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Of Moths and Cats

Defining crisis in the valley


Listening to the many horror stories from homeowners these past two weeks, I've come to the conclusion that a) There must be an invasion of giant killer moths in the Treasure Valley and b) Cats are taking over the world. Let's address two of the most pressing related e-mails.

Betty L. of Boise asks: I've been invaded by what look like large brown moths in my home. Will they damage anything, and how do I get rid of them?

Not to worry, Betty, those huge brown moths that look like they're on steroids are actually the adult version of cutworms. They're called miller moths and they can't hurt anyone. Outside, they lay eggs that will turn into smooth-skinned caterpillars that hide at night in the soil. There are four different kinds of cutworms. The solitary surface dwellers are the ones that like to nip a plant off just above or below ground level. They are the reason gardeners use "cutworm collars" on their newly planted veggies. The results of their nighttime escapades are silent shouts of "Timber!" from giggling gangs of cutworms and an exasperated gardener scratching his or her head at a toppled tomato.

The next type is the climbing cutworm; it munches foliage and fruit. Heavy infestations can cause complete defoliation of plants. But these dining demons are small potatoes when compared to the next type. The third group of cutworms is called armyworms. They send shudders down the spines of farmers and ranchers alike. Regiments of drab-colored caterpillars outfitted for battle show up in such great numbers that they consume nearly all vegetation in an area before moving on to greener pastures. Finally, the subterranean cutworm, unlike all the others, remains in the soil to feed on only roots and other underground plant parts. A real sneak, this one lets you guess what's wrong with your plants without giving any clues above ground.

These soft-winged millers are out in abundance to suck flower nectar and romance one another. Since the moth's life is fairly short that's about all they get to do besides bump against your face and hang out around lights. I realize that their indoor manners are atrocious. They have no qualms about scaring you half to death by crawling up your arm in a dark room or hiding in your bathroom towels. Knocking against lampshades while you're trying to concentrate and dancing across the television screen are their specialties. The lampshade trick is annoying, but when they walk across an actor's face, it does add a new dimension to the show. Especially if you really don't care for the character, it looks like he has some alien creature harassing him while he is trying to be serious.

The positive aspects of these night flying miller moths is that they keep the cats in the neighborhood busy at dusk leaping, lunging and batting. And you lose an extra calorie or two waving your arms at them and jumping up to shoo them off the TV screen. They also give you something to talk about at the office since everyone now has something in common.

To control moths in the home, I catch them with my hands and throw them outdoors. You can also use an inverted clear glass. If you're too squeamish to touch them, just take a fly swatter or a vacuum cleaner hose and call it good.

Joann T. of Eagle wonders: I am really tired of the cats in my neighborhood using my flowerbeds as their toilet. What can I do to stop this outrage?

Cats in the garden, now that brings to mind many unusual "tails," as I am the owner of five cats myself. But let me assure you, I feel your pain. My cats are all barn cats. I refuse to keep a cat inside my house, as I don't want to eat cat hair nor do I want to become a slave to cats. And believe me, they will make you their slave. You will feed them when they demand it and let them in and out and out and in when they choose. You will pet them when they want or they will harass you until you do. Soon you'll give up trying to keep them off the knickknack shelf and countertops because it's never-ending.

Cats were worshipped by early Egyptians, and they've never forgotten that. I guess the pyramid builders figured felines had some inside scoop on the netherworld. It was probably due to their weird eyes or the quiet patience they possess, staring you down like they have higher thoughts in mind other than their food bowl. Or maybe it's the way they seem to get out of trouble with their flexibility and leaping superiority, giving them that nine lives legacy.

Some of it is true-they are quick, agile and stealthy, but brilliant they are not. Put chicken wire or hardware cloth over your flowerbeds to keep cats from digging or use a live trap and take the cat to the animal shelter. (Living out in the country, I've taken 10 in myself. Anyone who releases a cat in the country because they don't want to take care of it anymore, ought to be shot.) You can also spray animal repellents, which are available at most garden centers, but the sprays have to be reapplied periodically. There are many plant oils that are available for making your own repellents, contact me at the Ada County Extension office for a list.

Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send gardening questions and comments to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or e-mail: