It was a strange feeling when I passed them both by in the plant nursery and I overheard her saying to him, “I really wish we could have these but we always get those darn caterpillar bugs.”
She was of course wistfully looking at (and holding) the trailing cascade of color from all the different colors of petunias and calibrachoas (among other plants) in a beautiful hanging basket. My curiosity had me glance at their choices of other plants on their wagon that had apparently passed the rigid restrictions that this caterpillar imposed on their garden. It was all variations of the color green.
Apparently this “bug”didn’t like that color as much as the others.
Unfortunately I understood and empathized with the garden couple’s angst. The caterpillar in question is called by various names: The tobacco budworm, the geranium budworm or quite officially at cocktail parties of entomologists: Heliothis virescens.
It isn’t technically a “bug” either but rather from the varied Order of Lepidoptera which includes caterpillars, Moths and Butterflies. (Just in case you were ever caught in a conversation at that particular cocktail party.)
I met my first budworm well over 30 years ago and back then it was more of a curiosity than a pest. Yes, it attacked on rare occasion a geranium basket but other than literally pulling off a caterpillar or two it was usually during an extra hot summer and just in a pocket or two around Portland metro. It was really something that came up for a quick visit from the warm south. I say that politely. I meant Southern California.
But oh my, have times changed.
Perhaps its our mild enough winters but it now hibernates comfortably as “pupae” in our soil and when spring becomes consistently warm enough the brownish, whitish moths emerge. These fly for around for a bit and then, with amazing accuracy find their favorite geraniums, petunias, nicotiana, brugmansias (amongst other colorful plants) and conveniently lay their single eggs. Now, nearly 100 percent of summers, those plants are yours.
Life is all good and well for everyone involved until those eggs hatch into very tiny caterpillars. And its those caterpillars that can do the most damage. They instinctively bore holes right into the emerging buds of the flowers and initially, we might recognize this as an odd “BB hole” into an occasional bloom.
But those budworms grow and eat until quite noticeably, your hanging basket no longer has any color. Any blooms remaining often show as mere skeletons of their former happy selves.
For the record: I’m not into complete annihilation of any garden pest, even one so destructive as the budworm. Rather, I think we can creatively coexistand even more importantly, with the most minimal of effort(at least on my part) I’ve figured a path forward.
As in sports, I liken it to a “zone defense” in the garden. I just have to keep the budworms at bay on the containers and baskets that I’d like to keep my color. Old fashioned geraniums? Yes I can! New, high fashion trailing petunias? Yes! Exotic Angels Trumpets? Of course!
The easiest, most effective way? Here’s the bonus kicker: It’s completely earth-friendly (it uses a natural occuring bacterium) and human friendly and even ok to spray on things like edible cabbage. (Not technically budworm but their second cousin which do like cabbage of all things too.) The remedy is called “Budworm Terminate”
Spray it on the green foliage as well as the blooms during an evening once per month (think of spraying like you would a hairspray). Woola! It works quickly during the budworm’s meal and within 2 days they’ll eventually freeze in place or fall completely to the ground. (Finding budworm on the ground after spraying is a sport on itself.)
Incidentally, Budworm Terminate won’t discolor blooms so it can be applied during an early outbreak of budworm. The quicker the treatment the faster the recovery.
In a way, that’s the wonderfully bright future of gardening. Happily (and smartly) coexisting amongst the flowers as well as the insects. Each side, giving and taking a little.
Jonn Karsseboom gardens and then questions and then likes to develop new hacks for the garden too. Reach him anytime at [email protected]