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Natural Ways to Control Cabbage Worms

Updated on August 21, 2017
rpalulis profile image

I have conducted a lot of research on natural ingredients and healthier living, and love to share what I learn.

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What Is Eating My Vegetables?

Harvesting and enjoying the fruit of one’s labor is a rewarding and satisfying feeling every gardener growing their own food should experience. We browse through colorful seed catalogues all winter long, strategically planning what and where to plant it all. There’s nothing like taking a stroll through the garden, picking a little of this and a little of that, and preparing a delicious, healthy, and affordable meal for your family.

And there is no greater frustration and feeling of defeat when you arrive to your little oasis of food to find that something has already eaten your salad. Many put up fences and scarecrows to guard precious crops from deer, rabbits, birds, and other animals, but caterpillars can do just as much damage.

One particularly bad one that is known for destroying many crops is the cabbage worm.

Did You Know...

Cabbage worms don't only eat cabbage. There's a long list of cruciferous vegetables in the Brassicaceae family that they enjoy.

What Does a Cabbage Worm Look Like?

Not all caterpillars are bad; some are actually very beneficial, so before you start exterminating, be sure you've identified the caterpillar properly.

  • Cabbage worms are velvety green larvae that grow to be about 1 1/4 inch long. If you look really closely, you may see some tiny black or yellow markings. They sometimes linger on the undersides of leaves, out of sight of predators, but they are very hungry and spend their days nibbling around and boring into leaves, spreading out the damage they do to the plant.
  • Cabbage white butterflies are what they grow into, which are mainly white but with a few black markings with a wingspan of 30 to 47 mm.
  • Eggs: They lay their very small and yellowish or leaf-green eggs on the undersides of leaves and you probably won't notice them, even if you're looking really hard.
  • Other signs: Sometimes, it's not the caterpillars that you first notice but the damage they do to the plants. Wormholes and dark green droppings are signs to look for.

Cabbage butterflies: male (top) and female (bottom). If you see these flying around your garden, it's a sign that cabbage worms are coming (if they're not already here).
Cabbage butterflies: male (top) and female (bottom). If you see these flying around your garden, it's a sign that cabbage worms are coming (if they're not already here). | Source

Natural Ways to Get Rid of and Control Cabbage Worms

So how do you get rid of these cabbage worms in a way that is safe and effective? If you are growing food, you most likely do not want to be using chemicals, since you want to keep it as clean, healthy, and organic as possible. Well, there are several natural remedies and methods you can use safely.

  1. Plant garlic, allium, thyme, tomatoes, onions, sage, borage, nasturtium, tansy, and rosemary near the affected plants, as they are known to deter cabbage worms. Plant flowering plants and herbs nearby to attract natural predators.
  2. There are plenty of other insects you can attract to the garden that attack these worms, such as spiders, ground beetles, yellowjackets, and wasps. The braconid wasp will prey on these caterpillars all day long.
  3. Their predators include the house sparrow, skylark, and goldfinch skylark, so if you can attract those birds to your yard, you can enlist their help.
  4. Crop rotation will help reduce future pest populations. This means every so often, you plant a different type of plant in that section of your garden.
  5. Be sure to remove old and dead plants quickly. It its pupa stage, the caterpillar will over-winter in plant debris such as this.
  6. Tilling the soil several times between planting will help destroy the eggs and pupa as well.
  7. Hand-picking the worms off will slow an infestation (but if your infestation is anything like the one I had on my kale last season, you will never win). With gloved hands, pick them off at least once a week. (You can crush them or drown them in a jar full of soapy water.)
  8. Cover your plants with lightweight nylon so that the butterflies cannot lay their eggs on the plant's leaves. (Do this before you see any signs of the pest since this same net might prevent natural predators from eating the worms.)
  9. There are some natural and organic applications. Sprinkling dry cornmeal or rye flour on damp leaves will kill the worms. After they eat it, they bloat and die. You can also use diatomaceous earth.
  10. An organic spray that is very popular amongst many growers is Bacillus thuringiensis or BT, which is a natural soil-borne bacterium that has been used as a natural insecticide for over 50 years and has been proven to be very safe for the environment and humans. If you see any cabbage butterflies, start using BT weekly. Spray it on your plants in between waterings so it doesn't get washed off too quickly.
  11. Make your own spray repellant. See recipe below.

