Attack of the Cutworms!

Last weekend I transplanted three tomatillo plants to the garden. They were looking really good: big, strong plants ready to take off out in the sunshine. Here's what we have left:

Only the one on the right remains, and that one has been damaged pretty severely. The culprit? Cutworms. Their tell-tale destruction looks like this:

Cutworms are the larvae of various moths. They overwinter in soil, and in the spring evenings they feed on the stems of new garden plants. They basically shear off the stem, eating a little bit near the ground and leaving the rest of the plant to die. I think I hate them most because they are so wasteful. At least a groundhog or turkey has the decency to enjoy the whole vegetable.

Some quick internet research revealed that there is such a thing as a turnip cutworm, and since we had turnips in this bed previously, I'm guessing that this is our particular pest. I noticed that some of the carrots we overwintered in this bed were chewed on, but didn't give it much thought at the time. I have to take some of the blame for slap-dash soil prep before planting these tomatillos, I guess. Since tomatillos don't need much in they way of soil fertility, I did only a fast scratching-up of the soil and a top dressing of compost.

This turned out to be a fatal error. If I had turned the soil thoroughly, I would have seen the grub-like larvae. Or, if we had gotten our chicken tractor on this section, they would have taken care of the problem immediately, scratching up the cutworms and gulping them down.

I might have seen the cutworms if I had turned the soil before planting. Yesterday I took a hoe to the area, and found just three of them, which I fed directly to the chickens. Take that!

I also used a paper towel roll (cut into thirds) to make protective collars for the remaining plants in this bed. We have one tomatillo left (in the cage in the rear), but its stem has been chewed about halfway through. I suppose it is possible that it will heal and continue to grow, though I am not optimistic. We may end up with only a few tomatillos this year if we have to start completely from scratch with direct-sowing. 

Also in view are some newly sprouted nasturtiums, which also need collars. Cutworms aren't picky, and they also took out some of my other nasturtiums. I'm out of those seeds but am not too worried, since they fill in pretty quickly. Hopefully these collars are enough to keep my remaining seedlings growing. I'm sure there are more than just the three cutworms I happened to pick out of the earth. 

The lesson here is definitely about turning the soil and getting a good look at it before planting. It's obviously less tedious (and I'm guessing much more effective, since chickens scratch for the sole purpose of finding tasty bugs and grubs to eat) to get the chicken tractor around to as much of the garden as possible each spring, regardless of whether the beds have been cover-cropped or not.

In the meantime, I'm kind of over the loss now, though it was absolutely infuriating when we first discovered the problem. If anything, gardening has granted me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.



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