7 natural ways to get rid of those nassssty cabbage moths!

I don’t think very highly of the nitwit who accidentally introduced the Small White cabbage moth (Pieris rapae) to North America. No, indeed, I don’t.  He is probably a cousin to the nut who introduced the starling to this continent, perhaps even a friend of the fool who introduced the House Sparrow–was it intentional?  Was it an accident?  Most agree that it wasn’t a great idea, in hindsight.  None of these creatures are native to this continent, and they’ve all created unwelcome havoc to the native species.

This dainty, fluttery little moth is wreaking havoc in my cabbage plants even as we speak, yes,  Gentle Reader.  As soon as my back is turned, hundreds of these little moths (hey, right in front of me, even!) flutter amiably about my garden, laying eggs on all my cole crops, without so much as a “how-do-you-do-ma’am, thanks-for-the-breakfast.”  Within days, the eggs (drat them) will hatch, and out will pop voracious little caterpillers, who will immediately and without invitation begin to eat holes in my lovely cabbages, my gorgeous kale leaves, and all the other brassicas in my garden.

I have one word for them:  Grrr.

The Small White:  grrrr.  (Image thanks to Wikipedia.)

I have one word for the Small White cabbage moth: Grrrr. (Image thanks to Wikipedia.)

I was already taking the onslaught of these pests a bit personally, as I had noticed a larger number than I’d ever seen before in my garden.  But then, when two of my good gardening friends, oh, nay, actually three, mentioned to me within 12 hours’ time how many Small White cabbage moths there were chewing up their cole crops this year, I decided that Something Must Be Done.

There are times, of course, when garden pests must simply be plucked and thrown to the chickens (in the case of the tomato horn worm, for example) and then other times when a pest can simply be ignored, as it doesn’t do enough damage to justify attention, and time is spent more productively in picking tomatoes, say, or green beans.

This is not one of those times.  Small White cabbage moths will make lace of your lovely kale leaves, or webs of your beautiful developing cabbages, in a very short time, indeed.  So.  Let’s get started.

The first thing, I believe, in preparing to battle any foe, is to find out (quickly, before the cabbages are lost!) what makes that enemy tick.

So here are a few points to consider, as you contemplate how you will Save the Year’s Sauerkraut Supply:

  1. Unlike many other garden pests (my personal enemy the Squash Borer Wasp comes to mind) which have a limited cycle in the garden year, in North America this moth is continuously-brooded, being one of the first butterflies to emerge from the chrysalis in spring, and then actually flying until hard freeze in the fall. That’s patently unfair to gardeners who try to raise lovely brassicas without sprinkling or spraying with pesticides, like moi.
  2. The caterpillars that hatch are green and well camouflaged, and live on the undersides of the leaves, thus making them less visible to predators. I, for one, do not appreciate a sneaky worm.
  3. This fluttery little bit of white is also one of the most cold-hardy of the non-hibernating butterflies, occasionally seen emerging during mid-winter mild spells in cities as far north as Washington, D.C., which I consider very poor taste indeed.  Like any unwelcome company, there comes a time for the Small White cabbage moth to just leave, already.  Apparently nobody has ever taken the time to clue the moth in to this obvious fact.
  4. I think we can conclude that this boorish pest has no manners at all.
  5. These moths also have the nerve to be strong and hardy flyers, which annoys the heck out of me.  Doesn’t it bother you, too?
You certainly can see the large hole that this cabbage moth caterpillar has eaten in this kale leaf.  The caterpillar itself is harder to spot---see it?

You certainly can see the large hole that this cabbage moth caterpillar has eaten in this kale leaf. The caterpillar itself is harder to spot—see it?

So! Now you’ve got a good idea of what we are up against.

Now, before we make our battle plant, let me show you what we are NOT up against.  When I went out into my garden to take a few pictures of cabbage moth caterpillars and the damage they’ve done, I spotted this poor little lacinato kale plant first.  A-ha! said I.  “That’s the worst one I’ve seen yet!”  I took a picture. “Perfect.”  Thank you, cabbage moth caterpillar, thought I, for doing such excellent damage to this plant, so I can share it with my Gentle Readers. . .

You can see that the larger leaves are stripped nearly down to the center ribs.

You can see that the larger leaves are stripped nearly down to the center ribs.

Then I turned over the leaves, to find the hungry little fella himself, and then–Whoa, Nelly!!

This is NOT a cabbage moth caterpillar!

This is NOT a cabbage moth caterpillar!

