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How to Recognize and Manage Cabbage Worms in Your Garden

Britney has a B.A. in Environmental Management and Sustainability. Cassie is certified in plant-based nutrition.

Cabbage worms hand-picked from our kale.

Cabbage worms hand-picked from our kale.

Do You Have Holes in Your Kale (and Other Veggies)?

Walking up to your garden and finding that your kale and other greens have hundreds of holes in them is a horrible experience! Don't make the mistake of assuming the damage was caused by a now-disappeared bug. If you look closely, you'll most likely find a little, velvety, green worm. Don't be fooled by its cuteness! It is actually wreaking havoc on your garden. And chances are, if you see one, there are many more throughout. These little guys are cabbage worms.

Cabbage worms are very common garden pests and are usually found munching on cabbage, kale, broccoli, and several other vegetables within the cabbage family. They do a great job of blending right into whatever vegetable they admire most in your garden, so they are actually very hard to notice at first. It is not too concerning to see a hole or two in your leaves, but if left untouched, they can completely consume entire plants in no time, leaving only stems behind.

White cabbage moth.

White cabbage moth.

Where Do Cabbage Worms Come From?

The white butterfly above may look harmless and innocent when really it is the parent of your destructive cabbage worms! When the female white caterpillar butterfly is ready to lay her eggs, she will try to find any cruciferous plants that are available (i.e., cabbage, broccoli, kale, etc.). She will then deposit her eggs on the underside of the leaves where they will eventually hatch into little baby cabbage worms two to three weeks later.

These butterflies are extremely common in the United States, and you are able to easily identify them by their white wings. We have seen so many of these white cabbage butterflies all around our garden this year. Little did we know, they were most likely laying eggs on any cruciferous vegetable it could find. We just recently found these worms on our kale, but have yet to see them on any of our cabbage or mustard!

A cabbage worm enjoying some kale.

A cabbage worm enjoying some kale.

Natural Ways to Control Cabbage Worms

While there are many pesticides that could easily control cabbage worms, your best bet is to use an organic method for the safety of yourself and your plants. Pesticides are not recommended because they will quickly contaminate your soil, grass, and other surrounding plants. Worst of all, they can be seriously dangerous to humans and pets, seeing as they are ultimately a form of poison. Organic methods are highly recommended and will keep your garden in great shape year after year.

Here are the methods that we use to combat cabbage worms and other detrimental insects in the garden.

  • Install a floating row cover as soon as you plant your kale. Be sure to install this row cover securely so that there is no possible way for a cabbage moth to find its way in. We have even gone as far as creating a removable wooden frame and using a staple gun to staple the edges of the row cover to the frame. We are happy to report that this method actually worked great, and it is something we will do again next year.
  • Create your own insect repellent concoction out of 1 small bulb of garlic, 1 small onion, 1 tsp of cayenne pepper, 1 tsp of peppercorn, and water. They do not like this at all! This is a great method because usually everyone has these items handy. Just mix these ingredients up in a large spray bottle (any large size will work), and spray away! Make sure that you are spraying the underside of your leaves too, as insects tend to lay their eggs there. Once you are done spraying just store it somewhere cool until you need to use it again.
  • Buy some bacillus thuringiensis (BT) or diatomaceous earth. Its name might sound scary, but all it does is paralyze the insect so that it can no longer eat, causing it to eventually die. This is our go-to, especially if we do not want to go through the hassle of installing a row cover. Not only can you use this on your kale and cabbage, but it is great at combating squash bugs and cucumber beetles! This is a must-have, easy solution for year-round pest control. We added a link to the type of diatomaceous earth we use below!

Will You Remember This Next Year?

One of the most important things we could recommend to any gardener (whether you are just a beginner or a seasoned veteran) would be to keep a garden journal. We just started our garden journal this year, and we can honestly say it is going to be great to be able to look back at all of our notes when this time comes next year. This journal will give us reminders for every important technique we have used, as well as the techniques that we will never use again!

For example, it will remind us to put on our floating row cover so that we will not have an issue with cabbage worms and to also make sure that that same row cover is secure enough so as to not let any cabbage moths enter to lay eggs. Trust us, it is worth it to have a little reminder so that you are able to enjoy your cruciferous greens and other delicious vegetables all season long.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.