Green Thumbs: The trouble with cabbage loopers (or, a not-so green thumb moment)

Well, I know I said I would do a post about composting next in this series, but I decided a post about the dastardly cabbage looper was more appropriate. This is also a post in which I admit my failures as a gardener. Can’t win ’em all!

The cabbage looper is a caterpillar that becomes a moth after metamorphosis and has a been a royal pain in the butt for me this summer. Cabbage loopers love plants in the cabbage (brassica) family, including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and collard greens. They will also go after tomatoes, potatoes, and cucumbers. The little green caterpillars eat holes in the leaves and keep the cabbages (in my case) from heading well. The moths lay nasty little eggs in slimy clutches in the cabbage, which of course spawn more cabbage loopers and drive me batty (not too mention the disappointment I feel at having my future sauerkraut literally nipped in the bud!).

We first noticed the problem about a month ago. The cabbage leaves were looking pretty chewed like this:

I picked around near the head and pulled green caterpillar after green caterpillar out of the cabbages. Despite my best efforts to nab the caterpillars and squish them, we still have had lots of the moths, which can be brown or white. The moths lay the nasty eggs I mentioned before. Here’s a couple of caterpillars AND eggs in my cabbages (and here’s my sigh of defeat):

Disgusting, no?

So what do you do about cabbage loopers? I’m running an organic operation in my garden so insecticides are out of the question (and who wants all those chemicals on their food, anyway?). My mother said to try putting chili powder on the cabbages. My mother-in-law recommended pouring milk on them. A farmer friend said they catch the moths in butterfly nets and squish the offending bugs. Another farmer friend said to use Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which is a bacterium that targets insects (it doesn’t affect people), though using anything like that is a bit sketchy she said, and I agree. She also swats the moths with ping pong rackets. This sounds the most fun, bounding about the garden with a ping pong racket of mothy death, plus the fringe benefit of actually feeling like you made a difference in the moth population’s demise.

Here’s hoping your cabbages are looper-free!