This summer, it quickly became apparent that the netting over our cabbages and cauliflowers was no match for the cabbage whites.
The butterflies could be seen very adroitly tucking back their wings and slipping through the gaps. Lo and behold, small yellow eggs were soon found on the undersides of the leaves; those of the large white laid in clusters, while the small white lays its eggs singly. Thus began the summer’s vigil over the cabbages, rubbing out eggs with a gloved thumb as I found them – not a pleasant task, and not to be dwelt on.
With so much to do at the other end of the garden as work on the house marched on apace all summer, it was inevitable that we would miss some. All too soon, swarms of tiny black and white (large cabbage white) and some green (small cabbage white) caterpillars could be found all over the cabbage leaves. Rubbing out eggs is one thing, but once these little pests have hatched into wriggling live caterpillars then I just don’t have the stomach for anything besides relocation. Having read that cabbage whites are happy to lay their eggs under the large saucer-like leaves of nasturtiums, I began to ferry caterpillars as I found them onto the nasturtiums scattered around the garden, all in the name of sacrifice.
Mid-summer I suddenly began to find caterpillars (and their droppings) on nasturtiums all over the vegetable patch, even plants that I hadn’t transported them to, so it looked as though things were working out. I found myself a little puzzled why the garden birds weren’t making a feast of these caterpillars though, as they were quite obvious on the upper surfaces of the nasturtium leaves, munching their way along. Still, a few nasturtium leaves on such vigorous plants was a small sacrifice, I thought. Companion planting at its best.
However, this was a small and short-lived victory; we obviously weren’t keeping up with the swarms of eggs still being laid on the cabbages, as caterpillars were to be found all over those too. Each of our all-too-infrequent caterpillar picking sessions since has resulted in dozens of big hungry caterpillars being peeled off the brassicas, some of which have become quite badly defoliated and spoiled with droppings.
And the next time I walk past, I always spot more caterpillars… usually the black and white ones of the large white catch my eye, they do tend to concentrate on the outer leaves of the plants: the pale green caterpillars of the small white are much harder to spot, even close up, and often go straight to the heart causing more damage.
The savoy cabbages have been hearting up regardless of this attack, and the hearts are looking good despite the hole-riddled outer leaves.
Meanwhile, some of the un-netted cauliflowers have been the worst affected with almost no foliage left at all – I’m just hoping that they battle through now that butterfly season is coming to an end. It’s the first time that we’ve grown cauliflowers, in the spring we sowed some early (Regata F1) ones for October/November harvesting and some overwintering ones for February/March cutting (Mystique) and I have recently found small white curds forming in the heart of some of them (presumably the Regata, although we muddled them when we planted them out). It would be really exciting if it weren’t for the caterpillar droppings that cover them. I’m not sure whether the rain will wash the curds clean in the coming weeks, and we can clean any residue off when we harvest them, or whether the droppings will spoil them and render them inedible. Does anybody have any advice?
The brussels sprouts have been particularly devastated, with hardly any leaves left at all. The beginnings of little buds can be seen forming on the stem though, and the growing tips are intact, so I have hope that we’ll still be eating home grown sprouts on Christmas Day again this year.
Our battle with the caterpillars continues. I’ve been transferring them to the compost heap in recent weeks, as the nasturtiums are rather oversubscribed, and they should find plenty in there to keep them happy while staying away from our cabbages, right? Although I am yet to be convinced that they don’t just crawl straight back to the cabbages overnight… Even the salad leaves that we didn’t enjoy the taste of, but left to flower, have not been immune.
There is nothing left of the plant above now, besides a green stick! We also find them on the leaves of the swedes, although these are faring better: the roots are already at full size and we have begun to harvest the first swedes along with our carrots, and yet more courgettes and beetroots.
It remains to be seen whether we harvest any decent cabbages, cauliflowers or sprouts this year. Next year we shall have to be far more vigilant – and invest in smaller netting!