Caterpillars may change into beautiful butterflies, but they can bring a lot of ugly to your plants and gardens. You may need to take action to get rid of them. Generally, the fastest method of garden caterpillar removal is to pick the caterpillars off your plants by hand – however, there are a number of other effective options as well!
Keeping caterpillars around for too long can lead to the takedown of your plants and vegetables – but if this is happening to you, don’t stress it because we have some of the fastest ways to get rid of caterpillars to share with you today.
What’s A Caterpillar Anyway?
First things first: what’s a caterpillar anyway? The short answer: a caterpillar is an insect that turns into a butterfly.
The caterpillar is actually the larva of a butterfly, which means, once a butterfly lays its eggs, little baby caterpillars hatch, and eventually, will turn into a butterfly! All of this is due to a process called metamorphosis.
Metamorphosis as a physical or structural change that some insects undergo. It has 4 stages: egg, larvae, pupa, and adult.
- The butterfly lays its eggs.
- The eggs hatch into caterpillars.
- The caterpillars create cocoons or chrysalises.
- In a timeframe of about 2 weeks to a month, the caterpillars stay in the cocoon and emerge as butterflies.
It may help you to see that these caterpillars are just little babies doing what they came here to do, which is eat until they get plump enough to cocoon!
And the reality is, they will eat, and eat, and can eat entire plants or even trees until they are so full and plump! Once they’re plump, they create their cocoons where they eventually turn into butterflies.
How Do Caterpillars Get In Your Garden?
Believe it or not, caterpillars are in your garden because a butterfly or moth has laid its eggs in your garden, and the caterpillars hatched in that exact spot.
Butterflies or moths will lay eggs either singularly or in a cluster onto a specific plant which becomes a caterpillars host plant to feed on.
It takes a few days for an egg to hatch after it’s laid, and once that happens, you will start to notice a bunch of caterpillars munching on your plants and in your garden.
Which Caterpillars Can Be Found Where I Live?
All caterpillars feed on plants, but the plants they feed on differ from region to region. The plants a caterpillar feeds on simply depend on which plants are available to the butterflies and moths and which plants grow in the climate they are in.
According to the Smithsonian, there are 750 species of butterflies alone in the United States, all of which have different preferences in taste.
Generally speaking, there are a ton of different caterpillars out there, and even though they all happen to eat different species of plants, they all love to chomp down and engorge themselves with leaves!
The Fastest Ways To Get Rid Of Caterpillars In Your Garden
There are a bunch of things you can do to prevent caterpillars from coming back, but, if you currently have the caterpillars, it’s time to take action to get rid of them, safely and effectively.
However, in mating seasons especially, which is typically in the spring and summer months, there can be up to thousands of caterpillars on your trees and plants, and if that’s the case, we highly recommend contacting a professional before trying this on your own.
So, without further ado—here are our top ways to get rid of caterpillars in your garden.
1. Picking Caterpillars Off Your Garden Plants
Sometimes the easiest way to actually get rid of an abundance of caterpillars is by picking them off your plants.
I know that may seem daunting, but with either a pair of gloves on your hands (like these Bellingham Gardening Gloves) or by grabbing a stick and using it as a tool to lift the caterpillars off of the plants—you can safely remove the caterpillars without harming them.
When picking the caterpillars off it’s always important to wear hand protection to protect yourself and the caterpillars.
After picking them up, place the caterpillars far away in another location. You can effectively keep them away while giving the caterpillars a new place to flourish.
Sometimes the simplest method is the most effective. These little baby caterpillars will eventually turn into butterflies, so being able to give them a new home to reside in would be a win-win situation for you and the caterpillars.
2. Using Neem Oil Can Get Rid Of Caterpillars
If picking them off and re-homing the caterpillars is off the table, then something you can try is using Neem Oil to effectively get rid of the caterpillars.
Neem Oil will act as a natural insecticide that will get rid of caterpillars. By purchasing Neem Oil like this Organic Neem Cold Press Oil, you can create a solution that can be sprayed onto plants that are infested with caterpillars.
By creating a mix of Neem Oil, water, and little dish soap (which will act as an emulsifier), and mixing it in a spray bottle, you can create a natural solution that will not harm your plants.
If creating your own insecticide isn’t right for you, you can also grab this Bonide Captain Jack’s Neem Oil Insecticide that contains Neem Oil as its active ingredient.
3. Attract Natural Predators To Your Garden To Get Rid Of Caterpillars
Bring on the birds!
