"How to Manage Caterpillars in the Garden" | Article and Photos by Justin Butts

We are now in the time of year when caterpillars become active in our gardens. Some gardeners use chemical pesticides to treat for caterpillars, only to find that their pest problems soon come back, and even worse than before. But there are safer and more effective treatments for caterpillars that don’t involve harsh chemicals.

To prevent caterpillars before they become a problem, try companion planting; this is the pairing of two or more plants that mutually benefit one another. Plant marigolds around your tomatoes; nasturtiums around the squash; and plant basil, dill, and cilantro generously throughout the garden. These companion plants repel or confuse pests, to keep them off of your vegetables, and they add a great deal of color, fragrance, and beauty to the garden.

When caterpillars do arrive, try using the effective and inexpensive “pinch method”. Simply pinch the caterpillar between your thumb and index finger, and work through the garden until the pests are gone. If you don’t want to squash the caterpillars, drop them into a bucket of soapy water, or simply relocate them a safe distance from your garden.

The pinch method works best at night. During the day, most garden pests hide in the soil, and when they see you coming, they are very good at scampering away. To save yourself a great deal of time, wear an inexpensive hiker’s headlamp, which allows you to shine the light, hands free, wherever you look.

At night, all the pests of your garden are active, and they will come to the tops of the plants and fight to get into the light. You can rapidly solve most of your pest problems in one or two short sessions of night pinching.

You can also spray Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, as an effective organic pesticide. Bt is a naturally occurring bacteria that paralyzes the digestive system of caterpillars, but does not affect other insects, plants, or humans. When caterpillars ingest the Bt, they immediately stop feeding and eventually die. Spray the leaves until dripping with Bt, only at dusk, because sunlight kills the good bacteria in Bt.

A wonderful long-term solution for caterpillars is your native population of beneficial predators. These are the birds, wasps, frogs, toads, lizards, lacewings, dragonflies and many other friends of the garden that eat caterpillars and other pests. Once beneficial predators are established in your garden, you will rarely need to treat for caterpillars.

To attract beneficial predators, create for them a safe habitat, or sanctuary, to protect them. A hummingbird or butterfly garden, or any dense thick planting with a lot of flowers and ground cover gives the predators a place to hide when they are not hunting your garden pests.

Finally, the best pesticide of all is healthy soil. Caterpillars attack the weakest plants first; it is nature’s way of eliminating weak plants from the gene pool. The healthier your garden soil, the less you will need to treat for pests.


Anonymous said…
Do you know anything about the furry-ish caterpillars that bite, and have a red/orange head? They seem to like my herbs...but since someone told me they bite I haven't done much with them. Thought? Thanks!
Anonymous said…
The caterpillars that you describe are likely what is commonly known in this (Rockport) area as wooly worms. They are particularly bad in areas that have a lot of oak trees. Basically, they begin as white moths, morph in the trees into caterpillars, drift down and in many cases cover just about everything - including the sides of houses, where they again form cocoons and repeat the entire process year after year. ...not sure if they bite, but are said to be very acidic and if they come in contact with your skin it may feel as if you've been bitten but more likely are feelig affects of the acid which for some can be quite miserable. If you have a lot of them, the only real solution for getting rid of them is to have your trees sprayed in late winter or very early spring by a professional pest control company. Go to this website for a photo taken here in Rockport to see if it matches your description: http://wildabouttexas.blogspot.com/2012/04/heb-lodge-at-rockport-invaded-by-wooly.html
If so, you may want to consult with garden pros for additional information.
Anonymous said…
Re "Managing Caterpillars In The Garden," please remember that caterpillars become butterflies - they only live in that particular stage for a short time. They then enclose theirselves in a cocoon which magically turns into a beautiful butterfly, further enhancing the beauty of the garden. They are like flying jewels that also help with pollination. For instance, the first photo in subject article is a caterpillar that will turn into a beautiful Monarch butterfly.

For detailed information about caterpillars and butterflies, with many photos. Paste this website into your browser to find a myriad of links on the subject:

Justin Butts said…
We enjoy many types of caterpillars in our area, and many of them have the capacity to "bite", or at least to bite the plants they feed on. But you are unlikely to get a bite from a caterpillar. I have handled thousands of caterpillars of all sizes, and have only been bitten once--and that was by a tomato hornworm as big as a rhinoceros. Well, maybe not that big, but it was huge, and still the bite was very minor.

If you wear gardening gloves, you do not have to worry about bites or acidic secretions. Many caterpillars secrete an enzyme that does not burn your skin, but smells pretty bad, and you can simply wash your gloves to remove the smell.

Caterpillars turn into beautiful butterflies and bring us a great amount of joy throughout the spring, summer, and fall. If you don't want to squash your caterpillars, you can simply remove them a safe distance form your vegetables, preferably to a butterfly garden, where the caterpillars will thrive. We have planted several beautiful butterfly gardens around our vegetable crops as a sanctuary for butterflies. That way, we don't have to choose between butterflies and garden-fresh vegetables, but can have both!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for all the great info!! I just love your articles! ;)

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