Woolly Bears in the Garden: Lore and Ecology

Wooly Bears in the Garden: Lore and Ecology Featured Image

The banded woolly bear caterpillar is only about 1.5 to 2 inches long, but it carries a lot of weight on its small form. Since colonial times, folk wisdom has claimed that even before the caterpillar is old enough to metamorphose into a tiger moth, it has the power to predict winter weather. That is a big responsibility. The gentle caterpillars are also loved by kids and make great teaching tools to explain insect hibernation, insect life cycles, and regional folklore.

It’s All in the Woolly Bear Wool

Woolly Bear

Woolly bear caterpillars, also known as woolly worms, are the larval form of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella).  The source of their alleged superpower is the dense coat of bristly hair that covers the thirteen segments of the caterpillar’s body, which helps them hibernate through winter.  This “wool” is most often black at both ends and rusty brown in the middle, and its various bands of color supposedly predict winter severity.  For example, a longer brown segment augurs a mild winter; a shorter one means that the area is likely to have a more severe cold spell. (See more below)

Weather prediction aside, the woolly bear has other distinctive traits.  Native to the United States, Canada, and northern Mexico, the Isabella tiger moth may produce one to two generations of caterpillars per season, the first in May and the second in August. Woolly bears are most prolific in the fall when the caterpillars are on the move–crossing roads and sidewalks in search of food and winter shelter.  If you disturb a woolly bear, it will curl up into a woolly ball and “play dead” until danger is past.

What Do Isabella Tiger Moths Pollinate?

Isabella tiger moth (Image by Steve Jurvetson)
Isabella tiger moth (Image by Steve Jurvetson)

The Isabella tiger moth is not a pollinator. The pretty orange moths don’t eat and survive for only a few days after pupation. The adults emerge in spring, mate, lay eggs on the surface of a food plant, and die. The eggs hatch in June or July, and the little caterpillars feed on the leaves of various plants to become fully mature and hibernation-ready. On occasion, two life cycles can be completed in a single season. (Note: The nocturnal moths are attracted to light, so give them a fighting chance by minimizing outdoor lighting in the garden.)

Tasty Leaves for Woolly Bears

Woolly bear climbing on a fall chrysanthemum
A woolly bear climbs across a fall chrysanthemum.

Moths as a group have gotten a bad rap because of the harmful actions of some destructive species, like Gypsy moths.  But, the larvae of many, including the Isabella tiger moth, do little damage, feed wildlife, and are cute garden friends.  Your garden is probably home to plants with leaves that woolly bears relish, including old-fashioned beauties like sunflowers and asters, not to mention wilder plants like violets, clover, plantain, lambs quarters, and nettles.  Though they prefer herbaceous plants, the caterpillars will occasionally snack on the low-tannin leaves of birches, maples, and elms. Unlike the gypsy moths, gentle Isabella tiger moths are not a threat to the survival of any of their host or food plants.

Helping Woolly Bears Overwinter in the Garden

Black woolly bear
All black or rusty woolly bears do exist, but they are less common. (Image from Prairie Sky Sanctuary)

When woolly bears start rambling around in fall, they are looking for the right shelter to help them survive winter. (Humans like a comfy bed and so do woolly bears!) They seek winter shelter under leaves or logs and may also spend the cold months in rock cavities.  Keep a corner of your garden a little less tidy in the fall, and you will make it more attractive to woolly bears in search of a quiet, protected spot for their long winter’s nap. Your kids might even help direct them to the best hibernation spot in the yard.

Woolly bears freeze solid in winter. They survive because they have tissues that contain a cryoprotectant, which protects their soft bodies from freezing damage. In spring, the caterpillars thaw with no internal injury.

Do Woolly Bears Predict Winter Weather?

Woolly bear on a wooden structure
Some suggest that the black segments of the woolly bear’s coat lengthen as the caterpillars age, making older bears more likely to “predict” mild winter

The folklore about woolly bears and winter weather forecasting got a big assist from a mid-century American entomologist, who collected the caterpillars at Bear Mountain State Park, north of New York City, over a nine-year period beginning in 1948.  The scientist found that in years when the brown band was longer, winters tended to be milder than normal.  Experts point out that while the results were tantalizing, the sample size was small and limited to one area.  That fact has done nothing to dampen the woolly bear’s reputation. Other sources suggest that the black segments of the woolly bear’s coat lengthen as the worms age, making older caterpillars more likely to “predict” harsh winters. 

Six Ways to Read a Woolly Bear

Woolly bear on a twig
How would you read this woolly bear?

The caterpillars have 13 body segments said to correspond to the 13 weeks of winter in some parts of the country. Here are six ways to read them.

  1. Broad Rusty Band = milder winter
  2. Large Black Band = more severe winter
  3. Fuller Wool= more severe winter
  4. Long Black Head and Tail = severe winter at the beginning and end
  5. All Brown =very mild winter
  6. All Black = very severe winter

And, if you have woolly bears with lots of different color variants, it’s anyone’s guess. Whatever the truth, the presence of these distinctive insects in your garden is a good indicator that you have a healthy garden ecosystem. If you have them, help nurture their yearly return.

