Brassica Attack

Cabbage Butterfly: the adult form of the Imported Cabbageworm (Corel Photo CD, 1993)

Remember how my nasturtiums were supposed to act as a sacrificial crop to protect the cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower from cabbage white caterpillars? And how I wasn’t sure they’d be able to do the job because they couldn’t be planted until after the last frost, when the brassicas had already been in the ground for a month? Well, my suspicions have been confirmed. It was probably two weeks after I transplanted the brassicas into the garden that I saw the first little white butterflies dancing around my plants–gaily laying their eggs, it turns out. About ten days after that, I was wondering why the broccoli and cabbage leaves were filled with holes, some eaten down to the veins. But when I took a closer look, the answer was obvious: caterpillars. Inch-long suckers whose coloring blends perfectly with that of brassica leaves.

What to do? When I picked one of them up, it squirmed between my fingers, and I couldn’t bring myself to squash it. (Caterpillars have feelings, too! Well, maybe…) So I threw it several yards away, hoping that it wouldn’t find its way back. I did this with all the caterpillars I found that day, which was maybe seven or eight.

Well, I don’t know if they were the same caterpillars, but by the next day, there were almost the same number on the plants again. So this time I got brave. I threw the caterpillars onto the dirt and squished them with the toe of my shoe. They wouldn’t be coming back from that. And yet, more continued to appear every day or two. Finally, one day I was out in the garden barefoot, and I needed to squish some caterpillars. So I just took care of it in one rapid motion: pick caterpillar up, squish between the fingers, throw away. Very efficient. Though they leave behind a faint odor of garlic. Gardening, I’m learning, is an excellent remedy for squeamishness.

Well, I may have managed to save a few plants this way. But half of the broccoli, the green cabbage, and all of the cauliflower have succumbed, if not to the cabbage worms, then to something else. Maybe the abnormally high March temperatures were partly to blame. Or the withering April winds. Perhaps it’s my fault, for starting them in pots that were a little small (2 inches square) and crowding them at the window so they weren’t as strong as they could have been when I planted them out. Or for not watering them more once they were in the garden.

Sir Albert Howard, often called the father of the modern organic agriculture movement, believed that insects only inflict substantial damage on plants that are already weak, due to poor nutrition or unsuitable growing conditions. He would say that my cabbage worms were a symptom of inadequate gardening methods, that healthy plants aren’t bothered by pests. I’ve recently found this view affirmed by Eliot Coleman, in The New Organic Grower. He writes,

stress-initiated changes in the composition of plants…increase plant susceptibility to insects and diseases. The principle change is a stoppage in the synthesis of protein within stressed plants, which results in a buildup in the plant tissues of free (unattached) nitrogen. Since availability of nitrogenous foods normally limits pest numbers in nature, their populations can explode where stressed plants increase in easily available nitrogenous compounds. (176)

This makes sense to me, and I think I can see evidence of it in my garden. For instance, my first sowing of Tatsoi mustard grew slowly and had its leaves riddled with holes. My second sowing, however, sown when temperatures were a little more hospitable and watered more frequently, showed no such ill effects. It grew large and had no insect damage.

My one stunningly resistant broccoli plant!

Even looking at my broccoli, I see indications that Howard and Coleman are right. Out of the ten broccoli plants I set out in mid-March, I have one that is an absolutely gorgeous specimen with abundant large, deeply colored leaves. I have picked a total of one cabbage worm off of this plant, and that one didn’t seem to have eaten anything. Now maybe the cabbage white butterflies simply missed this plant when they were laying their eggs, and that’s the reason for its stunning success. But given that I did find one caterpillar on it, I don’t think that’s the story. It seems more likely that this plant was one of the few that got started in slightly larger containers. (Why didn’t I keep records on which those were?! I try so hard to write everything down, but some things inevitably slip through the cracks…) There are a couple of other broccoli plants also doing passably well, and maybe they also got better earlier treatment. In any case, the difference between this one broccoli plant and all the others is striking, and it makes me wish that next spring were already here, so I could pursue further experimentation.

As far as this year goes, I’m going to continue my caterpillar squishing, hoping to salvage a few of my struggling specimens. And I’m going to enjoy my red cabbages, which have not been affected at all. My guess is that their color is their best defense. No cabbage worm wants to crawl on a leaf where they’ll stand out like a neon sign to passing predators!


