The Q&A Archives: Chewing damage on stems of garden seedlings

Question: Some garden pest has been girdling the stems of our vegetable seedlings in the ground. The damage starts a little way up the main stem of the seedling. Then the outer stem surface is stripped off all around the stem of the seedling for some distance. We have our garden fenced in all around and on top with chicken wire. Also wood boards all around the bottom of the garden. We have not seen bugs or caterpillars, etc. in the garden so far. Things such as insecticidal soap and neem oil do not seem to help. Nylon net around plants does not prevent the damage. Cheesecloth has helped some other plants in the garden. Do you think this damage is done by caterpillars or something else? How should it be controlled? It destroys the seedlings sooner or later when it happens. (My pepper plant seeds did eventually sprout. Was a very chilly spring in San Diego here -( previous question). The only thing we have seen in the garden, in the daytime at least, is lizards which our nurseryman says do not eat plants at all.

Answer: What you describe sounds like the work of cutworms. These grublike critters live in the soil and emerge overnight, curl themselves around a tender plant stem and chew their way through. You can keep that from happening by placing paper collars around your new seedlings (a 2-inch length of the cardboard tube of a papertowel roll works well). You can cut it long ways, place it around your seedling, burying it a half inch or so in the soil so it will stay in place. Or, you can surround the stem with a few toothpicks. Anything that will keep the cutworms from curling around the stem will work. Once the seedlings are up and growing, cutworms shouldn't cause so much damage.

You can also use Bacillus thuringiensis (Bactur, Dipel, SOK-BT, Thuricide). Follow label directions and you should be able to rid your garden of cutworms.

Best wishes with your veggies!

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