Real Men Sow

Cabbage White Butterfly: What I’ve Learnt from the Brassica Massacre

You should always listen to your wife. Always.

When she says ‘you really need to net your brassicas, the cabbage white are all over them’, your wife is not nagging you. She is talking sense, because actually, I really did need to net my brassicas.

I’d never had that much of a problem with cabbage white butterflies laying their eggs on my brassicas when I was working the allotment. There used to be a few rogue caterpillars find their way onto the cauliflower plants and chomp the leaves, but generally everything made it through the summer reasonably unscathed.

That was then. This is now:


I’ve never really admitted it on Real Men Sow, but sometimes I have a dangerously lackadaisical attitude to my veg patch. I’m an ‘it’ll be alright on the night kind of guy’. I sort of look at things and think ‘oh, I’ll do that later’, and then if I don’t I’m not generally worried. Even last week I was happy that my brassicas would be just fine.

I’ve cocked up here though.

Have You Ever Seen So Many Cabbage Whites??
Never before have I seen so many cabbage white butterflies. There seems to be hundreds passing through my garden this year. Weather and diseases tend to mean the amount of cabbage white vary significantly from year to year but 2013 appears to be a bumper one for these insects. Having rested on my laurels and not netted my brassicas in time, the butterflies have had a field day.

One day this week, I counted ten flying around my three purple sprouting broccoli plants alone. I swear, these cabbage whites are taking over the world. I’ve never known them to attach kale and cavolo nero so fervently. I think my PSB is established enough to survive the onslaught, but I’m nervous about the kale. I’m not sure what I’ll do without kale for a winter.

My only hope is that because both the kale and cavolo nero are come and cut again plants, the plant will be strong enough to replenish itself if I keep picking leaves. I’m not overly optimistic though.

Learning From My Mistakes
Of course, these things are sent to test us, and we’re only as good as the lessons we learn from our mistakes. If I’m finding some positives from the brassica massacre, it’s that taught myself how not to care for these plants.

f I had the last month again, I’d have obviously netted weeks ago. Having now done this, I have discovered that scaffolding netting is absolutely perfect for keeping the butterflies off. I was lucky enough to get a role from builders who were working on my offices, and it’s the right weight to stay settled on the brassicas but not push the plants down too much.

The mesh is small too, so no butterflies can get in, but you can still water through it. And if you can get on the right side of a friendly scaffolder, the netting is free.

I’m a butterfly lover, but boy did I take some joy watching the cabbage white confusion as they came across this new barrier.

Picking Off the Eggs
I’d also do much earlier and regular checks on the plants to see if any eggs had been laid onto the plants. Once hatched, the caterpillars grow fast, and a day’s worth of feasting can do untold damage. The kale and cavolo nero destruction in the picture above seemed to happen overnight.

In case you’re new to the ways of a cabbage white, this is what their eggs look like (image from the rather good Wiki Gardener):


Pick these off and squish them, quicksharp.

Taking No Chances Next Year
For the first time, my organic principles have been shaken. I haven’t given in and sprayed, but I’m certainly not taking any chances in the future. I reckon morning and evening brassica checks are required as minimum, as even the sight of a cabbage white hovering around the brassicas will pretty much guarantee that they’ve somehow laid eggs.

So, aside from always listening to your wife, the moral of this story is to act quickly where cabbage whites are concerned. Who knows whether my brassicas will survive this year, but I know I won’t be making these mistakes again.

And it times of despair, remember there’s always next year.

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  1. GemAugust 10, 2013 at 2:43 amReply

    I learnt this last year with my first attempt at broccoli. It was so traumatising (for me AND the caterpillars) that I didn’t bother the next year with broccoli. The caterpillars then went for the kale. The kale was pretty hardy so there was plenty to still harvest – but not cool having to wash and pick off so many caterpillars!!

    And you occasionally miss a caterpillar – gross mid meal. I hate the bastards. Good luck!

    • Jono

      JonoAugust 11, 2013 at 6:18 pmReplyAuthor

      ‘I hate the bastards’, that made me chuckle. :)

  2. LizAugust 10, 2013 at 1:21 pmReply

    Hey, this happened to me a couple yrs ago. Read where someone used flour to make the butterflies not want the cabbage, so started sifting early every day. I tried to lay a light powder of flour and it seemed to work, butterflies were not interested anymore :-) . Easier than netting for me.

  3. Jono

    JonoAugust 11, 2013 at 6:20 pmReplyAuthor

    Hey Liz, that is one method I haven’t heard of before!

    Love the idea of the neighbours watching me sifting flour onto plants every morning haha.

    I will certainly be trying this one though, thank you very much for the tip. :)

  4. elaineAugust 11, 2013 at 7:56 pmReply

    You are right about there being loads of cabbage whites about but I find it funny, well not funny exactly, at how they manage to get under the nets, they are determined little b*****s.

  5. Jono

    JonoAugust 12, 2013 at 6:22 pmReplyAuthor

    haha, I do know what you mean Elaine. Sometimes, you just have to stand back and admire. The pigeons are the same. They have this incredible talent for sniffing out brassicas. I’ve barely put them in the ground and they’re hovering around.

  6. Maeve TSAugust 15, 2013 at 11:09 amReply

    This happened to me also. My Kale looked exactly like yours! I agree, I have never seen so many cabbage white butterflies in all my life. I’ve just made a last minute sowing of brassicae for autumn/winter and I am DEFINITELY covering them with some kind of netting or fleece this time!

  7. Jono

    JonoAugust 15, 2013 at 7:50 pmReplyAuthor

    Hey Maeve,

    I’ve done the same, and sowed some very late cavolo nero and kale seeds. Might end up popping them in the greenhouse for a boost.

    I’m interested to see how they get on. In theory they should grow fast…

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About Real Men Sow

meIn 2007, I took on a redundant allotment plot with my gardening-mad mum Jan. As all good mums do, she went along with it, but I don’t think she held out much hope. However, over a decade later, and she now lets me do stuff without watching over my shoulder, so I must be doing something right. [ read more ]

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