Garden Pests: The Tomato Cutworm

I have grown gardens in four different locations in Oregon, each over 50 miles from the others. Our home in Seaside is my fifth location.

I was pretty confident in my gardening prowess until one morning I came out to gaze upon my newly transplanted tomato starts and five of them had no leaves.

A brief Internet search concluded that my garden had been ravaged by early tomato cutworms. These malicious little beasties that come out at night to literally cut your tomato starts to the ground. If you go out at night you can catch them in the act, they look like pudgy caterpillars usually in pale green or shades of brown. There are also cutworms that target the plants after they have started bearing fruit, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Hopefully we won’t get to it.

The sadistic little worms left just one leaf on this plant.

Now, I’m not one to use pesticides haphazardly, but these creatures posed a threat I could not overlook. The year prior had yielded a sub-par tomato harvest and spending the winter buying store tomatoes instead of using homegrown, home canned goods, nearly killed me. However, it seemed there was a few alternatives I could try before I went to chemical warfare.

The first line of defense: tomato collars. This is basically just putting up some barrier around the tomato starts that the cutworms won’t crawl over. Different sources advise using cardboard, foil, tin cans, aluminum cans, or even plastic. I immediately set to work cutting out cardboard collars for my remaining plants, thanking the heavens I started more plants than I really wanted.

The most simple one I saw was cutting a section of cardboard in a square or circle. I cut squares approximately 5-6 inches long on each side. Then cutting a straight line halfway into the shape, you cut a small circle, just bigger than the plant’s stem. This can be opened and slid around each start.

A great use for junk mail to boot.

Another method was using cardboard tubes from paper towels or toilet paper. Cut sections of the tube just short enough to be below the lowest set of leaves. Then cut straight down the tube. This can be opened and placed around the stem of each plant, pushing the tube into the dirt to secure it closed.

I also cut the ends off a pop can and put this around one plant that had already been chewed on a bit. It was just a test really, I thought this plant wouldn’t come back from the damage it had undergone (spoiler: it came back with two tops but is filling out nicely and has blossoms!).

The plant was mutilated prior to placing the collar, however no more damage has occurred since then.

It’s been about a month since I placed the collars, and so far they have been working. I try to check them every day to make sure they stay intact. One collar came off a plant recently that’s about 8-10 inches tall and it has not been attacked, perhaps it’s past the most fragile stage?

My favorite of the few types I tried are the flat cardboard pieces, they are the most secure and easiest to make. They do make it harder to water the plants, but they keep the weeds down and keep the ground moist longer than if the plants had nothing. If I were to use the cardboard tubes again I would want to figure out a way to keep them closed better as when they get wet they tend to want to unfurl, leaving the precious plants unguarded. The pop can is definitely the most sturdy, but the edges are rather sharp and could hurt the plant if it rubs up against them; it was also took the longest to make (and made me cringe while I used scissors to cut the can).

Because the collars worked so well, I did not have to proceed to other methods. Some alternatives that I didn’t try but have heard work well include sprinkling corn meal around the plants, as apparently this is toxic to the worms and they will eat it before getting to your plants. Placing Popsicle sticks on either side of the stems, which is the same idea as the collars but they also can support the plants a bit more. I have also seen beneficial predatory nematodes (microscopic worms) for sale that will do the dirty work for you, attacking soft bodied garden pests and protecting your plants.

I have found a worm or two, and it is immensely satisfying to toss them into the chickens’ run and see the girls run around with their tasty little treasures.

The Dirt on Potato Towers

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This is the chronicle of my trial with potato towers this year. I am by no means an expert, and there were many things I know I could improve on, so this will hopefully get you started in the right direction for success!

I saw this idea come across Pinterest and was very interested in it. When I was a child, my parents once planted purple potatoes in our small family garden. Without fail, year after year, we would find several “volunteer” plants that came up from potatoes we missed harvesting. It wasn’t necessarily a bad problem to have, but somewhat irritating nonetheless.

