot is that caterpillars love certain vegetables, like cabbage, which they adore. If you truly want to avoid the headache of dealing with these pests, just don’t plant the things they love. The good news is that they won’t eat just anything; when the moth or butterfly is laying its eggs, it will do so in a garden that is filled with their favourites. If you don’t plant them, they will indeed go elsewhere.
Scout for the eggs before they hatch.
Butterfly and moth eggs are both laid in batches, although the former lay dozens that are round and yellow in colour, while the latter lays eggs that look similar but are more white. Checking your plants thoroughly for eggs and wiping them off, usually found on the leaves and stems, is a good way to avoid dealing with caterpillars — solve the problem before they hatch.
Look early and often in the season, and check all over the plants, because they can be easy to miss if you’re not careful.
Your veggies aren’t a lost cause even if they’ve been partially eaten.
Yes, you should strip off and discard any leaf that’s been chewed, of course. But if the rest of the plant looks fine, it’s perfectly safe and wholly edible; there is no need to throw out the entire vegetable. Inspect it, wash it, and no one will be the wiser that one of the leaves made a fine meal for a hungry caterpillar!
Cover your plants with breathable fabric or mesh.
It has to be supported, rather like a tunnel that’s held up by wire or other means, and it must not touch the plants. But investing in a professional, nursery grade cover will keep your garden safe, and all the vegetables will be out of reach to all but the most determined pest.
We all love beautiful butterflies and even some moths are spectacular. And they serve a very important function in the cycle of life. But when they’ve laid their eggs for the coming season, and those eggs become caterpillars, the little creatures can do a lot of damage to even the most well-tended garden.
And even the most vigilant gardeners can find themselves frustrated and annoyed by the look of a half-eaten cabbage or lettuce, all because of caterpillars eating like a half-starved army, getting “bulked up” for their next stage of life.
But don’t lose heart: you can deal with these invaders by following the guidelines we’ve noted here. These suggestions don’t cost a lot of money, either; most of these steps simply take close attention and your repeated efforts to keep the caterpillars at bay.
If you are truly at a loss, call in a garden pest professional to handle spraying for you, but insist that they only use environmentally friendly products. Whether you handle it yourself or hire someone to handle it for you, the last outcome you want is a handful of dead honeybees, right?
Remember, if gardening were a breeze, anyone could do it! Enjoying the bounty of a varied, healthy and lush garden takes work, and controlling pests of all kinds is part of that labour. But think of it as a challenge, a competition between you and the caterpillars!
With a little ingenuity, the right tools and an ongoing effort, you will win the competition, and relish all the home-grown veggies and other plants your garden can grow, all season long. It’s worth the effort, trust us!