The Bane of My Garden’s Existence

By Cam Mather

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)
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