Hornworms and the Battle Over Tomatoes

16 Jul

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, the one I could already taste even before I’d picked it, greeted me with stripped-bear stalks. The tomato I’d admired for weeks hung half-eaten with a large green worm my happily munching the delicious fruit.


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 stripped every tomato in my garden my beautiful caterpillar would become a Sphinx (not a Luna) Moth.

I became a disciple in Horn Worm behavior. Since spraying pesticide is out of the question, hand-picking  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. Horn worms are masters at hiding behind immature fruit, far away from view. However, droppings  are impossible to hide. If you notice “droppings” like those in the text-box below, begin searching for worms immediately.

Removing the worms is a bit like a treasure hunt. Begin searching at the top of the plant near tender new growth. Look on the stalk, beneath the leaves, and behind green fruit. When you locate one, remove it with one sudden movement (think ripping off a Band-Aid). The worms do not bite. They do, however, release a lime-green “juice” and make a slight clicking sound 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. Small worms you might ignore today will grow to massive three-inch-long-worms overnight ! Now is not the time to be humane. Every worm must die. Check plants for several days to ensure you’ve won the battle.

A dusting of Sevin 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. Spray or dust doesn’t cover everything. I prefer the hunt and pluck method. So do my chickens.

Happy gardening and remember, keep those hands dirty.


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5 responses to “Hornworms and the Battle Over Tomatoes

  1. Jane K. Smith

    July 16, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    I live in middle Georgia and have been looking every day for signs of these evil creatures. None sighted yet.

  2. TomatoGardenNewbie

    July 16, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Is there anything, like a mild soap solution for example, that will discourage these worms from getting on the plants in the first place? Like you – pesticides are out of the question.

  3. Janie

    July 20, 2010 at 11:17 am

    The devils also eat pepper plants! Never had that problem till this year. They ate every leaf off a pepper plant overnight. The fat **** was munching happily away the next morning.

  4. Doe

    July 20, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    They are truly evil. I call them tobacco worms (because they eat those too – like mad). I used to smash them with a rock and then leave them as an example to others that might venture in, but now that I have chickens again, I feed them to them! They LOVE the tasty treats. It’s nice to give the worms a little taste of their own medicine! Evil beasts.

  5. Harriette Jacobs

    August 11, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    I would love to set up a camera to see from where these chunky creatures march from….it’s as if they’ve marched from the sea right to my tomato crop…. I have to secure help from the family to pull them off – I become nauseous the moment I try to grab and pull (they are strong little suckers, too!). But the hens LOVE them and consider them a delicacy. (wink)


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