<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=915327909015523&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1" target="_blank"> Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.

Don't be surprised if you see a caterpillar crawling about on a frosty spring day — it's just a winter cutworm

Noctua pronuba (winter cutworm).jpg

The winter, a European native, first seen on this continent in 1979 in Nova Scotia and now spread across northern regions of the U.S., is quite cold tolerant.

Life is full of surprises. Some can be negative, as was the time I failed to show up for a lecture I was to give at the monthly meeting of a local organization. I thought the presentation was on a Thursday, but in the words of my wife: “Ron, duh! Why do you think they called it the Wednesday Morning Club?” A positive surprise came when a year later I was again asked to speak to the Club. (I was on time.)

Nature can also be full of surprises. Some of these can be very negative. I still shudder at the roaring sounds of thunderstorms and fierce winds that bring back memories of the infamous Memorial Day tornado of 1995, which swept through our former home in Great Barrington. In seconds, it turned what Laura Ingalls Wilder would say was a “Little House in the Big Woods” into a “Little House on the Prairie.”

Fortunately, nature is also full of pleasantly positive surprises. This is the season for such pleasantry. Clusters of snowdrops that came into bloom in the latter stages of winter continue, with the arrival of spring, to dot our wooded landscape with their snowy-white drooping flowers. Despite a cool down this week, after last week’s surprisingly mild temperatures, other early blooming bulbs continue to pop up and display their colorful blossoms. Among these are snow crocus (Crocus chrysanthus), and little Tommies (Crocus tommasinianus). Soon, we can expect to see these early spring flowering bulbs: Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa luciliae), winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) and Grecian windflower (Anemone blanda). If these do not appear in your garden, put them on your fall shopping list for spring bloomers — bulbs, that is.


My family experienced a surprise recently, two weeks ago, just after a snowfall. While out on a family stroll, my daughter spotted a caterpillar making its way across the asphalt roadway toward the snow-covered roadside. I was quite surprised to see an active caterpillar so early in the year. So, I took a photo of the critter and sent it to UMass Extension Entomologist Tawny Simisky for identification. Judging from my photo, Tawny suspected it was a winter or snow cutworm, also known in entomology circles as Noctua pronuba.

According to a fact sheet from Michigan State University Plant and Pest Diagnostics Laboratory, the winter cutworm is similar to the cutworms seen later in the year munching on the tender shoots and leaves of plants in our gardens and in agricultural fields. However, this European native, first seen on this continent in 1979 in Nova Scotia and now spread across northern regions of the U.S., is quite cold tolerant. So, don’t be surprised if you see a caterpillar strolling … er, crawling about while you’re strolling on frosty spring days.

Surprise! Here are some gardening tasks for this weekend and week ahead

• Dig up portions of clumps of snowdrops once their flowers have faded but while the leaves are still mostly green. Immediately replant the clumps in other areas of the landscape. Not everyone agrees with this approach as some “experts” suggest waiting until the leaves have turned completely brown. That does make sense in that there would be less damage to the plant roots. However, we’ve been digging snowdrops in the still mostly green stage with much success.

• Use wood ashes as a substitute for limestone where needed, e.g. around lavender and other plants which favor an alkaline soil. Weed ash contains mostly calcium but also smaller amounts of phosphorus and potassium, all plant nutrients. As a substitute for limestone, apply wood ash at a rate three times the quantity recommended for limestone, as determined by a soil test. Apply deer and rabbit repellent to shoots of tulips and daffodils that are now emerging from the soil. These tender shoots are candy for winter-starved deer and rabbits.

• Think xerophytes. Oooh, that hurts my brain. Xerophytes are plants that are tolerant to drought. When shopping for plants this spring, they would be good choices for areas of the yard that have coarse or sandy soils and that tend to get very dry. Coreopsis, Dianthus, Artemisia, and lavender are among my favorite drought tolerant perennials.

• Begin removing mulches from perennial borders, especially if plants are sending up shoots beneath the mulch. The same is true for strawberry beds and for garlic plantings, but remove the straw mulch gradually over the next several weeks. I typically leave a light layer of straw mulch over the garlic since the shoots have no trouble working through the straw.

As a follow-up to last week’s suggestion to take cuttings from blueberry bushes now, here is some additional advice: Keep the rooting medium moist. To prevent the rooting medium from drying, I’ve placed the pot with the cuttings inside a clear plastic bag to create a mini-greenhouse. Just be careful not to place the bagged pot in direct sunlight since this could overheat the cuttings. The cuttings should root by late June or early July.

Garden Journal columnist Ron Kujawski began gardening at an early age on his family's onion farm in upstate New York. Although now retired, he spent most of his career teaching at the UMass Extension Service.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.