Fun Garden Jobs for Kids

Fun Garden Jobs for Kids Featured Image

It is natural for parents who love gardening to want their children to share that love.  The best way to grow a future gardener is to get him or her into the garden early and often.  Start off on the right foot by taking the baby basket with you and parking it in the shade when you go out to weed or tend the beds.  The sights, sounds, and smells will surround your child and pave the way for positive associations in the future. 

Start Digging the Dirt

Kids digging in the dirt
Kids simply enjoying following their parents around and digging in the dirt.

Toddlers who are too young to help out in more specific ways may relish digging in the dirt with a small shovel or trowel.  This is not a “chore”, but it will certainly get them in touch with the earth. Toddlers are also naturally curious.  Point out interesting flowers, plants, butterflies, and other insects to give your child a sense of comfort and familiarity with the garden’s animal, flower, fruit, and vegetable denizens. 

Get Growing with your Child

Children gardening
As children gro older, they can take on more responsibilities in the garden

One of the best ways to nurture a future gardener is to give the child a small plot or pot of their own and some seeds to plant.  Kids may be able to help with simple soil preparation, like raking a new bed or filling containers with potting mixes like Fafard Natural and Organic Potting Mix. 

When choosing flower or vegetable varieties for your child to plant, a good rule of thumb is, “the smaller the person, the bigger the seed.”  Opt for big, non-toxic seeds, like those for pumpkin, sunflower, or nasturtium—easy to hold and see—and show how to make planting holes and cover the seeds with soil. If you are planting smaller seeds, like those for cool-season greens or carrots, try to find pelleted seed, which is easier for small hands. (Click here for a list of great seeds for kids.)

Though many a gardener has launched a lifetime passion by starting seeds indoors in flats, egg cartons, or paper cups, direct sowing is a more immediate way of establishing a garden connection.  You just have to be careful what you sow. Once again, large-seeded plants are easier to start outdoors, while some vegetables, like tomatoes, peppers, simply perform better when planted indoors from seed.

Whatever you plant, you and your child will have the pleasure of getting out in the garden regularly to watch the seeds grow, and ultimately, harvesting the flowers or vegetables. If the child can hold a small watering can, they can water their own plants with a little initial guidance about where and when to water.

Getting Your Kids to Help Weeding

Child gardening
Planting, weeding, and cleaning tools are all good tasks for budding gardeners.

There is something satisfying about cleaning a garden space of weeds, and it’s a great way to teach kids about competition for resources. The simple removal of weeds will give your vegetables and flowers more water, nutrients, and sunlight!

Older children may be able to help with weeding, especially if it is part of the routine of caring for their own plots or pots.  Even adults have trouble with weed identification, so start by teaching your novice gardener about common, easy-to-spot weeds, like dandelions and crabgrass.  Explain that weeds are not “bad”, they are just plants growing in the wrong places and taking water and food from the sunflowers or squash plants.  Stress good weeding technique—wearing pint-size garden gloves and pulling out the weeds along with the roots, rather than breaking off the tops.  Depending on the child’s age, a child-size or standard-size trowel can help with this.  Kids take pride in having their own special tools.

If you have a compost pile, this is a good time to teach your child about disposing of weeds and other organic garden debris in the composter or on the pile.  If a child is old enough to help with weeding, he or she is old enough to understand basic information about decomposition, or how time and nature break down weeds into food for the soil.

Garden Harvest with Kids

Child with tomato eyes
Harvest time should be fun.

Even the smallest child can help with the harvest, which is the reward for all the planting, tending and, especially, waiting involved in the gardening process.  Like flower picking, successful harvesting needs a little guidance and practice to make perfect.  Show your child how to grasp and gently snap off beans or peas.  Explain how to spot a fruit or veggie that is ripe enough to pick.  Let them enjoy the harvest—the taste of one cherry tomato eaten while it is still warm from the sun may well get your child more enthused about gardening than all the picture books or verbal instruction in the world.

Set a Good Gardening Example

Delighted child in the garden
Garden organically, eat what you grow, teach your children about life cycles and pollinators. These experiences will make lasting impressions on your kids.

Children are much more likely to imitate what we do, than do what we tell them.  Encourage your child to spend time in the garden with you, even if they show little or no interest in garden chores.  Remember that you are planting the seeds of an interest, hobby, or even vocation that may lie dormant for years before sprouting later on in your child’s life.  Be patient.  Every good gardener knows that some seeds take longer to germinate than others.

Rainbow Vegetables for Kids’ Gardens

Rainbow Vegetables for Kids' Gardens Featured Image
Rainbow Vegetables for Kids’ Gardens

The prettier a vegetable, the tastier it looks, and the more fun it is to grow and pick. Harvesting plain old green beans from the garden is certainly not as exciting as picking beans that are red-striped, gold, and purple. And plain red tomatoes are nice, but an all-in-one purple, red, yellow, and green tomato is something extraordinary. Rainbow vegetables make gardening with kids more fun.

