Few things are as heartbreaking as finding your young seedlings or transplants “decapitated” and lying on the garden floor, stems gnawed away just above ground level.

You have cutworms and if you don’t take action quickly, you are likely to lose many other young plants.

Cutworms are caterpillars that overwinter in the soil and reappear in the spring to feast on tender young plants before burrowing back into the soil and emerging as rather benign nocturnal flying moths.

They can completely destroy a crop in a single night if the infestation is severe enough.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to get them out of your yard without using harsh or toxic chemicals. Although they and the damage they cause are most visible in the spring, start your eradication program in mid-summer. So there are already larvae in the soil and you may be able to prevent them from living long enough to damage your plants the following spring.

Here are 7 ways to deal with cutworms that don’t require the use of chemicals:

Plow fall areas and garden paths in mid to late summer. This will prevent them from laying eggs on the untouched soil.

Plow all unplanted areas in the fall and plow all areas as you remove dead plants at the end of the season. This exposes the larvae to air and sun, which is fatal. It also buries the pupae deep enough to “trap” them deep in the soil and prevent them from coming to the surface the following spring.

Cultivate in spring after weeds have reached a height of a few inches. Plow under spring-growing weeds and do not seed or transplant the area for a week to 10 days. This effectively starves the pupae by removing their food source.

Place a toothpick or large nail right next to the stem, so the two are touching. Cutworms circle the plant before sitting down to eat it. They will move on if a foreign object, such as a toothpick or nail, interferes with their approach to the plant stem. Remove the foreign object after the plant grows a bit and the stem gets tougher.

Wrap the stems with a collar of paper, cardboard, or aluminum foil. This is the same principle as the toothpick or the nail. Wrap the collar around the stem about 4 inches above the soil line and bury it about 2 inches below the soil surface. You can also use an empty paper cup with the bottom cut out by passing the transplant through the paper cup before planting it in the ground. This prevents cutworms from reaching the stem of the plant. Once the plants are a bit bigger and not so tender and succulent, you can safely remove the collars.

Plant a trap crop of sunflowers; cutworms love them. Plant them in a ring around your garden. Cutworms will devour sunflowers and will most likely leave your garden plants alone.

Dig into the soil around decapitated plants and manually destroy small pests. This is a very effective way to get rid of cutworms. Check about a one-foot radius around any plants that are victims of cutworm activity. Do this early in the morning. Go around the rocks or clods of earth and chances are you will find the offender. Manually remove and destroy using the method of your choice.

Copyright Sharon Sweeny, 2009. All rights reserved.

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