Make Your Own Cabbage Worm Repellant Spray

  1. In a blender, combine any combination of the following ingredients: garlic, mint, onion, hot peppers, horseradish, and/pr mineral oil.
  2. Mix in an equal amount of water.
  3. Strain. Sprinkle the solid stuff under the plant and put the liquid into a spray bottle.
  4. Add a tablespoon of liquid soap.
  5. Spray it onto your plants in between waterings.

What Do Cabbage Worms Eat?

  • Bok Choy
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Collards
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Lettuces
  • Mustard Greens
  • Turnips
  • Radishes
  • Rutabaga

What Do Cabbage Butterflies Eat?

They like blue, purple, and yellow flowers the most. They are less attracted to flowers that are white, green, or red.

What About Those Little Dark Caterpillars or Inch Worms Eating Your Vegetables?

Cabbage worms are not the only type you might find eating your vegetables. These other two pests are common:

Cabbage Loopers (Trichoplusia ni)

As larva: Loopers (aka inch worms) are easily recognized by the way they move: They double up (or “loop”) as they inch along. They have six legs: Three in the front and three behind (but none on their middle, looping segments). They are plump, soft-looking, and pale green with two slim, white, lateral stripes and grow to be about an inch and a half long.

As adults: These are nocturnal, mottled brown or gray, with an inch and a half wingspan. Each forewing has a silver, v-shaped spot.

Diamondback Moths (Plutella xylostella)

As larva: They start small and brownish with a forked-looking tail and quickly turn pale or bright green with a darker head. They have ten legs and the hindmost protrude to form a v-shape. These larvae are quite active and may wriggle violently when disturbed.

As adults: Also known as cabbage moths, these nocturnal night-flyers are small (15 mm from wingtip to wingtip), slim, and grayish-brown with pronounced antennae.

Extermination methods for these two are generally the same described for cabbage moths above.

What If You Accidentally Eat a Cabbage Worm? Are They Poisonous or Dangerous to Humans?

These little green caterpillars are completely harmless to humans and pose no danger, even if you accidentally ate one. In fact, they are a sign that your vegetables are probably organic, since chemicals would probably have killed them. If you find them on your food, just wash them off.

Source

Where Did the Cabbage Worm Come From?

The cabbage worm came from Europe and is believed to have arrived in Massachusetts about 1869, and then quickly spread throughout the rest of the United States. Members of the brassica or mustard family are its main targets.

The cabbage worm is the larval form of the cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae), which is white with specks of three to four black spots on each wing. These pretty white butterflies lay little yellow eggs on the underside of leaves. Within a week’s time, these eggs hatch little green caterpillars that immediately start munching away on your precious kale, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, leaving ragged holes in the leaves. They will continue feeding for 2-3 weeks, and then pupate, having between three to six generations in one season.

If you haven’t noticed any damage to your plants, but see these little white butterflies flying around, start taking action! Make sure to check the underside of the leaves. This is where they like to lay those eggs, and even when they become worms they are so hard to see, they blend in so perfectly.

The eggs of the cabbage white butterfly are yellow or greenish and quite small.
The eggs of the cabbage white butterfly are yellow or greenish and quite small. | Source

Remember to Check Underneath the Leaves!

Remember to always check and spray underneath the plant's leaves. There were so many occasions when I thought I had all of them removed, until I turned a few leaves over. They blend in so well! If you see the white butterfly flying over your crops, take immediate actions, and start inspecting your plants and try to prevent any future infestations.

