How to Get Rid of Broccoli Worms in Organic Broccoli, Cauliflower, & Cabbage
If you grow broccoli organically you’ve encountered broccoli worms at some time in your gardening career. If you buy organic broccoli at the farmer’s market you might even find them hiding among the flowers. But broccoli worms don’t need to turn you off broccoli forever. There are a few things you can do in the garden to prevent cabbage butterflies from infesting your food with their offspring. But if all else fails, here’s how to make sure you don’t serve broccoli worms with dinner.
My kids are pretty squeamish about eating bugs. That has sometimes meant that they are totally traumatized when I serve homegrown veggies. One son has post-traumatic stress when it comes to eating broccoli — flashbacks to the day that I served him homegrown broccoli, microwaved, and he watched, in horror, as a single, sickly green broccoli worm slowly inched its way out of the “tree” on his plate. I stopped using a microwave for cooking a few years ago.
When you grow broccoli organically you get white and sulphur cabbage butterflies laying their eggs on the plants. These eat the leaves and turn into little green or yellow worms. The colour of the offspring varies depending on where you live.
You could spray with BT to kill the bugs, but that leaves a residue on the plant. You have a lot of BT already in your stomach if you have ever eaten GM food, so avoid adding more if you can. We are learning that BT isn’t as benign as was once believed. If I see a green or yellow caterpillar on a plant I hand pick it, squish it between my fingers and drop it on the soil. But with broccoli and cauliflower, the little green worms are hidden in the florets. I just harvest the broccoli and deal with the little green caterpillars after harvest.
After harvest, you can soak out the broccoli worms
To draw the “broccoli worms” out of the broccoli trees, you need to soak it in a sink of cold water to which you’ve added 1/4 cup of salt and 2 tbsp of vinegar. You will need to keep the broccoli heads submerged in the water for at least 20 minutes. Weighing them down with a plate to keep them underwater can help.
Mom-Fail with broccoli worms
Failure to take this step will result in little green worms crawling out of your broccoli and onto your plate during a meal — if you eat your broccoli cold. Or if you microwave your broccoli, the worms get a sickly green colour and crawl out of your broccoli. If you boil your broccoli till it’s bright, deep green before serving — it kills the worms and you can handpick them out of your “trees” before eating. Vegans won’t want to eat organic broccoli. Omnivores might just eat the broccoli worms and all.
Failure to take this precaution can spoil broccoli for your kids and make chemically sprayed, store-bought broccoli more desirable than homegrown. To this day, my eldest cannot eat broccoli. If only I had known then, what I know now — submerge broccoli at least 20 min and up to 1 hour in a sink of cold water to which you have added 1/4 c. of salt and 2 tbsp. of vinegar. The worms are immobilized and slide out of the broccoli.
This works for cauliflower and cabbage, too.
If you’d rather use an organic insecticide to combat the cabbage worms before harvest, there are several herbal options. Most combine natural soap (not detergent), strong-smelling herbs like hot peppers, and wormwood plus garlic.
Recipe: Herbal insecticide for broccoli worms, caterpillars (makes 1 litre)
Soak four garlic cloves for several days in one litre of cold water and then blend. This will kill ants, aphids, caterpillars and cabbage worms. A stronger brew can be made by using hot water and adding several hot peppers, ground up. If wormwood grows where you live, add a few sprigs of wormwood, too, and blend well. Once blended, add two tablespoons of grated pure soap to help the spray stick. Use spray when the solution has cooled. Spray the leaves of plants when they are young and when you see cabbage butterfly activity. Make sure you apply to the underside of leaves, as well. Reapply after rains or after watering, when you notice butterfly activity.
Wash off the solution before eating the broccoli.
An even better tip for broccoli worms!
Predatory wasps lay their eggs on the backs of cabbage butterfly larvae. When the wasp eggs hatch the predatory wasp larvae burrow into the flesh of the caterpillars and consume them. (Nature is violent!). You can encourage predatory wasps in your garden by planting dill and fennel around and in your cabbage and broccoli. Using this trick may even give you broccoli that is entirely free of cabbage moth caterpillars. And you get dill to eat, too. (You might want to Pin this tip.)
The Cabbage Butterfly, also called the White Cabbage Moth lays its eggs on broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and other plants in the Kole family. The green or yellow worms consume the leaves of the plants and hide in the tight florets and wrapped leaves of the vegetables.
Planting dill will encourage predatory moths and cut short the life span of the worms. Spraying with the organic spray will kill them on your plants. If all else fails, soaking the produce in salt and vinegar before cooking will dislodge them from the vegetables, allowing you to serve broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage without broccoli worms.
Don’t give up organic gardening because of the pests. You’ve got this.
Learn more about pest-free organic gardening from Joybilee Farm