What to Do When Bugs Are Eating Your Cabbage Plants in the Garden

Holes on leaves, veins chewed through and plants gnawed from the ground up are not what you planned on when you planted cabbage (Brassica oleracea). Something's been feasting on the fruits of your labors, and you want it to stop. Unfortunately, a whole rogue's gallery of caterpillars and insects can infest these annual vegetables. By properly identifying these pests and using the right techniques to control them, you can take your cabbage off their menu.

Single Cabbage
credit: natbits/iStock/Getty Images
Cabbage growing in a garden.

Crawly Cabbage Pests

The first sign of the cabbageworm is small, innocuous-looking white butterflies. The cabbageworm larvae is a green caterpillar that leaves gaping holes on outer cabbage leaves. Another destructive pest, the cabbage looper, is named for the looping way it moves. Looper larvae leave sharp-edged but irregular little holes as they feed between the leaf veins. Adults are grayish-brown moths that lay eggs -- ridged, white and round -- singly on leaf undersides. Cutworms, which look like grayish or brownish grubs, cause serious damage to cabbage stems and foliage. They can be found close to the soil, feeding on developing cabbage heads.

Other Insect Invaders

Flea beetles -- so called because they jump when disturbed -- leave sharp-edged, tiny round holes on cabbage. If uncontrolled, they can kill your cabbage plants. Flea beetles can be difficult to control once established, so plan your attack in advance and watch for their arrival. Cabbage aphids are pale-green like other aphids, but they exhibit a grayish, waxy coat. They normally infest the undersides of cabbage plants. Aphids cause curling, wrinkled leaves, stunted plants and ruined cabbage heads.

Manual Pest Control

Stop cabbageworms and loopers by picking them off by hand. Squash them or drop them in a bucket of soapy water. Control cutworms with a physical barrier by placing a 3-inch-high cardboard collar around each cabbage plant, pushed down 1 inch into the soil. Hand-pick cutworms that bypass barriers. Control aphids by releasing beneficial lady beetles or spraying the cabbage with forceful jets of water. Aluminum foil placed under cabbage reflects sunlight upward creating a habitat unattractive to aphids. Floating row covers -- sheets of translucent, spun-fiber material -- create a barrier against all insects.

Pesticidal Intervention

If manual methods aren't sufficient, turn to natural pesticides. Control flea beetles by mixing 2 to 4 tablespoons of neem oil concentrate with 1 gallon of water and spraying cabbage thoroughly. Control cabbage loopers, cabbageworms, cutworms and aphids with ready-to-use insecticidal soap. Spray thoroughly so soap contacts the pests. For crawly critters, use the bacterial insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Mix 1 to 3 teaspoons of Bt concentrate with 1 gallon of water, and spray leaves thoroughly. Worms die after eating treated foliage. These sprays can all be applied up to the day of cabbage harvest, but note that Bt doesn't distinguish between unwanted worms and butterfly caterpillars. Wear gloves, protective clothing and safety eyewear when you spray.