The Bane of My Garden’s Existence

It’s always something. There’s a darkness on the edge of every town, something detracting from the quality of your life. Right now for me it’s cutworms.

I’ve probably blogged about them before, but these little underground caterpillars can affect the quality of my garden, and hence my life. Since I spend all day growing food right now, the garden is my life. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. What does that bumper sticker say? “A bad day in the garden is better than a good day in the office.” (although I think it’s actually a golf course quote).

So yes, I do get to spend the day in a marvelous place. It’s wet and green right now and my soil looks fantastic. A few weeks of a drought and it will turn to dust, but right now, I love it.

We’ve had problems with cutworms here right from the start. They hide under the soil and as soon as you begin planting things they’ll crawl their way over and wrap themselves around the stalk and chew through it, and “cut” it off. Man I hate them!

WARNING: At the end of this blog I there is a photo of some cutworms. If you’re easily grossed out by bugs and stuff DO NOT LOOK AT THIS PHOTO! (There, that should increase blog readership because people always do what you tell them not to do!)

I wrote about cutworms fairly extensively in my gardening book “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook” and I’ve tried every organic method I can think of to deal with them. What it’s all come down to is overplanting. Every time I plant I just have to assume I’m going to lose a percentage of it to cutworms and it’s a real pain. They love onions, and beans and … oh what am I talking about? –  They love everything, EXCEPT WEEDS! Heaven forbid they’d take out the odd weed once in a while. Nope, our cutworms only eat the best stuff.

I can usually spot their handiwork by walking along a row of beans. I’ll notice a healthy plant that has suddenly keeled over. The stem will have been “cut” and the top part of the plant looks like it is being sucked into the ground like something out of “Aliens.” I get down on my hands and knees and root around in the soil until I can find it. This usually takes 3 or 4 minutes because they’re not always in the immediate area. Sometimes they hit and run, and camp out a fair distance from the plant. I’ve noticed in the last few years that they work in groups, like gangs. Let’s call them “The Cutters” or “The Wormers.” It’s good to search a wide area of the soil for them.

I know what you’re saying, “Well if it’s so easy to spot their handiwork, what’s the problem?” First off, at the time of year they’re active, ie NOW, I’m at the height of planting and every minute I have is focused on getting seeds into the ground. I’m not in “maintenance mode” yet. Also, the damage is usually gradual. I can walk by a row of beans just after they emerge and they look great. When I walk by a couple of days later the plants are bigger and so the row looks pretty good. Then I can walk by a week later and notice big gaps as the cutworms have been knocking off plants one by one. Then I have to take the time to track them down and replant the area. Once I’ve found the bean seeds, hunted down the cutworms, fished them out of the ground and fed them to the velociraptor descendants that we have living in our yard (in other words, the chickens who consider cutworms to be the ultimate delicacy) I’ve forgotten what task I was about to complete just before I noticed the cutworm problem.

This spring has been quite wet, and I am grateful. The time that I’ve saved not having to water has been spent weeding, because nature abhors a vacuum, and any large area of empty soil doesn’t stay that way for very long. I don’t know where the weed seeds come from in such large numbers, but they are brutal this year. I rototill some of the larger areas but much of it is just manual hoeing using my favorite 4-tine cultivator right now. I’m getting my tennis elbow back that I thought was gone for a while.

Of course this only works for large areas. The area around the onions also fills up with weeds. The first week I’ll take the cultivator down the row and remove most of the weeds but after 2 or 3 weeks I have to had weed in between the onions and since they still have fairly weak root systems I can’t be too reckless with the hand cultivator. So it’s an exact, time-consuming process to weed them. It’s very “Zen-like” though and it’s very easy to zone out while I’m at it. Take that all you monks sitting in a monastery! I achieve higher levels of consciousness and pull weeds while I’m at it!

I often fantasize about farming traditionally. I could ‘nuke” the field with as many ‘cides’ as necessary; herbicide for weeds, insecticide for bugs, fungicides for other unseen nasties, and then plant the field, and leave it. Walk away. Wait for harvest. Modern chemical farming is quite amazing. Regardless of where you stand on the health impacts of these chemicals, I don’t think we’d be feeding 7 billion humans without them.

