The Good Fight

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!

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14 thoughts on “The Good Fight

  1. Dear Sara, I have to say, this is all rather dreadful and, without really knowing, somewhat exceptional. I cannot believe how badly your kitchen garden has been ‘infested’ with caterpillars. Like you, I should not find it easy to destroy them. But why, one asks, are the birds not picking them off?

    • Dear Edith, Thank you for your commiserations. It is sad to potentially lose crops that we have nurtured through since the spring. Perhaps the birds in our garden are spoilt for choice – all the hawthorn berries ripe for the picking, the raspberries vanish as soon as they’re ripe if I don’t watch them, and the sunflower heads have been ransacked for seeds. Perhaps moving targets (albeit rather slow-moving) are less attractive!

      • Ah, a little looking around the vast archives of the “interweb” reveals that the large white caterpillars are foul tasting to birds, in fact building up toxicity as they feed on the cabbages. This is why they are so bold in their behaviour and colours. The green caterpillars of the small white are not so unpleasant, but being far better camouflaged and tending to concentrate on the inner parts of the plants keeps them safer from bird attacks…

  2. I appreciate this post because I have only watched out for the clusters of yellow eggs before, never the single ones.

    I like nasturtiums and as caterpillars don’t seem to bother with the flowers, I have grown to love the skeletons of the leaves – like umbrella spokes.

    Companion planting works two ways. If you plant certain plants to attract particular creatures into your garden, presumably they will set up colonies, expand their populations and spread to other plants. Fine with ladybirds but not with cabbage whites – for which, I would guess, you have set up a very pleasant nursery in the nasturtium leaves. Might you have to chose between nasturtiums and cabbages? (I never had black-fly in my garden until I grew (for one year only) single petalled marigolds. The flowers didn’t distract blackfly from other plants, they attracted them in!)

    I’m impressed by your cauliflowers. I think it is only once we have tried to grow them but the curds were so mini . . . we were failures!

    And that’s another thing I have learned from this post – that the white bits we eat are called curds.

    Esther

    • Hi Esther,

      Thank you for your considered reply. The small whites are much harder to defend against than the large as it’s easy to miss their single eggs, and the green of the caterpillars blends in so well with the leaves!

      Companion planting is indeed a mixed bag, and tricky to control, but I’m reluctant to pull out the nasturtiums that seem to do such a sterling job in other ways, such as distracting most of the aphids from the broad beans, and at least the caterpillars that are feasting on these are not consuming our food crops! But as you so rightly point out, this haven may lead to higher numbers than would otherwise be in the garden…

      The nasturtiums are so robust and grow so well, that I am happy for caterpillars to feast on the leaves; I agree that the skeletal remains of “caterpillared” leaves can be rather attractive in their own right. And despite being the bane of most kitchen gardens, these butterflies are part of the natural order of things, so I don’t want to wipe them out entirely (slim chance!). It’s a hard thing to balance…

      Perhaps moving the hyssop to the edge of the next year’s cabbage patch, and adding some mint will deter the whites? Smaller and more secure netting and increased vigilance can only help, we have been rather distracted this year… But perhaps you are right and we should leave the nasturtiums (and calendula that I am hoping to add) entirely next year. I do so love their cheerful flowers and wonderful shaped leaves dotted about the crops though.

      Our cauliflower curds are still rather small at the moment, the largest which I photographed is only two or three inches across at the moment, but there are still six weeks or more for them to mature so hopefully they will achieve a good size for eating. I’m impressed that they’re so resilient to the attentions of the caterpillars and have managed to start forming any curds at all!

      Sara

  3. Really feeling for you and the cabbage. We have tons of cabbage butterflies, but no cabbage. You encouraged me to find out why. You post had a lot of good info. I do not use pesticides, but seeing a crop like yours, might push me over to the dark side.

  4. As with everyone else, I totally feel for you, all that hard work being slowly munched away. I have to say, I use enviromesh (no use to you now, sorry) for covering all my brassicas but I am also quite happy to pull off any little wrigglers that do manage to grow and throw them away. Not sure what that says about me!

    I hope your cauliflowers still come up trumps.

    Bethx

    • Hi Beth, Thanks for your sympathies too! It does sound as though enviromesh is the way to go next year. We’re going to try to construct some frames with bits of wood left over from the house, and we should have a lot more time next year too to defeat them! I must confess I turned a blind eye when my husband filled a bucket with picked caterpillars and then unintentionally left it out where it filled up with rainwater overnight. Oops…

      Fingers firmly crossed for the caulis!

      S x

  5. I remember seeing hoards of these in our garden in England. Here we’ve had similar damage done by cabbage loopers. Cryptic little green inch-worm like caterpillars, with seemingly endless appetites. Thankfully our chickens loved them! Every morning I’d pick them off the lettuces, and the hens would squabble amongst themselves for the tastiest ones! I do hope your cabbage harvest isn’t a total loss. It’s so distressing when your greens disappear before your eyes. Although it’s good to know that nasturtiums seem to be useful trap crop. Maybe more nasturtiums next year?

  6. my commiserations you certainly have had an invasion, although it is amazing how brassicas can survive and recover if the caterpilllars are caught in time, although it is such a time-consuming task trying to take them off, lets hope that better netting will work next year…i too always wondered why the birds never ate the caterpillars, thanks for the info!

    • Hi Mike, Yes fingers crossed our brassicas “bounce back”. It’s good to know that there is a reason why all those caterpillars could bask in full view of the birds – I thought we might just have picky birds here!

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