The lovely creature I found making delicate lacework of my lacinato kale plant was actually the beautiful caterpillar of the Black Swallowtail (or American Swallowtail) (Papilio polyxenes) butterfly!  So . . . I didn’t squish the jewel-like creature, but instead carefully moved it over to my prosperous dill patch.  “Eat away!” I urged it. I have lots of dill, more than I can use, so he’s welcome to it.

I'm all for encouraging butterfly populations! Here's the Black Swallowtail caterpillar, now happily munching on my dill, with my blessing.

I’m all for encouraging butterfly populations! Here’s the Black Swallowtail caterpillar, now happily munching on my dill, with my blessing.

Of course, as soon as I told little Mack about the caterpillar, he grabbed a gallon pickle jar (empty, of course) and set up his caterpillar habitat, and then he flew out to my garden and found this caterpillar, promptly named him “Jerry” and established him (and three cousins!) in his new habitat on the back porch.  They’re busily munching on dill and thinking about building chrysalises (chrysalii?), last I checked.

Here's a beautiful Black Swallowtail butterfly.

Here’s a beautiful Black Swallowtail butterfly.

Okay, now back to our vile enemy, the Small White cabbage moth: I’ve been doing an informal survey on what other organically-minded gardeners are doing to battle with this innocuous-looking, yet noxious and hungry pest, and I’ve compiled a list of 10 things you can do to cheat the Small White and its hungry brood of its lunch. And dinner. And breakfast, for that matter.  So let’s get started.

1.  My friend Anne is making sticky traps by painting small pieces of wood a bright yellow color, and then smearing them with petroleum jelly.  She expects the cabbage moths to be attracted to the bright yellow color, and then to get stuck in the sticky stuff, and voila! Bye-bye moths.  You’ll have to check back later to hear if that seemingly-brilliant method works for Anne. Although I’m sure it will.  She’s a smart cookie, this friend of mine.

2.  A market gardener friend swears by this recipe:  dishwashing liquid, molasses, fish emulsion, water, and beer. She mixes it up in a large pump-type sprayer and sprays everything in her garden. She says that this recipe makes the plants all stronger and more able to withstand attacks from all sorts of pests.  (Wonder if it would repel deer?)

3. This same friend also makes a solution of crushed hot peppers (not too hot, she says, or you’ll burn the plants you’re trying to save) and sprays it liberally on the cole crops. You can also use crushed pepper flakes:  bring one gallon of water and 3 Tb of crushed pepper flakes to a boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes.  Let sit overnight, and load up your sprayer!

4. Similarly, a solution of chili powder and garlic is said to repel the cabbage moths: Crush and mince 3 cloves of fresh garlic in 2 Tb olive oil, add 1 Tb chili powder, and add to 1 gallon of water.  Let sit for 24 hours or more, and you’re good to go!

5. Are you plants already infested?  Then spray infested plants with Bt– Bt is a biological insecticide (actually a bacterium that only infects caterpillars) that can help you control an existing cabbage worm problem. Use Bt by spraying your infested crop’s leaves with The cabbage worms will eat the leaves and become infected by the Bt. The good news:  the infection will kill the cabbage worms. The bad news:  it won’t kill the adult moths or any eggs they may have laid on your plants.  One common brand name is Dipel, which you can order easily–right–here. I’ve used this before, and it is reassuringly effective.

(Since I am now an affiliate of Amazon.com, if you buy your Dipel from this link, I’ll get approximately .03 to spend on my own Dipel.  But you knew that already, didn’t you?)

6. If you don’t have a problem already, use a floating row cover to keep the moths out of your cabbages and broccoli to begin with.  If they can’t get to ‘em, they can’t eat ‘em

7. Do practice crop rotation from year to year. Don’t plant your cole crops in the same spot every year, or your cabbage moth problem will get bigger and bigger from year to year. This is sound advice for every crop, by the way.

Here's a tiny cabbage moth caterpillar--isn't it so cute? (NOT!)

Here’s a tiny cabbage moth caterpillar–isn’t it so cute with its teeny-tiny wittle holes it has eaten??? (NOT!)

There you go, Gentle Reader.  From my experience and research, the tried and true cabbage moth control tips in  this post are some of the most effective cabbage worm control strategies available.  Since the sneaky and hardy cabbage worm can develop resistance to insecticides, organic controls are often used by conventional gardeners and professional vegetable growers as well as by die-hard organic gardeners. So we are in good company, aren’t we?

I’m participating in a fun event every Monday, the Homestead Barn Hop over at one of my favorite websites, the Prairie Homestead.  Check it out for scads more informative and helpful posts with homesteading themes.  It’s lots of fun, and you’ll learn something, I promise!