Then I start thinking about how fossil-fuel-dependent this system is. And I think about how capital-intensive the investment in the equipment to plant and spray and harvest and to run a 500-acre (5,000 acre?) farm is, and I wonder what will happen as we begin to ride the downward side of the peak energy curve. It’s kind of scary.

As I spend time rooting around in the soil for cutworms, knowing I haven’t found any other way to eliminate them organically, using any method – barrier, cultural or otherwise, I wonder “is this the best use of my time on the planet.” Cause really, I’m down here on my hands and knees ferreting out underground caterpillars. Oh sure, the chickens love them! But shouldn’t I be working on my computer, producing sales literature to sell more stuff to add to the GDP and increase global commerce?

Nope. This is way more important. The fact that we have 40 families that have committed to the CSA and have said they’re willing to pay a farmer to produce food using this low-tech system is reward enough.

Eventually the cutworms run their course each year. They get to the end of their munching cycle just about the time all the plants get too big and their stalks are too strong for them to eat through. I wish the cutworms would come later and we could avoid the whole “losing every third onion thing” altogether, but that doesn’t seem to be how nature has evolved these processes. The best I can do is try and minimize the damage and slow their progression down each row.

In August the rows will be full and the vegetable plants will have won the war and the cutworms will be forgotten and I will walk through the garden sucking up all the insanely positive energy that a huge garden feeding many families provides and it will be “a good thing.”

  This is the haul of cutworms from about 2 rows of onions. It also includes a wireworm (the white thing) and click beetle larva (the light brown thing) which will also damage young plants, sometimes by climbing up them and loping off leaves)

This is the haul of cutworms from about 2 rows of onions. It also includes a wireworm (the white thing) and click beetle larva (the light brown thing) which will also damage young plants, sometimes by climbing up them and loping off leaves)

18 Responses to “The Bane of My Garden’s Existence”

  • SteveR:

    Why not have your chickens work the soil (and fertilize at the same time) prior to introducing your vegetable plants?

  • Hi Cam, we sympathize with you in your cutworm battles. We wrote a blog post called “Garden Enemy Number One-Cutworms” after they chomped down some of our peppers and brassicas ( We also posted one called “The Zen of Weeding”. It’s good to know there are kindred spirits around.

  • So THAT’s what kills my beans! I thought at that height it had to be larger critters…but I guess they CLIMB up and do it? I have used toilet paper rolls (halved and split) in the past but generally as markers so I know where I have planted something until they become recognizable (so I won’t accidentally weed them out). But not for beans–because they sprout so fast and I can tell what they are pretty much immediately! This year I was thinking of doing without the TP collars (even though I have a year’s worth…) but perhaps I won’t…

  • Glee:

    Hi Cam, keep up the good work. You will ultimately win the war even if you lose a battle or two. I start most of my own plants indoors under lights. (low e fluorescents) I use Dixie cups. They dissolve eventually, and hold up long enough for the new plants to develop a healthy root system. The parts of the cup that remain are good barriers for cut worms, and for some reason, rabbits seem to leave them alone as well. I have no answer for those plants that get seeded directly in the soil, though.

    As for chickens, mine are way too destructive to roam my garden. I even have to put wire cages over the herb garden. It’s not that they eat the plants so much, it’s because they dig in the soil and that ruins everything. They get to free roam in the afternoon, so every time they go in the wrong direction, I let the dog out to chase them back. They scoot under the pasture fence, but the dog won’t cross that “hot” wire. It’s great entertainment as well. Who needs television?


  • Connie Howes:

    My grandfather used to start and plant his tomatoes in milk cartons. When he planted them into the ground, he just cut the bottom of the cartons and put them in. The rest of the carton became a collar for the tomatoes to keep the cutworms away. Great idea for recycling, too. At the moment, I let my hens and ducks roam around my garden, except for the lettuce bed and the brussel sprouts, of course. It seems to work as I’ve never had trouble with cutworms.

  • Perry Boulter:

    The dreaded battle against the smallest “brains” on earth. Yet nature foils us at every turn. We usually plant a small sacrificial garden to “lure” our beasties out and about.