I decided to attempt the potato tower to help ease this issue in my garden. Growing potatoes in a specially set aside column of soil would prevent errant potatoes from colonizing. I also like that you can specially designate the soil for the potatoes so it doesn’t strip your other garden soil of nutrients in a particular area. Then you can sprinkle the used soil throughout the garden or keep it saved and just amend it again next year.

Materials
Poultry netting (smaller holes are better!)
Gloves
Wire cutters
Straw
Soil
Seed potatoes
First, I built the towers out of poultry netting. Cut a strip of netting as big as you want your tower to be. I found mine were a little too big, the potatoes didn’t seem set tubers too far from the edge of the tower, so there was a bit of wasted space. Take the ends of the wire and twist them together to make a secure attachment and turn the netting into a tube.

I included a bottom on my towers as the vole situation in my area is a little outrageous and I knew they would go for the helpless tasty tubers. I wasn’t sure if they would squeeze through the holes, but tried it anyway and didn’t see any evidence of critters.

I recommend a sharp pair of wire cutters and some poke-resistant gloves to help prevent scratches as the netting has a strong tendency to roll up on you.

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The soil in the garden I was using is a very heavy clay, which is great for nutrients but horrible for giving potatoes room to grow and breathe. I combined a few different types of soil and amendments, including potting soil and steer manure, to make a nutrient rich soil with good drainage. Most of the bags I used were left over from other projects. I mixed them all in a large wheelbarrow with about 1/3 of the mix being the native clay soil.

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And yes, the folks at the feed store get a good chuckle loading my farm rig. It’s always covered in hay and straw.

Take your time when deciding where to put your potato tower, try to give it as much sun as possible from the most angles possible because the potatoes will be spread around the tower.

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When you’ve decided where to put your tower, it’s time to start assembling! Take your straw and put about a loosely packed 2 inch border around the inside edge. Try to use the least amount of straw possible, but enough to keep the soil from falling out of the wire. We want the sun the be able to reach the potatoes!

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Cut the seed potatoes to include at least two eyes per piece. I did this a day or two before planting, as many sources recommend. Place the pieces around the potato tower, then cover with about 6 inches of soil and place another layer. I alternated placement so no potato had another one right above it on the next layer. On the top layer of potatoes, put a nice piece in the middle of the tower. Cover the top with about 3-4 inches of soil.

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Water the tower well, be sure to get all of the sides where the potatoes have been placed. As the potatoes grow, heap more soil on top to encourage more tubers to grow on the top plants. Keep the tower damp, but not overly wet.

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Now the waiting begins! I checked the towers a little compulsively for the first few weeks looking for any sign of growth. They did finally poke through some places along the tower edge!

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And everything in my garden turned into a jungle this year. With moving to our new house my garden suffered severe neglect, but the potatoes didn’t seem to mind that much.

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Harvest when the plants die back. I harvested by tipping the towers on their sides and rummaging through the soil to expose the potatoes. When it got harder to move the soil, I pushed on the tower with my foot to loosen it. You can also get the bottom potatoes from the bottom of the tower by removing the piece of netting there, mine just fell off so it was easy.

Overall, I was pretty happy with my towers. I hardly looked at mine once they started growing. They got watered maybe three times by me, then only by the mercy of Mother Nature. Unless they get more attention, I wouldn’t recommend Russets for towers. Mine didn’t get as big as I would’ve liked, but hey they could work for you! The red potatoes were plenty usable, so with a little more TLC from me next year it could work even better!

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So all in all, were the potato towers more efficient that growing straight in the ground? Maybe. The voles didn’t get to them so I didn’t have any loss. For how many cubic feet of soil I used, the potato yield was probably pretty average or maybe on the low end, but my input as far as care went was bare bones.

Would I try them again? Yes! They had decent yields, so I am happy on that front. I really liked being able to just tip the towers over to harvest versus digging and accidentally slicing through the tubers. I also liked being able to water one tower opposed to a long row. Next year, with more care, I should be able to get the towers perfected!

2016 Seed Starting

Less than eight weeks to our last frost- let the wild rumpus start!

Growing up, we always bought starts of my favorite garden vegetables from nurseries. I have found that starting seeds is not nearly as hard as you might think, and it’s very rewarding.

