Never one to watch reptilian or insect life forms emerge from human hosts on the science fiction channel, I am struggling a bit with the monster show going on in my garden right now. It all began or at least my part in the drama began a couple of nights ago when I went to show a family friend my “beautiful” salsa garden. At least it had been beautiful the night before.
Pride is never a good thing, so you can imagine my alarm when I discovered that several tomato plants sported branches with no leaves and signs of little whitish “poopies” on the ground below the plant. That sent the husband, the friend, and I on a mission to discover a thriving tomato hornworm population having a great time in my garden. In a recent article, I discussed how clever Mother Nature is at creating hidden pictures. Well, the tomato hornworm is another one of her masterpieces.
How something that long (two – four inches) and that round (fat ones must be near an inch in circumference) can hide from two and in this case six perfectly fine human eyes is a miracle. These creatures can be huge and crawling or hanging around invisibly in plain sight. What an oxymoron, but it’s true. In their bold, destructive hunger, they don’t hide. Something bigger than the stem it crawls on blends in with the plant like it is part of the plant.
Once again, Nature has worked her magic in such a way that this monstrosity of a caterpillar is exactly the color of the tomato stems and leaves. A skilled painter could not match hues more perfectly. A science fiction special effects department could not create a nastier looking monster. These tomato vine green, pillowy caterpillars come in segments each marked with a white V. Each segment has its own clingy set of legs that give the person who picks them off the vine the willies. While their front end with the mouth seems uneventful, the last abdominal segment that some might consider a tail has the nastiest looking horn attached. I’ve found no evidence that this is harmful, at least to humans, and I have never been stung or poked, but it’s evil looking.
Keep in mind that great numbers of these creatures from the deep can take up residence in a tomato patch, so finding and destroying one is not the end of the gardener’s job. I found six the other night and two more larger ones the next morning. I’ve started taking stock of the tomatoes twice a day now, hauling my big coffee can into the tomato patch and tossing those creepy crawlers into it for a feast for my chickens later in the morning.
You might wonder how something this ugly gets into a beloved garden. Again, Mother Nature has some fun. Those big moths that look like humming birds (Sphinx moths) like to lay their oval, light green or yellow eggs on nightshade family plant leaves such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and egg plants. In six to eight days, the larva—the hornworms—hatch.
If the gardener doesn’t find these creatures consuming the tomato or other solanaceous plants, these guys hang out and eat for three to four weeks. When they reach gigantic maturity, they plop off their tomato plant into the dirt like a kid off an air mattress into a pool. Once in the garden soil, things get nastier. They pupate for about two weeks. Doesn’t that sound like a 3 a.m. in the morning SyFy thriller. Once done pupating, they emerge from the garden like a phoenix from the ashes as a full-blown sphinx moth ready to start the cycle all over again.
Some folks are so frightened by these caterpillars’ nasty appearance, they head straight for the can of Sevin. This is not necessary. These guys are easy to pluck from the stem they call home and dropped in a can to feed the chickens if you have them or they can be drowned or snipped in half to end their tomato plant destroying days.
At the end of the growing season, experts recommend tilling the garden thoroughly as a means of destroying any remaining pupae in the soil before the next planting. I have mixed feelings about this. It prevents finding these ugly Shrek green beasts on the tomato vine, but it also prevents the hope that a gigantic, hovering moth might be a hummingbird sampling the nectar in the flower garden.
While monsters in the garden are more alarming than monsters on the science fiction channel, they let us know a bit more about nature’s mimicry and her cycles. It’s worth examining the tomato plants twice a day to shake a few ugly bugs loose. My chickens second that!