You might struggle to get your kids to eat wholesome, nutrient-packed broccoli, but unfortunately, the tiny critters of the garden need no such encouragement. Broccoli, along with the rest of the brassica family, are a firm favorite for caterpillars, bugs, and all manner of insects.
In this article, we’re taking a closer look at how to identify common pests you’re likely to find eating your broccoli. We’ll also look at solutions for handling each species. As well as some more general preventative tips for making your broccoli less desirable and less accessible to hungry bugs.
The most common pests eating your broccoli crop are various forms of caterpillar, including cabbage moths, diamondbacks, and loopers. Aphids, cutworms and flea beetles also feed on broccoli.
In order to deal with these pests, a combination of removing by hand, using row covers, and treating your broccoli plants with environmentally friendly sprays can often work to reduce or even eliminate the harm caused by voracious visitors.
Let’s find out more.
Cabbage Moths Are Eating Your Broccoli
This is probably the most infamous of the broccoli munchers and an all-around Cole plant nibbler. Cabbage moths are in fact a form of butterfly, usually with small brown wings and tender white markings. Some of the adult ‘moths’ are actually very pretty!
Unfortunately, their larvae and the resultant caterpillars are hungry babies. After the flying adults have laid their eggs on the underside of broccoli leaves, they will start making their way through the leaves themselves before eventually reaching the broccoli floret heads.
Some gardeners also report issues with the cross-striped cabbage worm, so called for its distinctive striped pattern. The upside for you as a gardener is that this particular species is a bit easier to spot against the broccoli leaf. Which is fortunate because the best way to deal with these guys is to remove them by hand.
Inspect the underside of broccoli leaves regularly and remove any larvae, caterpillars, or moths by hand. You can drop them into hot or soapy water to dispose of them, or opt for the slightly more gruesome but equally effective ‘pluck and crush’ technique.
For those who’d rather deter than destroy, floating row covers can be a good way of keeping moths, butterflies and other larvae laying species off your broccoli before you’re forced to evict them yourself.
Diamondback Moth Caterpillars Are Eating Your Broccoli
Another hungry caterpillar ready to gorge on your broccoli, this particular variety is distinctive because of the pointy tips on either end, distinguishing it from other grubs that you might find. They will often go for the broccoli leaves whilst leaving the ribs, or stems, alone.
The holes they leave are often jagged-edged and irregular. They can also cause ‘window-pane’ like holes, where the edges of certain sections of the leaf will appear shorn away. As if someone had thrown a stone through a pane of glass!
Another distinguishing feature of these common broccoli pests is the way in which they descend from small silken threads when disturbed.
Once you’ve identified diamondback moth caterpillars, you can try to remove them by hand or opt for applying neem oil to try to prevent and deter.
Diamondback moths and their larvae have been reported as being unphased by some biological pesticides. So you might want to go for a more ecosystem-based defense strategy.
Stingless, parasitic wasps are often a healthy addition to the garden that feeds off the caterpillar grub population. Several species, entirely harmless to humans, can be sourced commercially before being introduced into your own local biosphere.
Cabbage Looper Are Eating Your Broccoli
Cabbage looper, also called cankerworm or inchworm, is so-called because of the circular looping shape it makes as it shuffles along. To the naked eye, they appear as green caterpillars.
They’re hungry little pests and won’t usually stop at the broccoli leaf. If given the chance their appetites will lead them onwards to the florets and broccoli stalk.
Fortunately for gardeners, loopers are often quite easy to spot given their larger size. Your best bet for keeping loopers off your broccoli is simply picking them off by hand. They’ll often lay their eggs in rows on the underside of leaves, so make sure to check for those if you see bigger grubs.
Aphids Are Eating Your Broccoli
These tiny, soft-bodied, and swiftly multiplying bugs will turn their hungry attention upon your broccoli just as readily as any other vegetable crop in your garden.
Aphids usually gather en masse on the underside of broccoli leaves, eventually resulting in curled, distorted, or withered foliage. This in turn can result in stunted broccoli growth and poor harvests for you.
The additional problem with aphids is that they can leave behind a sticky residue, often called ‘honeydew’ by gardeners. This can lead to the development of black, sooty fungal growths.