Chances are if you're reading this article you most likely are a gardener, and have experienced a few run-ins with these guys. I am curious to know of some more natural ways to get rid and prevent these worms. I lost nearly my entire crop of kale to them last year and want to avoid that as much as possible. Please share with me if you have any experience in dealing with the cabbage worms by leaving a comment below. Thanks, and may we all have a great growing season!

© 2011 rpalulis

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    • profile image

      rose 4 weeks ago

      Thanks so much for your advice. i will try your garlic, mint/pepper & soap recipee. Hope to plant collards, kale, chard & cauliflower tomorrow

    • profile image

      Melissa 5 weeks ago

      How about using diatomaceous earth?

    • profile image

      Jonna Mabrey 2 months ago

      Growing kale in a planter and surrounding it with chicken wire around sides and across top seems to keep off the cabbage butterflies.

    • profile image

      Steph Stonoff 2 months ago

      Has anyone tried DT diatomaceous earth? It has to be reapplied after a rain but it seems to slow them down... it's like shards of glass to them and essentially they dehydrate and die.

    • profile image

      Lori 2 months ago

      Will dish soap and water solution get rid of these

    • profile image

      kay 2 months ago

      use washing up liquid to spray cabbage

    • profile image

      Nate 3 months ago

      I planted cauliflower, kale, and brussels sprouts in that sequence in a previously unused part of my backyard. It seems the cabbage moths pretty much ignored the cauliflower and kale, but really indulged in the brussels sprouts. I sprinkled some corn meal on the plants this morning, and am waiting to see some results. The sprouts are just now forming, so I need to protect them. If the corn meal doesn't help, I'll try the BT. I find it very interesting that the buggers pretty much ignored the cauliflower and kale.

    • profile image

      LH Richardson 3 months ago

      Try companion planting! Use Neem oil spray and myrphys oil soap! Companion planting and light row

      covers will keep those little buggers at bay!

    • profile image

      caterpillarz lover1769 5 months ago

      They are not called worms! They are caterpillars, silly people! and they are so cute!!! I managed to take them off the cavolo nero plants in our garden and raise them into butterflies. I got so attatched to them that I even called some of them names! Oh and by the way they don't eat each other that is lies.

    • profile image

      SReally 12 months ago

      I plant several rows of radishes 2 to 3 weeks apart. I harvest some and let some bloom. The white butterflies love to land on the flowers, the fly swatter is a great weapon. Never thought of a net but will try that. One day, I got over 20 in less than an hour. Really put a dent in the population!

    • profile image

      Sad that my plants are gone 13 months ago

      I also used the 1 part salt and 2 parts flour mix yesterday, and it killed half of my crop. The worms seemed to love it though and ate a lot of leaves, but I only found 2 dead worms. Definitely not worth it.

    • profile image

      Greg 13 months ago

      The recommendation to sprinkle 1 part salt with 2 parts flour will kill your plants.

    • profile image

      Jim 14 months ago

      I have garlic plants but rarely harvest them. This year I dug up several cloves and dried them. I wasn't sure that I dug them at the right time and dried them the proper way for eating. I decided to slice some of them and toss around the garden. I use to kill every one I saw but two or three would come to the funeral. I would kill two or three every day. However, since I started slicing the garlic and spreading it around the garden, I rarely ever see one. I didn't give it much thought until I read some of these comments. My daughter texted me this morning with her kale problems and I began to search for a solution. Thanks for this site.

    • profile image

      Ted 14 months ago

      I have an infestation in my gooseberry bush. They return every year and I have tried everything. I refuse to cut the bush and they have now become my " mission"

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      kay kotsifas 23 months ago

      they have devoured my kale. also ate all the leaves on my tomato plants and now have eaten into my green tomatoes and have made holes in all the other tomatoes! will they come back from the soil next year or does the white butterfly have to lay eggs on leaves. larvae live in soil during winter?

