The tomato thief

While August here on the blog brought a delightful journey through friends’ gardens, my own garden had some lessons to teach me. I have a volunteer tomato plant that surprised me earlier this summer. I first spotted it growing up along some hedges, and I thought, “What kind of weed has sprung up now?” As I got closer, I thought (and hoped), “Is that a tomato plant?” As soon as I smelled it, I knew.

I staked it, and it has been producing tomatoes for several weeks. Other than a little water from time to time and an additional stake or two, I’ve done very little tending of it.

Three weeks ago, I checked to see if any of the tomatoes were ripe enough to pick. I noticed a chewed leaf and then a partially gnawed tomato. I thought, “Hungry caterpillar,” and began my search. I pulled back when I saw this:

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Yikes! That’s creepy looking.

I tried to pull it from its perch, not sure if the stinger at the end worked or not. It clung to the vine with a grip surprising even for its size (about three and a half inches long).

Did I mention that it also had a green tomato entirely stuffed in its mouth? I grew up reading Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and a brief internal debate ensued. Caterpillars are cute. They deserve to eat, too. It has a whole tomato stuffed in its mouth and doesn’t look like it plans to stop at just one. Kill it.

You should understand this: the voices in my internal debate sounded a lot like my mom (the gardener who would show no mercy to pests) and my dad (the insect and arachnid pacifist who tried to teach us the benefits of all creatures, even the black widow spiders he would occasionally relocate to the woods instead of smashing like most of us would).

My attempts to knock the beastie off the plant wounded it, but I ended up breaking off the stem it was on. I left it in the driveway to go inside and make sure I wasn’t about to kill an endangered banded emerald emperor caterpillar (I totally made that up, but Google it, and you’ll see plenty of fun caterpillar and butterfly images).

The internet came back with an immediate answer: “Tomato hornworm. Kill it!” So I did. Eventually.

I didn’t want to step on it because, bleh, so much green slime on my shoe. I jabbed it with a stick until the stick broke. I found another stick that eventually worked its way through the tough, leathery hide. (Sorry, Dad.)

The next evening, my husband and I went caterpillar hunting. Sure enough, there was another tomato hornworm with its mouth around another green tomato. My husband tried to pull the caterpillar from the vine (after asking about the stinger). He wounded it a little in the effort but couldn’t get it loose from the vine.

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My husband had discussed these pests with the resident expert gardener at work earlier that day, and so he walked inside for a bucket of soapy water to get the hornworm off the vine and into the afterlife.

In the meantime, two hover flies—possibly alerted to the hornworm’s presence because of its wound—began an attack. They will lay eggs in the hornworm, and the larvae eventually kill the host. Letting that happen means keeping the hornworm alive long enough for the larvae to hatch, though. But the more hover flies you have, the fewer hornworms you have.

We watched, soapy water waiting, as the hornworm fought off the hover flies. They left, and my husband and I discussed whether to leave the hornworm alive in a dish to see if hover fly larvae would appear.

We didn’t have to make that decision, though, as the next visitor would be the one to kill the hornworm.

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A yellow jacket begins its attack. Notice the tomato in the hornworm’s mouth.

A battle ensued. The hornworm used its body to bat away the yellow jacket, but slowly, slowly, the yellow jacket began to win. The hornworm never let go of the tomato and only toward the end began backing down the stem it was on.

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The yellow jacket plans its next move.

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Determined to keep its tomato

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Toward the end (photo by C. Squires)

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The yellow jacket heads again for a vulnerable spot on the hornworm. (photo by C. Squires)

That weekend, my husband and I headed out to a nursery. I had read online that marigolds near tomato plants bring beneficial insects to prey on hornworms. I love marigolds, and now the tomato plant has four marigolds guarding it.

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We also have a black light to search for the hornworms at night. They are the exact color of tomato vines during the day but glow a different color in black light. So far, I haven’t found any using the black light.

Birds and squirrels are picking off the occasional tomato, but at least the plant is still there, and I’m still getting tomatoes from it.

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More tomatoes than ever

For a volunteer, the tomato plant is a delightful gift. The least I can do in return is tend it and protect it as carefully as possible. And, remembering the story of Jonah and the vine, I can’t be too grumpy if the worm wins.

Have you ever had to battle tomato hornworms? What other beasties have you discovered in your yard this summer?

2 thoughts on “The tomato thief

  1. My mom has battled the tomato hookworm all summer, to no avail. And I’ve dealt with cucumber pickleworms all summer. This has been a bad year for produce beasties in our gardens.

    • That sounds terrible. Cucumber and tomato is one of my favorite summertime sandwiches, and between you and your mom, it sounds like they wouldn’t be plentiful right now. I’ve never heard of cucumber pickle worms, but then again, I’ve never tried to grow cucumbers. From what I hear, tilling the soil where you plan to grow tomatoes the following season can help dig up the overwintering pupae and help abate the problem the following year. I wish you and your mom better luck next year.

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