Spraying your affected broccoli plants with water and gently removing aphid colonies by hand before they have a chance to expand too far is often the best method for keeping them in check.
You can also consider dusting your broccoli plants with flour. Some gardeners say flour makes it more difficult and less desirable for aphids to take hold.
Diluted dish soap is also effective. Just make sure it is a gentle, bleach-free, garden-friendly version. This will minimize the risk of harming your plants or other beneficial organic life. Certain household soaps contain chemicals that are harmful to plant and animal life. So opt for detergent that is natural and mild.
If in doubt you can use an insecticidal soap spray which is safe for use in organic gardening.
Cutworms Are Eating Your Broccoli
Cutworms are a nightmare for young broccoli seedlings. They’ll often cut your broccoli off at the shoot before it’s had a chance to establish itself properly.
They also tend to work at night. So you may find you wake in the morning only to find half your young broccoli crop decimated!
In order to try to prevent them from causing damage, plant sturdy seedlings rather than growing broccoli straight from seed. Or you can start your seeds in protected seed trays until they are bigger.
You can also mulch the base of the seedling stems with tough, organic material. Cardboard or cotton fabric can deter the cutworms from crawling up from the soil and onto the early shoots.
Many gardeners also swear by a scattering of diatomaceous earth around your broccoli plants. This naturally occurring sedimentary rock can deter or kill inquisitive worms.
Other animals can also help you out. Spiders, small mammals, frogs, and parasitic wasps all like to eat cutworms. So ensuring you have as biodiverse a garden as possible is always a bonus.
Flea Beetles Are Eating Your Broccoli
As you might expect from the name, flea beetles appear as small, black, flea-like bugs. And even have a flea-like jump!
This means that gardeners who aren’t afraid to opt for ‘pluck and kill’ are less likely to be able to catch flea beetles with their bare hands. If you leave them to do their thing, you may find multiple small holes appearing in your broccoli leaves.
These bugs overwinter in the earth around your crop and they like rotted plant debris. Make sure you keep your garden clean when the harvest season is over to discourage flea beetles from hibernating and appearing the following year.
You could also consider planting trap crops. These can be other Cole plants such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, or cauliflower.
Trap crops can act to distract and divide any flea beetle populations. Potentially limiting the damage caused to any individual plant by effectively diluting the concentration of diners!
Tips for Keeping Pests off Your Broccoli
You can do a few things that will reliably reduce the risk of your broccoli being eaten before you’ve had a chance to taste it. All of which will work to deter several different species simultaneously.
Rotate your broccoli crop
Try not to replant your broccoli in the same place every time. By rotating your crops whenever possible you won’t only help the soil replenish but will help protect against pests and diseases ‘setting up shop’ in one particular section of the garden.
Aim for biodiversity in the garden
Try to encourage as varied an ecosphere as possible in your garden. This means planting a variety of insect-friendly plants and avoiding using inorganic pesticides that can harm ecosystems.
Having a biodiverse garden will encourage natural predators that can keep pest populations in check. Without you having to do any of the hard work yourself!
Keep garden beds clean
Several of the pests that like to dine on broccoli are also fond of overgrown, decaying organic matter and weeds. Try to ensure that your garden beds are kept clean and clear both during and after the season. This will make them less attractive to cutworms, flea beetles, and other broccoli-loving pests.
Plant trap crops
Planting a range of brassicas and Cole crops to distract and disperse your insect population is a good way of ensuring that your broccoli is not the only dish on the menu.
It can also help to promote a more healthy and varied ecosystem within the garden.
Floating row covers
Floating row covers like these may take a bit of effort to set up. But once you have them they’re a relatively cheap, eco-friendly, and preventative solution for keeping hungry bugs off your broccoli.
Good quality covers should be able to last you years as well and shouldn’t take much maintenance once you have them securely in place.
Keep an eye on your broccoli
Regular observation is key to ensuring that any burgeoning insect populations are caught and dealt with at the earliest opportunity. Check your broccoli leaves and the underside of leaves regularly, as well as the stalks and florets for signs of nibbling. The sooner you act, the more broccoli you’ll be keeping for your own plate!