Barn-Hop

44 thoughts on “7 natural ways to get rid of those nassssty cabbage moths!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      I plan to win this battle, Shawn! I’ve got a gallon of hot pepper spray ready to use tomorrow! I’ll keep you posted!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      You’re so funny, Anita-Clare. Do you really say “hot dang” there in the merry ole’ country? I’m quite certain I’ll get those nasty moths sorted out!

  1. Marcy

    Do you think diatomaceous earth would work?
    And, you failed to mention stink bugs in your list of nasty imports, or haven’t they made it to your part of the world yet? (If you are so blessed, get on your knees and pray they get lost on the way!)

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Marcy,
      I don’t know about diatomaceous earth, but it would be worth a try! And stink bugs are another import??? That figures! We have them in great abundance here, sadly!

      1. Teri Tibbetts

        I have used DE to the point that the cabbage looked like snowballs and those darn caterpillars still ate my cabbage. I have tried marigolds. no good. planted sage this year that has yet to come up. Am going to try these sprays this time. Have rotated my crops. Not helping :-(

        1. dramamamafive Post author

          They are just voracious little bugs. Teri, I’m trying a new tack this year and I’ll let you know if it works: I’m going to plant cabbages and so forth inside in flats, and not put them out until mid-July, thereby (hopefully!!) missing the cabbage worm season entirely! I’ll let you know if this rash action works!!

  2. Tauna

    I glared at the cabbage moth caterpillars in your post. No lie. They are truly my gardening nemesis and must be destroyed, having eaten my ENTIRE kale crop on the postage-stamp-sized gardens I’ve been pouring into. What’s worse is that my kids just LOVE the pretty “butterflies” that play in the gardens. Look at my eye twitching. I have choice words for them (the moths). You, on the other hand, are my new favorite person. :)

    My new plan was to form structures to cover the plants and use row covers as a barrier. My front yard is a tiny garden patch and I’d use old lamp shades to hold the row cover material over my precious kale. But I may try some of these recipes first! Hopefully they aren’t as necessary in the Fall garden.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Tauna,
      PLEASE let me know what works for you! I’m using the pepper spray and so far, so good! (I’d love to see a photo of your barrier with the lamp shades–sounds very interesting! :)

  3. Shay (Australia)

    Hi – Just wondering if the yellow bits of wood with the petroleum jelly worked? I’ve heard of several people trying this method this year, but cannot seem to find results either for or against. Thanks.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      NO, Shay, my friend shared with me that those sticky traps DID NOT work. In retrospect, I think I should have just put a floating row cover on my brassicas (you can buy this from garden supply sources) and have been done with it! That’s what I’ll do next summer, and that’s what I’d advise, if you want to stay away from the toxic pesticides!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Brooke,
      I need to write a P.S. to that post! No, my friend shared with me that her yellow sticky traps DID NOT work, so don’t waste your time with them! Here is what I will do next summer: (cabbage moths have been a pain here in Nebraska all season long!) once my cabbage, kale, cauliflower, etc., plants come up, I will cover them with a lightweight row cover (you can buy it from garden companies). I think that’s probably the best solution to these pests if you don’t want to use toxic chemicals.

  4. susan dean

    Row covers are good but inevitably they change the climate under the cover.The cabbages that I had under row covers are much smaller than their neighbors that I transplanted a few feet away, that are not covered. The cabbage it seems didn’t like the extra heat though I made sure they had plenty of moisture, the uncovered transplants outperformed their protected sisters. I sprinkle wood ash on my radishes and cabbages for rootmaggots, reapplying after rain. I’m hoping the ashes will work on the cabbage worms, I don’t have accessto domatacious earth here in Ecuador. I used to garden in Northern Alberta…I will certainly try the pepper spray. Thanks!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Susan,
      I hope it works for you–it did seem to make a difference in my garden. Be careful, though. Apply it with a light hand, or you could burn the leaves. That was my discovery.

  5. Tiffany

    Yes they got to my broccoli last year and I have a very small container garden on my back porch in NE DC!! I was stunned to have a pest in the city but they LAID WASTE to my poor broccoli. I used a concotion of tea tree and dishwashing liquid in water which wasn’t too strong to kill the broccoli but I did have to spray every day. It only kills the caterpillar. It was my first attempt at gardening and they will not affect me this year. Going to plant some mint and oregano early and get some covers. Thanks so much for this article, I feel ready to defend my garden this year!
    Tiffany recently posted…Press Release: Zoya Awaken Collection for Spring 2014!My Profile

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Tiffany,
      If the number of views of my “cabbage moth” post is any indication, I’d say that last year was a GREAT year for cabbage moths! Good luck on your protective measures, and I’d love to hear if any of the things you do help! All the best to you and your gardening this year!