    I enjoy your articles very, very much and truly appreciate your lifestyle. Keep up the battle and let us know your “body” count versus crop yield. Got to be some valuable data there somewhere…no where did I put my fly swatter….

  • Hi Ellen! Yup, we still use some toilet paper rolls too but as you suggested, at the volume of planting we are doing we just can’t protect every single plant with a roll! I did use them on my tender little basil plants and parsley and not a single one has been touched by a cutworm!

  • ellen horak:

    Just to clarify – it was Cam that gave us the toilet paper roll idea years back when we were both fighting cutworms – not sure if it is his original idea or not…

  • ellen horak:

    Hi Cam

    We are still using the toilet paper roll idea – we collect all year long – cut them in half then slip the collars over every plant we put in – larger plants you have to slit the roll as well and then put it around the stem overlapping the cut edges. Have not lost one plant to cutworms since we started this – I assume the cutworms have gone somewhere else since they don’t have a food source but am reluctant to test the theory. Of course, we don’t garden for 40 people – with your amount of planting it would be another tedious amount of work to encircle each plant and you would have to find more sources of toilet paper rolls I would think but if you are rooting around for a few hours hunting the buggers maybe spending that time with the rolls would save some plants – I get soooo much pleasure putting them around my plant knowing I have thwarted the evil cutworm!!! HAHAHA

  • Hi Brian! Yes, we’ve been using diatomaceous earth for various purposes but Cam is not a big fan of the stuff and so tends to avoid it! Glad to hear you are having success with it! ~Michelle~

  • Hi Gerrit. The response that I made to Ron would probably apply to ducks too. Great idea though and we do know of organic farmers who use ducks quite successfully!

  • Hi Ron! The chickens are a great idea, and we do let them in there MOST of the time. However we find that at this time, with everything just beginning to grow, the temptation is too great and the chickens end up snipping at the little seedlings. So at this point they are banned from the garden, but once the plants are bigger, we’ll be able to let the chickens back in. Also, cutworms come out to do their damage at night, when our chickens are locked up tight against predators! ~Michelle ~

  • Hi Cam,

    I don’t know much about gardening and am just throwing this out there, but what about keeping the chickens in the garden? Would they be able to proactively take out some of the worms?

    As to the chemical farming thing , I recently “read” (audio book actually) that with out the use of nitrates the earth could support about 1 billion people. Natural fertilizer cannot compare to the man made stuff. The downside is that excess nitrates are running off the soil into the water supply and the long term effects are not known.

  • Gerrit:

    What a war! To paraphrase an old saying, maybe what you have going is not a glut of cutworms, but a lack of ducks. They won’t damage your veggies much but they’ll be hell on wheels on the cutworms. Pick a good egg-laying breed like campbell’s khakis and you’ll benefit too. Maybe others have better solutions?

  • Brian Wortman:

    Cam, probably you have tried the diatomaceous earth before on the cutworms by spreading it around and on the plants. It works for me. i buy it in 50 lb. bags for $39.95 from any maple syrup equipment supply store.

  • Shirley Ann Douglas:

    Hi, Cam! I can’t garden anymore but do my gardening vicariously through you. Sure miss it. Have you ever tried using Nematodes? I used to use for my organic supplies. Check out “Grub-away Nematodes”. Gardens Alive provides so much good information about natural pest control solutions. Have you ever heard of “Gardens Alive’? The only thing is you would have to ship from the US and I don’t know what restrictions there would be. Thanks for all you and Michelle do!

  • Ed:

    Hey Cam, keep up the good fight!
    You probably have heard of it but if you haven’t, check out ‘Back to Eden’ – A really interesting idea, kind of like lasagna gardening but not. The link goes to a website where you can watch the video and all other info right there. His video has a lot of scripture quotes, whether good or bad, the idea is one you should check out. Weeding ends up being minimal and easy, right up your alley I’d think!

  • Connie Murray:

    I am so GROSSED OUT. I will never visit this site again. Just kidding. Thanks again for your valuable and informative articles. I would like to see more farm pictures of crops growing. Always inspiring!

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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