Monday, November 15, 2010

Garden Watch: Caterpillars On The Loose

The broccoli is growing crowns, the kale is leafing up fantastically, the chard is out of this world: but what's this? Little holes in those big, beautiful leaves?

One little caterpillar can do a whole lot of damage
Caterpillar Attack!
It is important to spend some time in your garden to observe the health of your plants and check for potential marauders. My garden is most often plagued with snails: they can at times be seen in vast herds on the walls of houses in my neighborhood and take advantage of rains to sneak attack the veggies trying to enjoy the drink as well. Nasty snails.  Along with snails are their covert friends: caterpillars. Small, green and camouflaged; large, fuzzy and obvious: all caterpillars want is to defoliate your lovely veggies and herbs as quickly as they can digest. Granted, some will turn to beautiful butterflies and should be left alone or even provided with specific habitat (ie dill plants for the swallowtail butterflies). This time of year though, most of the caterpillars in the garden should be hunted and squished - or fed to the chickens.
What to look out for:
  • Holes in leaves - may be small and round or jagged and 'chewed' looking
  • Broken stems or leaf stalks
  • Holes in tomatoes and other fruits
  • Strange grenade looking dung

Leaf damage like this can be caused by snails and caterpillars

The hornworms of Summer
If you see any of these signs, go in for a closer look: turn over the leaves of your plants and you may find an unwelcome visitor. Caterpillars will most often hide on the underside of the leaves and down in the center of a plant or flower. Tomato hornworms are remarkably well camouflaged and can sometimes only be spotted by the tell tale signs of leafless stalks amongst an otherwise healthy tomato plant, and the conspicuous grenade shaped dung they leave behind.
What to do with the critters once you've caught them? I generally squish the smaller, green caterpillars  or cutworms found on my brassicas and in the soil. The larger worms get tossed to the chickens to their delight - or thrown into the street for the mockingbirds to dispatch. It's not the most gentile job in the garden, but your plants will thank you for being their hero. They can't run away from threatening critters, and they'd much rather have your hands on them than nasty chemicals. However, If you have a bad infestation of caterpillars or a very large garden area you can supplement handpicking with BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) a natural soil bacteria that can fight off hoards of nasty caterpillars too vast to be handpicked. The great thing about BT is that it only targets the caterpillars and spares the beneficial insects.

Fuzzy caterpillar found chewing on some beet greens

Flipping broccoli leaves over can unveil some unwanted tag alongs
Take some time to look over your plants today, it might just save their life - or at least maximize the bounty for you instead of for creepy crawlies. Also, please mind the lower temperatures during this lovely season. Temps below 40 may be too chilly for certain plants, especially tropicals and citrus. When our first freeze does show up in the forecast - pick what tomatoes and peppers are still on the vine and wrap any other sensitive plants with freeze cloth or old sheets.

This post and others I've written can be seen at Yard Farm Austin.

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