DIRT NERD


CATERPILLAR COEXISTENCE PART 2:
A MUNCHABLE MEDICINAL

Two issues ago we talked about the bane of every earnest and well-living garden that is caterpillars. The future is now. It’s officially time to talk about coexisting with caterpillars.

To those of you who would love a simple solution to a complicated problem and do not need a thousand words to get there, I present an elegant organic remedy to your caterpillar woes: Bacillus thuringiensis, colloquially known as Bt. This pesticide is harmless to most insects, all animals, and all humans. For the most part, it only affects larval mosquitoes, wasps, and butterflies (that is to say, caterpillars). I am sure many of you would probably prefer poisoning these creatures over squishing them with your bare hands or feet or what have you—and I empathize with this approach because squeamishness—but since it is important we know what we do, I will forthwith explain how Bt kills. It enters the gut of the larval insect by ingestion, and once activated, eats holes in the creature’s stomach, causing the creature to go septic. On top of this, the caterpillar starves to death since its stomach is leaky and no longer able to digest food. So. It’s not cute, but it sure is organic! When choosing to use Bt, one should also consider the broader ecological consequences. It very well may be worth it, especially depending on the extent of your caterpillar infestation, but losing caterpillars can mean losing birds and bees and flowers and trees in ways that you possibly cannot foresee. Finally, I would recommend getting a powder version of Bt over liquid any day, every time. It’s just better.

Better still, at the end of the day, the raw power of the human hand aided by the ever-vigilant eye is the best way to kill caterpillars if you aren’t already arm deep in a world of worm infestation. It’s a visceral dance with nature, feeling the pulse of life and the power in your fingertips as you crush these pests. Sure it makes you feel like a gross monster too, but that’s half the fun, the spectrum of the human experience and all of that. It’s hands-on, it’s organic, and it satisfies. Life is messy. Sure, it’s macabre, but it’s ultimately an extremely humane alternative to drenching your garden in chemicals, and it’s an essential part of integrated pest management (IPM), a sensual ritual of holding life in the balance, between nervously trembling thumb and forefinger.

What’s this integrated pest management I speak of? At the end of the day, it’s just half-academic jargon for paying attention to the things around you and using a variety of methods to make your garden work for you. It’s about observing your ecosystem and planning your tactics accordingly. Bt may play a role in your methodology, as may popping caterpillars between fingers, but also too, you should be planting seasonally-appropriate plants and maintaining the health of your plants with nutrients, watering, mulching, and such.

“Trap gardens” are a fan favorite of the permacultural elite, wherein one plants something they know a pesky insect will enjoy so that they will focus on that crop instead of plants more desirable to the gardener. I think this is best achieved by simply leaving plants in your garden well after their prime.

One of the best ways to not have a caterpillar problem is to keep your plants’ immune systems tight and ready. Plants that get munched on the most tend to be plants that are planted at the wrong time of year, those that have already lived long lives and are ready to give up the chlorophyllic slimer green ghost, or that are not particularly generationally acclimated to their environs.

Beneficial garden creatures are not often taken into account when it comes to caterpillars, as we tend to think of small bugs eating smaller bugs (that is to say, lacewings and ladybugs eating aphids) when we think of beneficial pests. But you know who loves caterpillars? Birds. We love birds. You know who else loves caterpillars? Wasps. We hate wasps. But birds love wasps. And we love birds! Letting a few caterpillars exist in your space can vastly improve the ecosystemic diversity of your garden in exactly the way your pastorally inclined mind would desire. Alternately, attracting birds to your yard with bird feeders, planting flowers that attract insects, and yes, letting wasps live, will also help significantly to mitigate caterpillar problems.

At the end of the day, as is the way with so many gardening skills, the essence of one’s ability lies in observation. Me writing, you reading—this is nothing compared to just paying attention to your garden. When it comes to the eternal struggle with and against caterpillars, most severe damage can be prevented simply by paying attention. Look under your leaves as soon as you see damage. You might catch a colony of baby armyworms capable of ending your entire garden which you could easily get rid of with a few wiggles of a leaf. If your tomato plant is losing leaves by the hour, stare long and hard enough and you will find that terrifyingly camouflaged hornworm hiding on its stalks. Maybe it’s not a tomato but the leaves are still disappearing with alarming rapidity; check by the base of your plant and I bet you will find yourself a giant, grubby cutworm snuggled up and blending with the dirt just waiting for night to come so they may do their dirty deeds in the shadows. Your strongest tool always has been and still remains your attention, dulled as it may be by six to eight hours of daily screen time and a world evermore at war with itself and everything you hold dear. Stay paying attention and do your best to coexist.


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