Collar Your Plants Before The Cutworms Kill Them!

Here in West Michigan, it’s the height of planting season. We had a wet, cold spring this year so I’m a bit behind getting stuff in the ground. I did get my plants in pretty early though.

“Gotta get yer peas and potatoes in by Good Friday,” Grandpa Bunny used to always say. Well I didn’t quite make it. Just a week before we had quite a bit of rain. Since we live in Bear Swamp, I knew full well that tilling the garden would be very much like running a rototiller in ankle deep chocolate pudding.

So I waited a bit. Went to Weesies just before Mothers Day to buy my plants before the rush came. Around here, all the veggie plants become slim pickin’s by Memorial Day. Of course, if you let your peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes sit in those little tray thingies for very long they get root-bound. Therefore, each year I “commit sacrilege” by putting my frost sensitive plants in the ground before Memorial Day.

I love to share my adventures in the garden When I tell my friends I’ve had my peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes in the ground for almost three weeks, their eyes get big and they shake their heads and say things like: “Aren’t you worried about frost??” “I thought you weren’t supposed to put anything like that in until after Memorial Day!!” I reassure them that it’s very OK so long as you have enough “hot caps” to cover each one if there’s a danger of frost.

“Hot caps??” they ask quizzically. “Yeah, you know, buckets,” I explain. “Keep them handy so you can put them upside down over the plant before you go to bed. That way when the frost comes they don’t get killed. But make sure you take them off first thing in the morning or your plants will get roasted inside those things.” They’ll say “OOoohh…” but I can sense they are wondering whether I’m OK in the noodle or not. Of course when they hear I went to Dollar General and spent $50 on buckets they may really think I’m nuts (at least they were made in the U.S.!!). Seven buckets at $1.75 each and 13 waste baskets at $2.25 apiece. The guy at Dollar General said, “you must have a lot of trash!!”

Hot caps or no, there’s nothing quite so unnerving as carefully planting your baby tomatoes, etc. and waking up the next day to find a decapitated stem with its head lying next to it. It’s happened to me… but only once. The stupid pest didn’t even have the decency to eat the leaves that fell to the ground!! Here’s a picture of the culprit:

It’s called a cutworm. It’s not a worm at all, but a caterpillar; and after it devours the stalk of your baby plant it curls up just under the soil and takes a nap. Then off it goes later to search for another unsuspecting plant stalk.

The simplest way to prevent damage from cutworms is to install a cutworm collar when you plant. I learned about cutworm collars after one of my babies got decapitated many seasons ago, and I’ve been using them ever since. Very easy to make. I’ve tried paper drinking cups, but they often have plastic inside or are coated with wax, and I want something that will return itself to the soil after the danger of cutworms is gone. My new magical material is… drumroll… toilet paper tubes!! Yes!! I start collecting them in the winter and have more than enough by spring. I simply flatten the tube and cut slits about halfway up the roll.

Then I carefully prepare the seedling. For tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, I trim most of the leaves off the stalk and bury the seedling “up to its neck in dirt.” All of these plants are members of the nightshade family, so they will grow roots out of the stem if it’s in the soil (makes for a very good root system). Slide the paper tube over the plant and press it into the soil and cover with some dirt so the wind won’t blow it away, while making sure the leaves of the plant are above the top of the tube as shown.

Well, enough of that. This week’s video has absolutely nothing to do with cutworms. I’ve never grown Black Eyed Peas, but in my professional opinion, this video of theirs is a lot of fun.

So there.