  6. Pingback: Gnome and Garden Beginnings

  7. Marcella Smith

    I’m hard in this battle already this year, I was told to mix 2 tablespoons of castle soap in a squirt bottle with a little garlic juice and spray this all over, top and bottom, my leafy greens. I found some cabbage moth caterpillars and within a minute of being hit with that soapy water they were hanging upside dead~!!!. I was so excited that I ignored everything for a couple days, went back out yesterday as a cabbage moth gently fluttered by me and entered my kale, by the time I got there it was fluttering away after, I’m sure, laying an egg or two on my beautiful organic kale!!!!! To the spray bottle!! This time maybe with a tsp of oil to help it stay on the leaf!!!!
    In the beginning of the spring, it is so nice to be able to walk out to the garden and eat a leaf or two of fresh kale and other leafy greens. That sure doesn’t last! Now, anything I eat from the garden has to be rinsed of what ever concoction I have sprayed on them….

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Thanks so much, Marcella Smith. It IS possible to keep the cabbage worms away, but it sure does take diligence, doesn’t it?? I read recently that if you wait until July 15 to plant your cabbages and kale and such, that you can avoid the little beasties altogether . . . but I’m quite sure I saw those little moths fluttering around nearly until frost last year!

  8. Pete Kowpak

    I have used Neem Oil on my leafy green crops but after it rains, it needs to be re-applied. The solutions that you have suggested sounds good, but does the rain wash it off also and needs to be re-applied? This year I made insect repellant “cages” that have protected them with some success, the leafy greens that I did cover weren’t affected much but the ones I didn’t get built in time to cover them with got eaten up. The problem with my “cages” is I built them 18″ wide and 18″ tall so my plants grew so quickly I had to take them off sooner than I expected. I am working on a different type of cage that may solve that problem. Please let me know about what you use to spray your veggies with and how the rain affects the application, Thank You!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Pete,
      I use a Hudson trombone sprayer that my husband bought for me as a gift several years ago. “Happy birthday, honey, here’s your new garden sprayer.” I mix up whatever I’m going to spray into a 5-gallon bucket, and then use the trombone sprayer from it. It works really well. And Yes, you do have to reapply the spray after rain (or the sprinkler) washes your leaves, unfortunately. I just sprayed my kale this morning with B+ (Dipel, link in cabbage moth post) because the cabbage moths finally found my brassicas. :( Here’s a link to the trombone sprayer, and GOOD LUCK! Cabbage moths are one of my most challenging pests!

      1. Pete Kowpak

        Thanks for the reply, I kind of figured that the rain would wash off any kind of spray that could be used, so at this point I think I will continue using the neem oil (at least til it’s gone). I am currently working on a new type of cage that should protect the plants from seedlings to harvest, ones that will be permanent but have access to the plant. You were also correct about how long the cabbage moths are around, it seems here in Ohio they are here more so after July 15th! I looked at your tomato cages and found them to be an excellent idea that I will incorporate into my garden next year you said, tomato cages just will not support the weight of the plants themselves (I found out the hard way), lesson learned. Keep up the great work, I appreciate it!

  9. Marie

    I just tried method #2 with a mixture of dishwashing liquid, beer, fish emulsion and water and it seems to dissolve the caterpillars! Smells odd but I can tolerate that to keep my Kale intact. Thanks for the suggestions.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Marie,
      I’m so glad! I’m going to mix up a batch myself. The cabbage moths finally found all my brassicas, doggonit!

  10. John Edwards

    Thank you for your informative post on killing caterpillars.

    I have read all comments to the post and using a soapy spray seems the best idea.
    I have also read about this treatment before, but how much liquid washing up soap should be mixed with a gallon of water?
    I want to use enough to kill the Caterpillars, but don’t want to be foaming at the mouth every time I eat cabbage.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      John, I think I’d err on the side of “soapier” because–let’s face it–you can always rinse the cabbage to get ride of the soap! And I’m going to talk with my friend next week and get her “recipe” for this (just looking back at that post, I can’t believe I didn’t write the recipe in there) although I don’t think the proportions are all that important, as long as you just get all those components in there. I had to ask our hardware man to order me the fish emulsion—he had no idea what it was. Good luck!!

  11. Trev. (isle of wight) UK

    Hi, great comments dont think any garden is safe from cabbage white, i have the task of managing my home garden,an allotment and 3,500 squre feet of veg plot with-in an abbey(thankfully not on my own) we use fruit cages to house the brassicas etc and mosquito nets forming mini polytunnels plus organic sprays of which has been fairley succesfull so far !, some good tips are found at the following web site,organicgardening.inmysanctuary.net/wordpress/2013/05/white-cabbage-butterfly/, good luck : )

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