Cutworms: Identifying and Getting Rid of Cutworms

Cutworms are caterpillars that can cause significant damage to vegetable and flower gardens. As their name implies, they “cut” plants off at the stem, destroying seedlings and transplants overnight. Identifying cutworm damage is the first step in getting rid of these destructive pests.

Identifying Cutworm Damage

Cutworms feed at night and hide in the soil during the day. They will chew through stems of young plants, leaving them wilted, severed, or completely missing. Look for the following signs of cutworms:

  • Plants that appear cleanly cut off at soil level, usually seedlings or transplants
  • Wilted, dropped, or missing plants with no obvious cause
  • Plants that can be easily pulled from the ground due to severed stems
  • Damaged plants surrounded by small holes in the soil surface
  • Clawed, curled leaves or stems, leaving ragged edges
  • Cutworm caterpillars up to 2 inches long hiding near plants or in soil during day

Common Cutworm Species

There are several species of cutworms that damage gardens:

Black cutworm

  • Dark gray to black in color
  • Up to 1.5 inches long when mature
  • Attacks corn, tomatoes, peppers, cole crops and other vegetables

Variegated cutworm

  • Brownish-gray with yellowish stripes
  • Up to 1.5 inches long when mature
  • Feeds on a wide variety of vegetables and flowers

Claybacked cutworm

  • Pale brown to gray with dark diamond shape on back
  • Up to 1.5 inches long when mature
  • Attacks tomatoes, corn, cabbage, lettuce and other crops

Dingy cutworm

  • Dull brown coloring with faint stripes
  • Up to 1 inch long when mature
  • Feeds on lettuce, corn, cole crops, potatoes and other plants

Preventing Cutworm Damage

Here are some tips to avoid cutworm problems in the garden:

  • Remove weeds, which serve as an alternate food source
  • Till soil 2-3 weeks before planting to disrupt cutworm life cycles
  • Encourage natural predators like birds, spiders, and ground beetles
  • Use cardboard collars, aluminum foil, or other barriers around seedlings
  • Apply parasitic nematodes to soil before planting
  • Use floating row covers over plants
  • Sprinkle diatomaceous earth around base of plants

Getting Rid of Cutworms

If cutworm damage occurs, take action right away to get rid of the pests:

Handpick worms – Check around damaged plants in the morning and pick off any cutworms hiding in soil or near the bases of plants. Drop in soapy water to kill.

Use pheromone traps – These traps attract and drown male cutworm moths, preventing mating and reducing next generation’s numbers.

Apply beneficial nematodes – These microscopic worms kill cutworms but are safe for plants and pollinators. Apply to soil early in season.

Use Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) – This natural bacterium kills caterpillars when they ingest it but is safe for other organisms. Spray on plants.

Encourage natural predators – Ground beetles, spiders, ants, and birds all prey on cutworms. Avoid pesticides that would harm them.

Protect young plants – Shield seedlings and transplants with cardboard collars pushed into the ground. This prevents cutworms from severing stems.

Weed regularly – Eliminate weedy hiding places around gardens that serve as refuges for cutworms.

Solarize the soil – Cover garden beds with plastic in hot summer sun for a few weeks to heat soil and kill larvae.

With persistence and a multi-pronged approach, cutworms can be successfully managed in the home garden. Be vigilant for the first signs of damage and take quick action to protect plants and eliminate the hungry caterpillars. With proper identification and control methods, cutworms won’t stand a chance against your garden!

Frequently Asked Questions About Cutworms

What are cutworms?

Cutworms are the caterpillar or larval stage of various moth species in the Noctuidae family. The cylindrical, plump worms can grow over 1 inch long and come in a variety of colors like gray, brown, black or striped. They hide in soil by day and climb up to feed on young shoots and leaves by night.

What plants do cutworms attack?

Cutworms feed on a wide range of vegetables, fruits, and ornamentals. Some of their favorite targets include: tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, corn, cabbage, beans, peas, squash, berries, and young transplants.

How do I know if I have cutworms?

Look for young plants that appear severed at the soil line or completely missing. Also look for curled, ragged leaves, small holes in the ground, and the caterpillars themselves hiding in soil near damaged plants.

When are cutworms most active?

Cutworms do their damage overnight and spend the days hidden underground. Check for the caterpillars around plant bases in the mornings. Their peak feeding time is spring through mid-summer.

How do I get rid of cutworms organically?

Natural ways to control cutworms include hand-picking, applying Bt spray, encouraging natural predators like birds and ground beetles, using pheromone traps, and spreading diatomaceous earth around plants.

Are cutworms harmful to humans or pets?

No, cutworms do not bite or sting and are not toxic if ingested. They are simply a nuisance pest for gardens. Their caterpillars can do extensive damage to plants but are not considered dangerous to humans.

What is the best way to prevent cutworm damage?

Preventive tactics like crop rotation, removing weeds/debris, tilling soil, applying nematodes early on, and protecting transplants with collars or barriers can greatly reduce cutworm problems before they start.

Will cutworms eventually go away on their own?

Cutworms are unlikely to disappear unless their food sources are removed and preventive measures taken. The moths can lay hundreds of eggs so the caterpillar population can multiply quickly. Be proactive to avoid ongoing issues.

What is the best chemical treatment for severe cutworm infestations?

For heavy cutworm damage, fast-acting insecticides containing permethrin, bifenthrin or carbaryl can be used sparingly as a last resort. Take care to prevent harm to beneficial insects like bees. Always follow label directions.


Cutworms can quickly decimate gardens if left unchecked. Identifying the common species, their signs of damage, and understanding their feeding patterns are key in getting a handle on them. Combining preventive measures with organic treatments like Bt and handpicking can help eliminate cutworms and protect plants from further harm. Being vigilant in scouting for the caterpillars and taking swift action at the first signs of damage will help avoid disastrous losses to these sneaky pests. With persistence and consistency using multiple control methods, cutworms can be successfully managed each season.