These vegetables are as easy to grow as their standard-colored counterparts, so no added stress on adult gardeners. The rules are the same: feed your soil, plant robust plants, give them plenty of sun and water, fertilize, weed, and harvest. (Click here to read my top 10 tips for starting a successful vegetable garden.)

Rainbow Beans

Tricolor bush beens in a tray
Tricolor bush beans make bean picking more fun.

Short bush beans are the easiest for children to harvest, and they are the fastest to yield. Colorful varieties include Renee’s Garden Seeds’ Tricolor Bush Beans, which contains three different high-quality varieties in one packet–the yellow ‘Golden Roc d’Or’, purple ‘Purple Queen’, and bright green ‘Slenderette’. Together they look beautiful. (Note: purple beans tend to lose their color when cooked.) ‘Dragon Tongue‘ bush beans are really fun because they are yellowish with bold stripes of reddish-purple. They can be eaten fresh when young and tender or dried for winter bean soups. The dried beans are similarly colored.

Rainbow Beets

Colorful cut beets
These brilliant beets make the prettiest salads.

The most colorful beet is the candy-cane-striped Italian heirloom ‘Chioggia’, which remains mild, sweet, and tender, even when large, but beets come in many other colors. Renees’ Five Color Rainbow gourmet beet mix has beets of dark red, red, gold, white, and candy-cane-striped. They are ready only 55 days after planting, so you can enjoy several crops over a summer. (Click here to watch a video about how to grow beets.)

Rainbow Carrots

Harlequin Mix carrots
Harlequin Mix carrots look so beautiful together.

Colorful carrots look and taste a little different, but all are crunchy and sweet if grown in spring or fall. Harlequin Mix has several crisp, sweet Dutch Nantes carrot varieties in shades of ivory, orange, reddish-purple, and yellow. My kids enjoy eating them fresh with a little ranch dressing to dip into.

Rainbow Chard

Rainbow Improved Swiss chard
Rainbow Improved Swiss chard is brilliant.

Not every child loves greens, but the brilliant colors of Improved Rainbow Blend mixed Swiss chard look vibrant in the garden and taste good if well-prepared. (My daughters like sauteed Swiss chard with parmesan cheese.) The large-leaved vegetables are closely related to beets and have stems of orange, pink, red, white, and yellow. They taste sweetest if harvested in fall when the nights begin to grow cool.

Rainbow Corn

'Astronomy Domine' corn
‘Astronomy Domine’ is a multi-colored sweet corn!

Sweet corn is not just yellow and white kernelled. The amazing rainbow corn, ‘Astronomy Domine‘, from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, is multicolored sweet corn with an old-fashioned sweet flavor. At first glance, it’s easy to mistake for colorful native flint corn, but no. What a surprise! Plants should produce ears 65 to 70 days after planting in the warm soil of late-spring.

Popcorn is another favorite for kids’ gardens. It is a crop that requires patience because the ears need to fully dry on the plants before harvest–usually by early to mid-fall. ‘Cherokee Long Ear’ popcorn has 5- to 7-inch ears with kernels of ivory, purple, red, and yellow. It generally takes 90 to 100 days to mature after planting. The popcorn it yields is a little smaller than store-bought, but it is very tasty.

Rainbow Squash

Carnival acorn squash
Carnival acorn squash looks like a party.

Some multicolored winter squashes have the sweetest flavor! Carnival acorn squash is one, and it’s a beaut with its green, ivory, orange, and yellow stripes and flecks. Inside is pale gold flesh that’s sweet and tasty. They are good keepers that do double duty in decorative fall arrangements. The semi-bush plants are compact enough for smaller gardens. Expect them to produce squash 85 days after planting. (Click here to learn more about growing great-tasting winter squash.)

Rainbow Tomatoes

Brad's Atomic Grape Tomato (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
Brad’s Atomic Grape Tomato is as delicious as it is pretty. (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

There are so many wonderful wildly colored tomatoes these days, it’s hard to know what tastes as good as it looks. Here are some varieties and mixes that are pretty and delicious.

I cannot resist the Renees’ Garden combos because they are great for gardeners on a budget. The three-variety packet Rainbow’s End Mix, which contains the red ‘Brandywine’, yellow and red ‘Marvel Stripe’, and pale and dark green ‘Green Zebra’, is a perfect example. All three tomatoes are beautiful together and very flavorful. A superb multicolored slicer is Berkeley Tie-Dye Green, which has sweet-tart yellowish-green tomatoes with stripes of scarlet. The mind-blowing grape tomato, Brad’s Atomic Grape, is a surreal mix of black, orange, purple, red, and yellow with various hues in-between. Each offers a punch of sweet flavor.

Planting a handful of these festive vegetables will encourage even picky vegetable eaters to try a taste. Kids tend to eat more vegetables if they grow their own!