17 Comments Add yours

  1. Jason says:

    I’m not sure how large your garden plot is, but I’ve had really good luck using cheap, reusable, lightweight row coverings for things like cucumbers, pumpkins — and anything that’s frequented by these moths (and cucumber beetles). The advantage to using the material: it lets almost all of the light through to the plants, you can water the plants right through the material, and your plants can get a tremendous head start to being healthy and established before you completely unleash them (not to mention, lots of larvae have grown up by that point, depending on where you live and the seasonal schedule for pests). For most plants, you’ll have to uncover them once they start blossoming, so the bees and things can get in there. The only negative is that installing the row covers is a bit trying on your patience — especially in the wind.

    I, too, am not terribly fond of squishing bugs. I don’t like killing things, as a rule, but it’s mainly that it grosses me out, to be honest — especially if there’s a full-on invasion and there’s goop everywhere from the carnage. A friend suggested that I bring out a pail filled with a little bit of water and just the tiniest bit of dish soap. You can just plop the bugs, caterpillars, or whatever into the water and they drown pretty quickly. You don’t have to squish them or interact with them for more than a nanosecond — plus you can add them to your compost pile.

    1. Jason says:

      Forgot to mention: The row covering only really works if you install it right as you’re transplanting — before any nasties have a had a chance to attack. If you tried to install it after that, you’d basically be sealing in the pests with your plants (thereby making the pests extremely jubilant).

      1. Sharon says:

        Thanks for the tips! It sounds like the row covering could be a good approach for me. The only thing is that I really like looking at my plants. Covering them up for most of the growing season would defeat half the purpose of my vegetable garden! So I don’t know…

  2. Jason says:

    Oh, you definitely wouldn’t be covering them up for most of the season! I worried about the same thing with my pumpkins (I love pumpkins… everything about them). You just need to keep the plants covered until you start seeing the blossoms forming… then you pretty much have to uncover them so they can be pollinated (and more easily admired). 😀

  3. delona says:

    Our garden is pretty small. When the plants are small, I check the leaves for eggs and remove them. I also have a husband who has a “If you mess with my food, I’m going to kill you attitude.” He tried to catch the cabbage butterflies before they can lay their eggs. He also loves finding caterpillars. It makes him feel useful.

    1. Sharon says:

      I should have checked for eggs. I think I wasn’t nearly as attentive in the first few weeks of setting them out as I should have been…

  4. I had the same problem last year. I squashed them every morning. And I still only got 1 of 6 heads of cabbage, because they had eaten so much of them. 😦 This year, I bought some sheer curtains at the thrift store (row cover is pricey), and I’ve kept them covered since planting out. Everytime I lift the curtain to water and weed, by the time I’m done, the moths are around! So, it seems to be working…for now.

    1. Sharon says:

      Like the alternative of thrift store sheer curtains! Do they seem to be letting plenty of light through?

      1. They seem too. Transplanted them about a month ago and they’re at least 4x bigger. They might be a hair bigger with direct sunlight, but it’s worth a little slower growth if the alternative is none at all! 🙂 They let the water in nicely too, and are added frost protection.

  5. thebeadden says:

    I am still learning about things like this. We had the same problem last year. Now I know what what the culprit is. I used to smile watching the cute, little white butterflies, fluttering in the garden. This year I won’t be smiling. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Sharon says:

      Haha. Beautiful but deadly…to the plants anyway. 🙂

  6. Jennifer says:

    You hang in there! I drown my caterpillars in a cup of water as I scrap them off with a stick, because Lord forbid, I have to touch them! And they always seem to come back…maybe from the dead. But my biggest problem this year are a mass of these tiny black bugs that just take over the stems and back of the leaves of my bush beans. I’m out there every morning. We’ve tried spraying the beans with soapy water every night which does kill the bugs, but I’ll be if they aren’t back by morning light. I could scream.

    1. Sharon says:

      Isn’t it so weird how the pest problems change from year to year? I guess because of climatic differences. It’d be really interesting if it wasn’t so enervating!

      1. Jennifer says:

        Well said!

  7. lekland says:

    I too am having trouble with pests and being a completely novice gardener, it is helpful to read what you have tried to do and figure out. I will keep an eye out for those seemingly innocent white butterflies when I plant my cauliflower:)

    1. Sharon says:

      Glad my pest troubles can be of help! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s