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Success-Oriented Vegetable Gardener, Part 6—Some
Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! Yes! Yes! It's finally time to begin the enjoyable annual task of vegetable gardening in earnest. Soil is prepared; a plan has been formulated; varieties selected; seed purchased; tools have been gathered and, before long, the air will be filled with the sput-sputter of tired, old rototillers and the sweet (more or less, depending on your perspective) aroma of their exhaust.
Also gathering on the horizon are regiments of little creatures, waiting for tender, green sprouts of beans, peas and nearly every other flora to push into open air. If you only knew just how many "creepy-crawlies" there are! This time let's look at two of the more important ones.
Cutworms are actually the larval stage of either Peridroma saucia or Agrotis ipsilon (most frequently the latter). Virtually every gardener has experienced the sadness or revengeful anger which follows discovery of nipped-off-at-the-ground seedlings or transplants.
Cutworm (Agrotis ipsilon)
Cutworms are the offspring of some of the many 1- to 1½-inch fuzzy, plump moths which congregate near the porch light from early spring to late fall. Its larval stage usually tunnels just below the soil surface where they feed on succulent new roots, shoots and stems. At night, they emerge from their tunnels and seem to play the role of little sickles, mowing down tiny seedlings by the dozens.
Surface cultivation generally disrupts their development or exposes them to the gardener's heel. Tar-paper collars, fastened with staples and placed so they surround vegetable transplants and "wiggled" into the ground about an inch normally prevents damage. Large, black beetles (Carabis nemoralis, et. al.) and certain birds (robins and others) make a meal of the fat, juicy, wiggly morsels, and never seem to fill up on them.
BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) in solution and sprayed on and near susceptible foliage is very effective. BT is a microbe which attacks the insects digestive system, causing perforations of the gut, brings an end to their appetite, and eventually destroys them.
There are also certain beneficial nematodes which attach themselves to cutworms, penetrate their defenses and chow down. Most organic materials suppliers and many of the larger farm and garden stores will sell you these natural products. I'd strongly recommend avoidance of chemical insecticides in the vegetable garden.
Hornworms are the larva of Manduca quinquemaculata, and are even longer than their name - three or four inches! They are everywhere: north, south, east and west. Long, fat, green and smooth, the larvae have seven or eight creamy-white stripes on their bodies, accented by a row of small spots along each side. Adult moths are quite large, too. With a four-inch wing span and mottled gray coloration, they also hover around outside lights at night. But the worm's two most significant characteristics are the black horn projecting from the rear of their bodies, and their tremendous appetite. Hornworms will primarily attack eggplant, pepper, potato and, of course, tomato, gobbling up great chunks of both leaves and fruit.
Tomato Hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata)
Most healthy plants can tolerate some feeding by these colorful worms but if damage becomes threatening, the least toxic form of control is to hand-pick and feed them to the chickens. BT will work, as will small braconid wasps which lay eggs on the worm's skin where they form small white cocoons.
If you find one that's covered with cocoons, carefully capture it and find a new spot a short distance from your garden. New braconid wasps will soon emerge, the worm will be destroyed by Nature, and you'll have a couple dozen new wasps to fight your battles for you.
Rotenone dust may offer some defense against hornworms but I prefer to rely entirely on non-artificial controls whenever possible. A few final thoughts:
Gathering large mottled-gray moths near porch lights very early on cool, spring mornings will go a long way toward reducing worm populations.
An end-of-season rototilling - just before planting your winter cover crop will disrupt normal development of soil dwelling creepy-crawlies by mortally wounding their wintering-over stage (pupae).
While weeding or cultivating, if you run across an inch-long pupal case with what looks like a "handle" on its blunt end, give it the "heel test" and you'll avoid some grief next year.
Next time: Cabbage loopers, wireworms and corn borer.
Jump to Veggies Part 7 More "Creepy-Crawlies"
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