Tomato Bistro ~ Casual Dining for the Discriminating Palate

Thanks to the brightly greened tobacco hornworm, destruction has befallen our tomato plants.  They are intimidating-looking creatures with their scary markings, numerous illusionary eyes, and red horned tail, but the only danger they pose to humans is the all-encompassing destruction of vegetation and the subsequent frustration imposed on the gardener.  At first glance, I thought this was a tomato hornworm, but after doing a bit of online researching, I discovered that the hornworms in our garden are actually tobacco hornworms because of the red horn and the markings not running in a V-shaped pattern.  An article on Wikipedia said a helpful way to decipher between the two is to remember the markings – “tobacco hornworms have straight white lines like cigarettes, while tomato hornworms have V-shaped markings (as in “vine-ripened” tomatoes)” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manduca_sexta.  In Delaware, my husband and I had great success growing tomato plants in oversized flower pots and Topsy Turvy planters and because of the fresh soil courtesy of Miracle-Gro, we never encountered this destructive foliage muncher.  Now we live in Georgia and with our love for tomatoes never-ceasing, we decided to plant our tomato seedlings of joy in a “flower bed” that we created last year, which once housed zinnias that I planted from seeds.  Up until a few days ago, everything seemed to be thriving.  Our plants were of good height, color, stamina and seemed to be getting the right amount of water.  We had already treated them two months ago with fertilizer and have another month before we can lay down more.  We have our water dispensed from a timer-activated drip hose or a sprinkler option depending on what we observe with the progress of the plants.  And then yesterday evening, my husband came into the house after spending some time outside with the plants, and looking quite exasperated, he told me there were huge, green caterpillars on some of the plants.  When he noticed there were leaves missing from the plant tops with an obvious stripped appearance (as you would see from cropping or stripping tobacco leaves in a field), he went searching for the culprit and found the tobacco greenhorn and two more pals dining out at our “Tomato Bistro”.

If I had chickens, I would have fed the hornworms to them without much thought.  But since I don’t have chickens, I had to research online how to get rid of this pesky pest.  The only option I could live with (barely) was the warm, soapy water method and so I proceeded last evening with just an ounce of sunlight left to locate and destroy the life of this interesting creature.  Because of my aversion to all things crawly, I put on a pair of work gloves that I borrowed from my husband because my flimsy garden gloves were just to thin to separate my skin to my liking from the suckers of this green creature.  And with eyes squinting from the lack of light to differentiate between a tomato leaf, stalk, or hornworm I managed to find the three caterpillars my husband had discovered.  One by one I pried the fat caterpillars from their feeding ground, but not without them clinging in protest until they lost their grasp.  I found it easier to start with the head first and then slowly pry more of its body from the stem.  I also noticed that it would lift its head and curve it to make it appear larger in a display of aggression, which undoubtedly is a defense mechanism.  I actually felt a pang of regret at having to end its meal or its life when I saw the creature’s actions of survival.  But into the soapy water solution each fell and to shield myself from watching their final moments, I snapped on the lid.  I am usually not that squeamish when it comes to pests such as flies, ants, and wasps.  But there was something Alice in Wonderland-ish about these hornworms (I am remembering the personification of the infamous caterpillar) that made me ashamed to hurt this oddly beautiful creature just because he was following his life cycle.

So that I do not have to experience these events during our next planting, I researched ways to effectively combat the hornworm life cycle to prevent future generations from emerging.  The best way is through normal garden tilling, and a roto-tiller is the most effective tool to use.  My husband and I don’t own a roto-tiller so we turned over the soil with a shovel prior to planting our tomato seedlings.  This means that any hornworm pupae in the soil was most likely spared its life and through its undisturbed life cycle emerged from the soil to feast on the foliage and the green fruit which is still trying to form into the edible delight we call a tomato.  I have a feeling a roto-tiller is in our future purchases since this has been an unpleasant experience for us.  Besides, this hornworm adventure isn’t over yet.  I found another one today and took pictures of him before I wished him farewell.  As a lament for the departed creatures, please see the below poem written by Stanley Kunitz.

Hornworm: Summer Reverie

Here in caterpillar country
I learned how to survive
by pretending to be a dragon.
See me put on that look
of slow and fierce surprise
when I lift my bulbous head
and glare at an intruder.
Nobody seems to guess
how gentle I really am,
content most of the time
simply to disappear
by melting into the scenery.
Smooth and fatty and long,
with seven white stripes
painted on either side
and a sharp little horn for a tail,
I lie stretched out on a leaf,
pale green on my bed of green,
munching, munching.

~Stanley Kunitz (29 July 1905 – 14 May 2006)

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