The cutworm: the beaver of the insect world. They wreak havoc on our new plants by cutting them off at ground level. The results look like somebody came along with a teeny, tiny chainsaw. As a gardener, there is no worse sight than a row of new plants lying wilting in the sun, severed from their roots and left to die. Other cutworms are climbers and they'll chop off the top of a plant. That's what happened to the flower pictured to the right.
The cutworm is the larva of any of a number of species of night-flying and otherwise harmless moths. Since cutworms feed at night, we have no idea of their presence in our gardens until the morning after planting out tender young plants. Then the damage is obvious. A little digging by hand or trowel in the immediate area of the fallen plant almost always reveals the culprit: a small, soft-bodied grey or dull brown caterpillar-looking creature that curls up when disturbed.
There is a very simple tip to avoid this damage. So simple, in fact, that you'll be amazed. It uses something each and every one of us has a multitude of right at hand. You'll never guess...not in a million years. Give up? Empty toilet paper or paper towel centres. The cardboard tubes are perfect cutworm foils.
Gather up a bunch of them, and use a pair of scissors to cut right up the centre, making an adjustable cardboard "cuff" or paper collar.
When you plant out your brand new seedlings, take these cuffs with you to the garden. Plant the seedling just as you normally would. Open the "cuff" of cardboard tubing and wrap it around the plant's stem. Close it up and push the tube into the soil. Some peple fill the tube up with soil but I always leave it empty above ground level. Leaving it empty allows for better watering. Pour the water right into the tube and it goes directly where I want it to go with no run-off.
Now your plants have an effective cutworm barrier. The cardboard tube is biodegradable and disintegrate with time, composting back into the soil. By that time, your new plants will have become tough enough to survive cutworm attacks.
If you aren't entirely thrilled with having your vegetable garden filled with rows of cardboard tubes, there are other organic options. Till your garden area in the fall to expose any soon-to -be-hibernating larvae. Before planting in the spring, remove any weeds and till the garden again. This will expose and kill many of the soon-to-be-awakening larvae. Beneficial nematodes will destroy any cutworms in the soil. Also effective is a sprinkling of diatomaceous earth around each new plant. Encourage birds to hang around your gardens by placing feeders and baths nearby. As much as I dislike starlings, they do an amazing job of keeping my garden bug-free. I can see the holes where they've shoved their beaks into the soil looking for grubs and caterpillars. Plant sweet alyssum to attract parasitic wasps. BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) is effective if applied to the soil around the plants, but do not apply to leaves since it will kill butterfly caterpillars as well.
Hopefully this article will be useful in helping you thwart the cutworms' mass-muder of your newly planted vegetable plants.
My thanks to Melody for planting,"cuffing" and photographing some vegetables when my garden was still frozen solid.