Birds love to feed on nutritious caterpillars – by attracting a natural caterpillar predator like birds to your garden, you can easily get rid of caterpillars. By either hanging bird feeders or adding seed directly around the plants that caterpillars are feeding on, you can effectively attract birds and get rid of caterpillars fast!
Other caterpillar predators consist of small mammals such as squirrels, and wasps such as yellow jackets. Where we wouldn’t suggest attracting wasps to your home, adding seed around your gardens will also attract squirrels—and they’ll feed on caterpillars too!
4. Add Molasses To Your Plants!
Another interesting way to get rid of caterpillars is to create a molasses spray solution that you can add to your plants and garden.
Why does molasses get rid of caterpillars? Well, it’s simple—molasses is not attractive to a caterpillar and will make it leave to find another source of food.
Molasses is too sweet and sugary for a caterpillar to enjoy, and thus, adding it directly onto your plants will work magic in deterring caterpillars from your garden.
By mixing molasses with water, mixing it up well, and then spraying it generously onto caterpillar-infested plants, you can get rid of caterpillars fast.
If you have a lot of caterpillars, you’ll need a lot of molasses! Check out this extra-large supply of Grandma’s Molasses, which will be the perfect additive for your molasses solution!
5. Use A Non-Toxic Insecticide
If none of these solutions seem to be your thing, and you really want to get rid of these caterpillars fast and furiously, the best thing you can do is purchase a non-toxic insecticide like Bacillus Thuringiensis.
Bacillus Thuringiensis is a group of bacteria that are similar in nature, that when put together, act as an insecticide for pests on growing agricultural crops, harvested crops in storage, ornamentals, bodies of water, and around the home.
You can easily purchase an insecticide with Bacillus Thuringiensis like this Monterey BT Insecticide Ready-To-Use Spray, which controls both caterpillars and worms, and can be used on shrubs, ornamental plants, and trees.
Easy Ways To Prevent Caterpillars From Coming Back
Now that you’ve gotten rid of the caterpillars, or, if you’re just looking for ways to prevent them from coming back, there are some simple things that you can do that will deter caterpillars for good.
Spray A Dish Soap and Water Solution Onto Your Plants
A great way to deter caterpillars from your gardens and plants is by adding a soapy solution to your plants.
By taking some dish soap and mixing it with water in a spray bottle, you can create a soapy solution that will help deter caterpillars away.
Is this a foolproof solution? No, it isn’t, but, it has some promise in that the leaves and plants will become too slippery for a caterpillar to latch on to, and will then deter them away from your garden!
Dish soap is an effective and easy-to-try method if you just want to get the ball rolling in deterring the caterpillars. Added with some of the other tips we’ve talked about today, you can create a nice plan to get rid of and keep away caterpillars.
Add Plants That Caterpillars Hate In Your Garden
Another great way to deter caterpillars and butterflies from laying eggs on your plants is by adding plants that caterpillars hate to your garden!
If a butterfly comes across a plant that they thoroughly dislike—then there’s no way they’re going to lay eggs on it, and then you won’t have any caterpillars to begin with!
Caterpillars hate overly aromatic plants, like lavender, sage, mint, and mugwort, and will stay far away from these plants.
Remove or Avoid Any Trees or Plants That Caterpillars Are Attracted To
On the contrary to adding plants that caterpillars hate to your garden, there are some plants like willow, oak, and cherry trees that you should remove or refrain from planting because they will attract caterpillars.
Caterpillars are attracted to many plants such as plants in the parsley family, milkweed, clover, cabbage, holly, blueberries, violets, cherries, willows, oaks, bluegrass, purple grass, thistles, plantains, asters, and pansies.
If you know that you’ve had caterpillar problems in the past, or even just want to get ahead of the game and stop a problem from starting, by removing any of these plants in your garden and by simply refraining from planting them, you will help keep caterpillars away.
Here’s our full list of what attracts caterpillars to your yard if you’d like more info!
Use Scents That Caterpillars Hate To Keep Them Away From Your Garden
Another way to keep caterpillars away is to use scents that they hate in your garden.
Some scents that caterpillars hate are peppermint, lavender, rosemary, hot pepper, garlic, and cedarwood. By strategically using these scents, you can make the perfect caterpillar deterrent—and we’re going to talk more about that below!
Here is some more information on how to use scents that caterpillars hate if you’d like to go through our entire guide. We’ll discuss some of the main scents below however!
There are a few ways you can use peppermint to deter caterpillars from your plants and gardens, but the most effective way is to add diluted peppermint oil right onto the leaves of the plants themselves.
