Beating the Dreaded Cabbage Worms, Loopers in your Winter Garden

Beating the Dreaded Cabbage Worms, Loopers in your Winter Garden

By December 4, 2018 Garden No Comments

Don’t let pests discourage you from growing your ideal winter garden. Master Gardener Janice Brown shares how to avoid Cabbage Worms and Loopers from destroying your crops.

The cool weather is here and that means it’s time for leafy greens in Texas gardens. Fall and winter are my favorite vegetable garden seasons because of the shear variety of veggies that grow in the cool season. Many of the vegetables we are growing now are in the brassica family (also known as Cole crops). This group includes:

  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Kohlrabi
  • Turnips/turnip greens
  • Collard greens
  • Mustard greens
  • Kale
  • Bok choy

While this group can be pretty easy to grow, there are a couple of pests that can plague your leafy greens, the cabbage looper caterpillar and the cross-striped cabbage worm. But don’t give up on your crops just yet. While these little guys make leaves unsightly by chewing holes in them, they rarely do enough damage to kill the plant. However, if you get an infestation of them, they can wipe out all the leaves on a small plant quickly.

You can tell if you have loopers or cabbage worms if you see small holes in the leaves. On the picture below, notice how holes often begin in the middle of the leaf, so that you will be able to recognize either of these pests on your plants. The pictures that I include here are of plants that I received for fall crops that had eggs and a few caterpillars on them. I sat them in the office for a few days and when I returned from the weekend, this is what greeted me. The eggs had obviously hatched and along with their older siblings, the newly-hatched cabbage worms had enjoyed a 24-hour buffet at my expense!

looper damage

Worms enjoyed an all-you-can-eat buffet. Photo from Janice Brown.

I usually have problems with cabbage loopers, which are green and have a distinctive crawl. Loopers crawl by hunching the first part of their bodies up and down, making a loop as they do so. Often, they hide on the undersides of leaves, so you won’t see them. They camouflage themselves, so your cue to act will come from seeing the damage. Loopers are especially hard to spot because they’re green.

How to Control Loopers and Cabbage Worms

There’s a couple of simple ways to get rid of these pests. This first method is the one I employ the most. I simply search the leaves and pick the caterpillars off the plant. It takes about five minutes and is effective.


Pests picked off the plants. Photo from Janice Brown.

I did this with the plants shown above. On the next picture you can see where I began laying the culprits on a paper towel to be thrown away once I finished plucking. If I’m outside, I’ll usually sit them on the sidewalk for the birds to get an easy meal. That makes me feel a little less dastardly. At least some animal is benefitting from their death. The next set of pictures are of the same plants almost a month after I removed the cabbage worms. As you can see, they are nice and healthy, with little evidence of having sponsored an all-you-can-eat buffet a few weeks ago.

The next method is to spray the plant with BT (Bacillus thuringiensis). It is lethal to caterpillars but not birds, fish or mammals. It works by breaking down the insect’s stomach barrier that protects it from its own digestive juices. BT is a natural product that works against a specific enzyme that is specific to caterpillars and it’s natural, so it is safe to use. Be advised that you’ll have to reapply BT after a rain if the cabbage loopers haven’t been eliminated yet. After they’re gone, there’s no need to reapply.

Many birds and beneficial insects prey on the loopers, so you can use them to help control infestations too. Herbs like parsley, dill, fennel, cilantro and sweet alyssum, attract the kinds of insects and other creatures that prey on worms. These are all cool season herbs, too, so they will grow right along with your Cole crops now.

Cabbage Gardening

A healthy plant. Photo from Janice Brown.

With just a bit of work on your part to keep these pests at bay, you should be able to grow a nice home garden of some yummy winter vegetables.

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About the Author

JaniceBrownOn the Grow is a garden coaching service launched by Janice Brown to teach people how to be successful gardeners in the sometimes difficult, Gulf Coast climate. On the Grow provides garden education for the home gardener, children in outdoor classrooms, neighbors in community gardens, and employees in workplace gardens. Whether you want a new idea for a girls’ night out, a new way to engage children in nature, or want to implement a fresh wellness program in your company, On the Grow is here for you. Your coach will take you step by step teaching you the basics, while presenting you with a fresh perspective by helping you experience the healing benefits of gardening. Our mission at On the Grow is to help everyone experience the joy of a garden and build a greater connection to Mother Earth. Connect with One The Grow on Facebook and Twitter!

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