Caterpillars can quickly decimate a vegetable crop. Controlling caterpillars takes a combination of prevention, avoidance, monitoring and suppression. It is the only way to successfully battle caterpillars.
Natural Ways to Control Caterpillars
Many people reach for chemicals to get rid of caterpillars. But there are some natural steps to add to your caterpillar control system.
Prevention: Confuse Caterpillars & Other Pests
Another way to mix it up is to vary your planting. Rotate your crops from one year to the next to prevent establishing an insect destination.
Mix in caterpillar and insect repellent plants, such as marigolds, to baffle and discourage pests.
Avoid planting lots of veggies or ornamentals all belonging to the same family in one area. If that particular family of plants is attractive to pest caterpillars they will be very likely to hone in on that patch of your garden.
Prevention: Keep Caterpillars Off Your Plants
After your veggie crops have been pollinated, you can give them a good going-over to remove caterpillar eggs and caterpillars and then cover them with a barrier fabric to prevent any more butterflies, moths and caterpillars from getting to them. Of course, you may miss a few, so you’ll need to keep checking.
To set up a barrier fabric shelter for your crops, push a framework of poles into the ground surrounding the plants you wish to protect. These can be lengths of bamboo, PVC pipe, step-in fence posts or any suitable post or stake you may have on hand. Top each one with a small pot or tin can to prevent the posts from poking through your fabric barrier.
Drape the fabric barrier cloth over the poles and secure it to the ground using rocks, bricks, landscape timbers or similar materials to eliminate gaps at the bottom that would let insects in.
Of course, burrowing critters, such as grubs will still be able to get to your plants, and if you have missed any pests that might be on your plants, you will have locked them in, instead of out, so you must take great care when using this method, and you must continue to examine your plants regularly for intruders.
Avoidance: Plant a Butterfly Garden
Attract butterflies to a specific section of your garden by planting butterfly-friendly host plants. When you do this, beneficial butterflies will lay their eggs on the caterpillar-nourishing plants you put in place for them instead of on your garden plants.
This will benefit you by inviting pollinator butterflies to your garden while simultaneously keeping their hungry, hungry caterpillars off your prized plants. It benefits butterfly populations by giving them a welcoming place to reproduce.
Good plants to include in your butterfly garden are:
- Red Clover
Add some parsley and carrots to your butterfly garden to encourage non-stinging, natural predator wasps. For more information, see our article on creating a butterfly garden HERE.
Monitoring: Hand Pick Eggs and Caterpillars
You must examine your plants carefully and often to catch caterpillars and other pests before they get out of control. While you are looking, you can also remove offenders by hand.
Picking caterpillars and their eggs off your plants by hand can be very effective. Throughout the growing season, examine your plants carefully. Look on leaf undersides for insect eggs.
Moths may lay their eggs individually or in clusters. Learn to recognize different types of insect eggs so that you don’t remove the eggs of beneficial, predatory insects.
When you see and recognize the eggs of pest moths, remove them by hand. You can either remove the eggs or just remove the entire leaf where they are laid.
You can also pick off caterpillars. If they are pest caterpillars, drop them into a bucket of soapy water. If they are the larvae of beneficial pollinator butterflies, move them to a more appropriate location, such as your butterfly garden.
Suppression : Engage Natural Predators
Correct use of Neem Oil and other natural tools in your IPM plan enables you to establish an organic garden that is welcoming to natural predators, such as:
- Terrapins & Turtles
- Ichneumon Wasps
- Braconid Wasps
- Chalcid Wasps
- Frogs & Toads
- Lace Wings
- Lady Bugs
The insect predators target caterpillars in a number of ways ranging from eating their eggs to laying eggs inside the caterpillar to actually eating the caterpillars. Birds, amphibians and reptiles are all tremendous caterpillar eaters.
To ensure a good, natural balance and encourage all of these beneficial creatures to help you in your garden, allow a little bit of wild space (which can be incorporated into your butterfly garden) that includes a source of water, hiding places and nesting sites.
Suppression: Keep Fowl
If your area allows it, keep a few chickens, ducks and/or guineas. Allow them into your garden on a limited basis. They will make short work of caterpillars and any other pests they may encounter.
A Well Rounded Holistic Approach Beats Caterpillars
Neem Oil is an excellent addition to any pest management plan. It is a natural, affordable product that can be very effective against young caterpillars and a number of other pests. Choose high quality products and apply them appropriately at the right times, in conjunction with other elements of a good Integrated Pest Management plan.
This video from the South Carolina NRCS Conservation Videos explains the basic concepts of IPM.
Integrated Pest Management