    • profile image

      2 years ago

      Hello.. I mixed palmolive dishwashing soap and water to spray my Kale, and it worked. I had to spray every other day in the afternoon. this year I found Fit organic vegetable soap and tried it. Its keeping worms out of my kale and lettuce. Thanks guys for the info...

    • profile image

      jackie v. 3 years ago

      I'm a novice gardener. It's a fun project for my husband and me. However, we hate seeing our young plants being eaten by an insect. Our collards have tiny holes in the leaves, and our broccoli leaves are just about gone. What can I put on them to save my garden so that I can look forward to getting better and better at this.

    • profile image

      william 3 years ago

      I go down to the garden early in the morning with a sifter full of organic flour and gently dust each plant and leaves with the flour. It chokes the oxygen from eggs so they do not develop into worms. I do this as soon as I see the butterflies drifting around the garden and yard. Also a mixture of organic soap and water - 1 tablespoon soap to a gallon of water - in my sprayer and I gently spray the undersides of the plants. you can spray the tops but do not do this in the heat of the day. The nice thing about both of these practices is they are cheap, have no residue and do wash off in a rain. If it rains you just start over! Hope this helps.

    • rpalulis profile image
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      rpalulis 3 years ago from NY

      That is gross that they ate themselves!

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      Snow babe 3 years ago

      These worms are the worst, I have them on one of my flower buckets, they have severely set the plant back. I used spray and washed them with spray novel, got about 40 of them ewwwwww! I waited about 10 days and found a dozen more and eggs. Grrrr. They worst part... I put them in a mason jar to check em out - they ate them selves

    • bje117 profile image

      bje117 3 years ago

      Onions and garlic and rosemary and chives do not stop them. I have them planted less than six inches away and they still get them. Will have to try the dishwater soap trick as Murphy's oil on older leaves would probably make them taste awful!!! Might work on the young plants though. I also have aphids appearing after multiple rains. Will also try to mulch the ground better and see if that helps, it did help with the tomato blight and wonder if putting sand on the top layer would help? It is frustrating to come out one day and see your plants stripped bare or full of holes! Interesting article. Thanks!

    • profile image

      4 years ago

      yeah lets good

    • profile image

      Miles 5 years ago

      I use eucalyptus soap and water solution, and it works well. (Tea tree soap works too).

    • rpalulis profile image
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      rpalulis 5 years ago from NY

      Yes, if they leave any greens left for you.

    • profile image

      GirlMeetsBug 5 years ago

      Annoying as they are, they are probably edible, and likely very tasty fried up with the remains of the greens!

    • profile image

      mark 5 years ago

      im trying white vinegar in windex..... smells great

    • rpalulis profile image
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      rpalulis 5 years ago from NY

      Yvonne

      I still recommend covering your crop with floating row covers. This has seemed to work best for me. It keeps the little white moths from landing on your crop and laying their eggs which is where the little green worms come from.

      The fabric is not the prettiest things to look at in the garden but it does keep pest and insects off precious crops.

    • profile image

      Yvonne 5 years ago

      I planted strawberries, onions, tomatoes, and garlic near my broccoli, and brussel sprouts but, still have a large infestation of the cabbage worms. I did try a mixture of grinding up hot peppers and water mix but it didn't seem to help. I soaked my crop in salt water for 1/2 hour but still found small pin size worms. I boiled the heads in bath but still the worms clung to my beautiful crop. Frustrated and ready to try anything...

    • rpalulis profile image
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      rpalulis 5 years ago from NY

      Krista

      Wow putting the worms in the blender sounds wonderful, and would be worth researching. Let us know if you do try what the results are. Thanks for sharing.

      Rob

    • profile image

      Krista 5 years ago

      My organic veggie man told me to put the worms in the blender, and then spray it back on the plants, as they apparently won't eat it. the other thing was water, molasses and soap. I have not tried either but it's worth researching.

    • rpalulis profile image
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      rpalulis 5 years ago from NY

      Sadie423- Sorry to hear of your defeat but at least your kids got a cool science experiment out of it, lol!

