Controlling Caterpillars in Vegetable Gardens

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Cross striped cabbage worms

Cross striped cabbageworms are one of several caterpillars that feed on cole crops.

Caterpillars can be a major pest of fall vegetables, particularly cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli, and cauliflower, a group of vegetables collectively known as cole crops. Caterpillars that feed on cole crops include cabbage loopers, cross striped cabbageworms, diamond back moths, and imported cabbage worms, which are also known as cabbage whites. Seedlings and young plants may be killed by caterpillar feeding if left untreated. Caterpillars are easily controlled in vegetable gardens, especially when detected and treated early. In addition to non-chemical methods, insecticides are available for caterpillar control, including products with organic active ingredients.

Understanding Caterpillars

Caterpillars, often referred to as worms, are the immature life stage of butterflies and moths. In North Carolina there are over 1400 different kinds of butterflies and moths, but luckily most of these are not considered pests. Many of our problematic caterpillars are the immature stage of moths rather than butterflies.

For caterpillars to infest your garden, a moth must first fly in and lay eggs on your plants. Eggs may be laid singly or in clusters. A small caterpillar will hatch from each egg a few days later. As caterpillars feed, they grow larger and often change color. Most caterpillars feed for two to three weeks and then enter a cocoon. Depending on the type of caterpillar, they may remain in the cocoon through the winter or emerge this fall as a moth and lay more eggs.

Holes in kale leaves.

Caterpillar feeding leaves behind ragged holes in plant foliage.

Caterpillars are easy to detect by the ragged holes their feeding activity leaves in plant foliage. If you notice holes in the leaves of your crops, be sure to check for caterpillars both on the top and backside of plant leaves. For healthy, established perennials, trees, and shrubs, losing a portion of their leaves is not a problem. In vegetable gardens feeding damage is more serious since young plants can easily be killed and missing leaves mean less produce. Plus, who wants to eat caterpillars with their cabbage?

Control Options

One of the simplest methods for controlling caterpillars is to pick them off plants and drop them into a bucket of soapy water or squish them. This method takes time and persistence, and everyone may not like to take such a hands-on approach to pest control. Another option is to cover crops with insect barrier fabrics. The fabrics form a barrier, keeping moths from landing on crops and laying eggs in the first place. Since most fall vegetables are grown for their leaves or their roots and do not require pollination, covering them with fabrics does not reduce yields.

Another way to control caterpillars is to spray infested plants with an appropriate insect control product. Products containing organic as well as synthetic active ingredients are available from local garden centers. When applying any pesticide be sure to read and follow all label directions and pay careful attention to the pre harvest interval. This is the number of days you must wait between the time you spray and the time you harvest. Pre harvest intervals vary among insecticides from 0 to 21 days or more. Most organic insecticides have a pre harvest interval of 0 or 1 day. If you plan to harvest soon, be sure to choose a product with a short pre harvest interval.

Organic Insecticides

Organic insecticides that control caterpillars include those containing Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterial disease that only controls caterpillars and is commonly referred to as B.t. Sold as Dipel, Thuricide, and several other brand names, B.t. is most effective if applied when caterpillars are small. B.t. breaks down quickly in sunlight. For best results, spray B.t. late in the evening when caterpillars are actively feeding on leaves. Spinosad is another option for controlling caterpillars organically.  Derived from a soil dwelling bacterium, spinosad is the active ingredient in several insecticides, including Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew and Greenlight Spinosad Lawn and Garden Spray.

Other organic pesticides are derived from plants. Pyrethrin is extracted from the flowers of certain species of chrysanthemum, though not the type we commonly grow for their fall flowers. Pyrethrin will help control a wide range of insect pests, including caterpillars, but is harsher on beneficial insects than other organic products. Neem oil comes from the seeds of the neem tree, a native of southern Asia. It is effective for treating several common pest insects including caterpillars, aphids, true bugs, and some beetles. Azadirachtin is derived from neem oil and can be used to treat the same pests.

Some of the advantages of using organic pesticides are that they are less harmful to beneficial insects and break down quickly, so do not leave behind long lived residues. This is also their main drawback. Because organic pesticides break down quickly, they must be reapplied often to provide ongoing plant protection while pests remain active. Check product labeling for application timing recommendations and restrictions.

Active ingredients of all pesticides are listed on the product container and can usually be found on the front of the packaging. When treating edible plants, be sure to only use products that are labeled for spraying vegetables. To minimize impact to bees and other pollinators, spray late in the evening and never spray open flowers or plants that bees are actively visiting.

Please note: Recommendations for the use of agricultural chemicals are included in this article as a convenience to the reader. The use of brand names and any mention or listing of commercial products or services in this publication does not imply endorsement by North Carolina Cooperative Extension nor discrimination against similar products or services not mentioned. Individuals who use pesticides are responsible for ensuring that the intended use complies with current regulations and conforms to the product label. Be sure to obtain current information about usage regulations and examine a current product label before applying any chemical.

Learn More!

Use Extension Search to find research based information from Cooperative Extension systems across the U.S.

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Written By

Photo of Charlotte GlenCharlotte GlenState Coordinator, NC Extension Master Gardener Program (919) 515-1226 charlotte_glen@ncsu.eduHorticultural Science - NC State University
Updated on Jul 26, 2016
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