Purchasing a peppermint essential oil like this SVA Japanese Peppermint Essential Oil, mixing drops of it with water in a spray bottle, and then spraying your plant leaves with it will help prevent and deter caterpillars.
When a caterpillar tastes peppermint, it will be overwhelming for its senses, and it will not want to take another bite! However, before they even taste it, the strong minty smell of the oils will hopefully be enough to deter butterflies from laying their eggs on the plants in the first place.
Another way that you can use the scent of peppermint to deter caterpillars is by actually purchasing mint plants, and planting them around your garden, or around plants that need extra protection.
Mint plants can offer an amazing, fresh aroma to your outdoor space while keeping caterpillars and a wide variety of pests away from your gardens.
Lavender is another great natural caterpillar repellent that can be used in a similar way as peppermint to deter caterpillars from your garden and plants.
Lavender has a very strong floral and fragrant scent that when added to your garden, will surely deter any unwanted pests.
By either adding lavender oil (like this Sun Essentials Lavender Essential Oil) onto your plant leaves or by adding it around the garden by soaking cotton balls, you can effectively use lavender to deter caterpillars.
Another way to add lavender to your garden is by planting lavender plants strategically in high-caterpillar-traffic areas. This will deter caterpillars from the get-go since the smell will overwhelm their senses.
Rosemary is a great addition to your garden because it’s a flavorful and fragrant plant that is used as an herb in many types of cuisine, and since it’s beneficial to you – adding it to your garden will be a win-win: it will repel caterpillars and can be used in your dishes!
Rosemary has a strong smell that is similar to a eucalyptus and camphor mix. Its strong aroma is too much for a little caterpillar to handle, plus, a caterpillar will think the taste is disgusting!
Adding ground rosemary around caterpillar-prone plants, or as a barrier around your garden will help keep caterpillars away. Likewise, planting rosemary plants in your garden will do the same.
Hot Pepper & Capsaicin
Another smell that caterpillars hate is chili pepper or anything with capsaicin! Capsaicin makes pepper, chilis, cayenne pepper, and hot sauce, well, hot!
Caterpillars primarily eat bland leaves, so taking a bit of something spicy like hot pepper and adding it into the mix will definitely irritate their senses.
To use hot pepper, simply spreading the pepper like a barrier around plants that need extra protection can work wonders. You can also make a spray solution as well by mixing hot pepper and water, and then spraying that on leaves that caterpillars are attracted to.
If you want to take your caterpillar deterrent to a new level adding garlic to your garden, will surely keep them away!
Garlic has a pungent smell that will deter caterpillars from a mile away. Okay, maybe not a mile, but adding garlic into your gardens either in powder, oil, or bulb form will have its benefits.
Garlic is a great addition to your garden because it will keep all sorts of caterpillars and other unwanted pests away, plus, if you plant it, it will give you an endless supply of an ingredient that us humans just happen to love!
According to Oregon State University, garlic is an allium, which means that the sharp, bitter smell and sensation that it offers is because of the enzyme alliinase which is produced when garlic is crushed or smashed. That sensation that it offers is highly irritant to a caterpillar and will keep them away.
Another great way to deter caterpillars is by using cedarwood to keep them away. According to the EPA, cedarwood is a natural component of wood that comes from Juniperus Virginiana L. which is used in many pesticides.
Cedarwood is offered in an oil form like this Majestic Pure Cedarwood Essential Oil that can be used by adding droplets of it to your plant’s leaves, or by adding droplets around your garden, specifically around plants that need protection.
Another way that you can use cedarwood to deter caterpillars is by using cedarwood mulch in your garden beds and around trees.
Adding a large amount of cedarwood in this way can bring a large amount of a scent that not only caterpillars but almost all pests hate, to your outdoor spaces.
That’s A Wrap!
All in all, the question that truly lies is: are caterpillars good for your garden? Although they can be a nuisance pest, and they can destroy your plants and trees, caterpillars do offer some benefits that we would like to talk about before we wrap this up.
Caterpillars will metamorphosize into beautiful butterflies or moths, which will pollinate your flowers and plants – which we need! Caterpillars are an essential part of our ecosystems and are essential in the food chain of birds and other animals.
In the end, although they caterpillars can be nuisances, and if you have an infestation it’s very important to get the situation controlled – if you can save the life of a caterpillar by placing it elsewhere and deterring them in general, that’s all we can hope for!
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
Download My Free E-Book!
Take a look at my guide on Pest Proofing Your Home In Under a Day! I get into the nitty-gritty on the most common types of pests you’ll see on your property including BOTH insects and wildlife, along with the specific signs to look for regarding any pest you have questions about.