      Denise- wishing you the very best with the palm olive dish soap, keep on squishing those nasty cabbage worms.

      KB- So the cabbage worms got your basil- That just ain't right! I tell ya these bugs have no respect.

      My basil usually gets attacked by aphids, but this year I ordered lady bugs, like 4000 lady bugs and released them in my greenhouse, high tunnel and problem spots out in the field. I hope they eat every last one of them.

      Thanks everyone for contributing to this hub on cabbage worms by commenting. May you all have a great growing season this year!

      Rob

    • profile image

      KB 5 years ago

      I've found these guys eating my basil like chain-saws through the forest. They are eating basil plants that grew up from seedlings in a pot from last year. The fresh plant in the pot next to them is completely clean. Must have had one of those white butterflies pay a visit at the end of last season

      I brought two of them inside to see what they morph into (now I know) and they plow through basil leaves in nothing flat.

    • profile image

      Denise 5 years ago

      I am trying green palmolive dish soap, the worms seem to move faster so you can see them. habe been trying to kill everyone, squish, slat, yuk! Thanks for the hub!

    • sadie423 profile image

      sadie423 5 years ago from North Carolina

      We've had trouble over the years with these caterpillars, usually I just plant as early as possible and get my main crop of broccoli picked before they really come out to destroy the plants. One year we just gave up on them and just started bring them in to watch their lifecycle instead- my kids loved that. I read once that you can sprinkle cornmeal on the plants in the morning and they ingest it and swell and die. I never tried it...

    • rbm profile image

      rbm 5 years ago

      Good information, thanks! My husband and I have become big fans of floating row covers as well, and found it keeps the slugs and snails off our new vegetable starts. If it also helps to keep the cabbage white butterfly from laying its eggs, then there's one more reason to use it! :)

    • rpalulis profile image
      Author

      rpalulis 5 years ago from NY

      Thanks Sally keep us posted

      I also found that though not the most attractive approach but using netting or very light duty row cover like the agribon that Johnny's Select seed sell works very well keeping the white butterflies off and works great for protected your arugula from those nasty flea beetles.

    • profile image

      Sally 5 years ago

      I am particularly wanting to grow brocolli and as many othersm found the leaves almost skeletonised by the green caterpillar and consequently seen the white butterfly hovering around. I put together a concoction of cayeene pepper, normal white or black pepper, garlic I think too and laundry washing powder. There could be other ingredients and I will try to get it again but I've noticed that the white butterfly hovered but didn't land on the brocolli after I'd used it. Of course you need to keep this up front and back of the leaves and after rain too. I'll endeavour to get the proper recipe and post it.

    • kipronor profile image

      kipronor 5 years ago from Nairobi

      This one is amazing hub, if i plant other species of plants around my Cabbage the deter off the worms, Tomato plant particularly have very strong smell.

      I will see this and try to practice some of these tricks.

    • rpalulis profile image
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      rpalulis 6 years ago from NY

      Thanks Darlene Hopefully you only see these cabbage worms here on this hub and not on your food- gross!

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 6 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      I had to come back to see this hub on Natural Ways To Control Cabbage Worms, this is so fascinating to me, really great job...rate up love & peace darski

    • rpalulis profile image
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      rpalulis 6 years ago from NY

      Granny's House, so glad you have found this hub to be helpful, I hope that you never have to encounter an infestation of cabbage worm.

    • Granny's House profile image

      Granny's House 6 years ago from Older and Hopefully Wiser Time

      I have never got worms, but this will be helpful if I do. Thank you for sharing

    • rpalulis profile image
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      rpalulis 6 years ago from NY

      Thanks Katie! I hope that I do not have a cabbage worm problem like I did last year, I literally picked off hundreds of these things off my Kale.

      I too cannot wait to garden, I sowed some more seeds today, Rosemary and started the tomatoes already! My parsley, celery, basil, and peppers are already doing very well, so excited can't wait!