First off, some important lingo. Your last average frost date is the keystone of timing for your garden. Ours is May 10th. The first thing I do around February is mark out eight, six, and four weeks prior to the last frost date. These are the normal intervals that seed packets instruct you to start seeds at.

Eight weeks to our last frost was March 15th
Eight weeks to our last frost was March 15th

That being said, some plants hate being transplanted and aren’t well suited to being started indoors. Some of these plants include cucumbers, beans, and cilantro.

Other veggies, like carrots, kale, snow peas, and beets can be planted well before your last frost date, so what’s the point in taking up space to start them?

I missed my eight week mark and just started my peppers and tomatoes with six weeks until our last frost date. This year I’m planning to go big or go home on canning. I’ve used up pretty much all of the tomatoes and salsa that I canned last summer, so I definitely need to expand. My staples for these recipes are jalapeños and roma tomatoes so I tripled the number of seeds I’m starting for those varieties.

I’m also starting sungold tomatoes (from seeds I saved last year), yellow pear tomatoes, grape tomatoes, ground cherries (aka husk tomatoes), gatherer’s gold peppers, italian sweet peppers, red belt peppers, three types of eggplants (Nadia, Beatrice, and Bianca Rosa), and just for laughs- pansies.

My peppers and tomatoes
My peppers and tomatoes

In addition to my plastic flat, I’m starting more romas, jalapeños, and red belt peppers in biodegradable pots to see if that helps. With this method, you don’t disturb the roots when you plant, as the roots can grow through it. I think the disturbance of the roots was a big contributor to why my peppers did so poorly last year. I set these little pots in a disposable aluminum cake pan that had a plastic lid, and it works perfectly.

When I first started to grow my own vegetable plants from seeds, I had no lamp and no heat pad. It is doable! But it is much easier to invest a few bucks on equipment, it makes things much easier. I ask for these kinds of things for my birthday and holidays. I have a big grow light on a timer, that is on for 12 hours a day, and a little heat pad that fits right under a standard seed-starting flat (tomatoes and peppers like being warm!). You should try not to put the heat pad on carpet. I have no alternatives and have done extensive testing with my model. I also use regular potting soil to start my seeds in, and I have never really had any problems with it.

Getting read to sow!
Getting read to sow on my tiny apartment patio!

Another trick if you’re starting a number of varieties is my method for labeling who’s who. You can buy the white plant labels for around $3 from most stores with a garden department. I always cut up a plastic yogurt carton, or this year a large, plastic fast-food drink cup. It’s so cheap and the results are the same!

Large plastic cup prepared to do work
Large plastic cup prepared to do work
Cut it into a single flat sheet, then into strips
Cut it into a single flat sheet, then into strips
Label plastic markers with simple and easy to recognize names
Label plastic markers with simple and easy to recognize names, make sure they fit under your start tray’s lid!

When you’re planting your seeds, make sure to follow the seed packet instructions! The people who grew the seeds know what they like, and following their instructions will help your chances of having a good germination rate. Near all of my peppers and tomatoes like being planted at 1/4 of an inch deep. I usually fill each cell up about 3/4 of the way and water that soil. Then, I plop my seeds in, label which group is what variety, and sprinkle 1/4 inch of soil on top of them. Heavy watering at this point can dislodge your seeds and make them float to the top, so I usually get a fine mister and wet the top of the soil.

Ground cherry seeds, so tiny!
Ground cherry seeds
Roma tomato seeds
Roma tomato seeds
Jalapeño pepper seeds
Jalapeño pepper seeds

 

 

 

When the soil starts drying out I add water to the bottom of the flat instead of watering from the top. Also I keep the clear plastic lid on the flat until most of the seedlings have gotten a couple “true leaves”, mostly because my cat is a seedling murderer and will lay on them.

My set-up
My set-up

I also keep a Garden Diary where I keep track of when I started seeds and planted vegetables. Mine goes back through about four years now, starting with my experiences in my backyard in Corvallis.

Don’t be daunted by starting your own seeds! The value is amazing and it is easier than you think. I’m still learning too!