Either The Hornworms Go, or The Tomatoes

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Aah, the rewards of summer. Peach juice trickling down my chin, blackberries staining my fingers and time spent with friends. I’ve coaxed tiny seeds into tomato plants that are seven feet tall. I’ve carried water, scratched in fertilizer, and to be completely honest, I’ve spoken love-words to my tomatoes hoping to entice them into a love-love relationship with me. 

“How about some extra water today,” I say as I pour water around the base of my plant, never on the foliage because that might burn delicate, undeveloped fruit. 

The plants responded. Clothed in yellow blooms, they grew tall, dark and deliciously attractive. As the plants matured, my anticipation increased with each passing day. 

I had waited, patiently watching the largest tomato change from lime-green to pale pink. With heat scratching my neck, I grabbed my bucket; my mouth-watering…today would be sandwich day. 

Imagine my surprise when my precious Park’s Whopper met me with stripped-bear stalks. The tomato I’d admired for weeks hung half-eaten with a large green worm munching happily. 

I was excited the first time I encountered a Tomato Horn Worm. A gardening newbie, I naively thought the pudgy caterpillar hanging on the stalk before me would morph into a Luna Moth. I photographed the creature and emailed all my friends that soon I would “be the proud parent of a Luna moth.” 

“Kill it!” was the reply from seasoned gardeners. “Take a rock and smash it dead!” 

After arguing that I would never, ever kill something so beautiful, I received an email with a photograph confirming their accusations. The caterpillar might be beautiful now, but as soon as it had consumed every tomato (and vine) in my garden it would become a Sphinx (not a Luna) Moth. 

I became a disciple in Horn Worm behavior. Since spraying pesticide is out of the question, handpicking the creatures was my only pest control option. Worm excrement (for lack of a more technical term) was the best clue in determining the location of my prey. They are masters at hiding behind immature fruit away from view. However, droppings are impossible to hide. If you notice droppings like what is pictured in the photograph box, begin searching for worms.

Removing the worms is a bit like a treasure hunt. Begin searching at the top of the plant near the new growth. Look on the stalk, beneath the limbs, and behind green fruit. When you locate one, remove it with one sudden movement, (think ripping off a Band-Aid, only more violent). The worms do not bite.

They do, however, release a lime-green “juice” when disturbed. Place the worm in a cup and-assuming you have chickens-feed the worms to them. In the absence of chickens, you might opt to drown, or smash them. 

Be diligent. Once these death-worms discover your tomatoes you are thrust into a battle; either they must go, or all hope of tomato sandwiches will vanish. Now is not the time to be humane. Every worm must die. Check plants for several days to ensure you’ve won the battle. The tiny worms you ignore today will grow to massive three-inch-long-worms overnight ! A dusting of Sevin-10 will drive the worms away, as will a mixture of hot pepper and water, sprayed on a still summer day also works. However, the best defense is to check the plants. I prefer the hunt and pluck method. So do my chickens. 

Happy gardening and remember, keep those hands dirty.