    • katiem2 profile image

      katiem2 6 years ago from I'm outta here

      Thank you so much for the helpful and best of all naturals ways to control cabbage worms. I'm getting all set to garden. Appreciate your gardening and natural pest control tips! :) Katie

    • rpalulis profile image
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      rpalulis 6 years ago from NY

      Martie! Thanks so much for sharing your tips on eliminating these unwanted guest. And yes finding a half a worm is definitely worse than finding a whole one in your fruit. I would love to see the Gardenia thunbergia in full bloom, sounds like a beautiful shrub.

      I too am so ready for the gardening season, I have already started all my seeds and am contemplating whether or not I want to put up another greenhouse this year.

      So glad you enjoyed this hub on the cabbage worm, I always look forward to your comments.

      Take care Martie hope your having a blessed day!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 6 years ago from South Africa

      Yuk, what an ugly, grisly worm! Do you know what is worse than finding a worm in a fruit you are eating? = Finding half a worm.

      So it is cabbage worms munching my alyssum?

      I kill worms and crickets ‘manually’ after I’ve drawn them out of their hiding places (mostly in the lawn) with soap water. I use liquid soap for dishes or even powder soap for laundry – not too much. When I have a plague I use the draining water of the washing machine... not too much and only once a week. Some plants don’t like this.

      I’ve killed (accidentally in ignorance) my Gardenia thunbergia – a South African shrub bearing large, fragrant, white flowers – with (used) coffee grounds. Well, at least now I know I can use coffee as a weed killer. Gardenia wants peat, and used tea bags, so I guess the coffee was poison.

      Thanks for this hub. Now I am really in the mood for gardening.

    • rpalulis profile image
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      rpalulis 6 years ago from NY

      Thanks prasetio30 your right things like cabbage worms do naturally feast on vegetables, it just really stinks when they take out your entire crop. Thanks for the vote!

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 6 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Good information, my friend. I know the worm always annoying the plant and made the farmer frustrated. But this is naturally happen to vegetables. Tanks for share this tips. Very useful and informative. I'll show this to my father. He love gardening too. He is planting a mustard and lettuce. Vote up.

      Love and peace,

    • rpalulis profile image
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      rpalulis 6 years ago from NY

      Thanks Pamela, yes gardening can have it's many challenges insects being one of them. Hopefully you will never have to encounter these cabbage worms. I sometime wish I had your growing season though would love to have citrus trees growing.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 6 years ago from United States

      Those worms do look gross. I haven't grown any cabbage but anything I try to grow in FL seems to get some time of insect. Our citrus trees are our one true organic crop. Thanks for an interesting hub.

    • rpalulis profile image
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      rpalulis 6 years ago from NY

      Darlene, yeah these worms are gross, nothing like breaking off a piece of broccoli or Kale for a quick snack to notice these green cabbage worms munching away.

      Cheapsk8chick, yep disgusting is right! I like what you call them better,"those disgusting dang green worms!) I had forgot about the Murphy's oil soap spray, I did try that as well last year too and it did seem to help a little, but my kale was so infested. This year is going to be an all out WAR! Thanks for sharing

    • cheapsk8chick profile image

      cheapsk8chick 6 years ago

      These worms are so disgusting! I had no idea what they were and they infested my broccoli three years ago. I would wash and wash, and still some would be in there when I cooked my broccoli! The only way I found to get rid of them was by spraying the plants with a mixture of water and Murphy's Oil Soap. I still had a few plants that the spray did not help at all, but it did keep the butterflies from laying eggs and the worms from coming over to the other plants. Great hub, I never did know what those things were called! (We called them "those disgusting dang green worms!)

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 6 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      Wow, I never even knew about this gross worms, and I love cabbage, I think I will boil a few more minutes. This is such a wise hub, full of fact for great research. Love this hub and I rate you up up love & peace darski