“Cutworm” is the name used for the larvae of a number of species of adult moths. Eggs that hatch in the fall can produce larvae capable of overwintering in the soil or a woodpile. They do the most damage early in the gardening season, when they emerge from hibernation.
Cutworms are common on a wide variety of vegetables and any fresh seedlings. To identify them, try patrolling your garden in dusk and evening hours, when cutworms will begin to feed. They are also partial to cloudy days.
Different species range in color from grey to pink, green and black and can be as long as two inches. They can be solid, spotted, or striped. They tend be curled up when they are not on the move. Cutworms are stealthy, and tend to feed only at night, while hiding in daylight hours.
Black cutworms, also known as Agrotis ipsilon, are some of the most common cutworms. They have small dark spots on their bodies and mature into the dark sword-grass moth. Variegated cutworms, another common species, are mottled brown and have a faint white stripe down their backs.
Adult cutworms are moths of dark wing colors. They are usually brown or gray, and they are about 1 ½ inches long with a 1 ½-inch wing length. You should keep an eye out for them, because the females will lay eggs in dry soil after they mate.
Cutworms chew through plant stems at the base. They primarily feed on roots and foliage of young plants, and will even cut off the plant from underneath the soil. In most cases, entire plants will be destroyed; they do a lot of damage in no time at all. Even if only the bottom of the plant is destroyed, the top will often shrivel and die.
In the summer, cutworms sometimes crawl to the tops of plants and do damage there. Be careful not to mistake this damage for slug damage.
HOW TO GET RID OF CUTWORMS
- Make plant collars. Put a 4-inch piece of cardboard around each plant stem to help stop cutworms from reaching tender stems, especially right at transplanting. This time-consuming task works, though it is only efficient for a smaller garden.
- Or, try this method: Save toilet paper tubes, cut them in half, fill with potting soil, and stand up in a tray. Use for planting seeds. When young plants are ready, plant them, tube and all.
- Hand pick. Go out at night with a flashlight and gloves. Pick off the cutworms and drop into soapy water; repeating this every few nights.
- Sprinkle used coffee grounds or egg shells around your plants.
- Circle stems with diatomaceous earth, a natural powder made from ground up fossils which kills insects when they walk over it.
- Apply an insecticide late in the afternoon for best control. Some readers use Bacillus thuringiensis, a natural way to kill cutworms. However, note that this bacterium may harm butterflies, an important pollinator.
- Try this folk advice from The 1963 Old Farmer’s Almanac:
- A mulch of oak leaves is useful against cutworms.
- Tansy planted near cabbages keeps them free of cutworms.
- A hog turned into a garden in early spring will root up cutworms.
HOW TO PREVENT CUTWORMS
- In the spring, emerging cutworms will be waiting to feast on your garden. Cut off their food supply by delaying transplanting or planting by a couple weeks if possible.
- Keep up with cultivation. The moths prefer to lay eggs in high grass and weeds. At the end of the season, plow or till the garden and mow surrounding areas to expose cutworms and destroy their winter habitat.
- Fireflies are a fun insect to have around the garden, plus they are a natural predator to cutworms.
- Birds are another natural predator to cutworms.