This is the sight you were dreaming of when you lovingly placed your little tomato plants in the soil a couple months ago. Pile after pile of shiny, boldly colored, unblemished fruit of the vine.
But the reality is every time you go out to your garden, you’re finding little green orbs that look like miniature apples with a bite taken out of them and you know that is one less tomato you’re going to enjoy this summer.
It’s so frustrating! Anytime you pour your heart into a project and you see it being destroyed outside of your control. Such is the life of a farmer on any scale. You can’t help but be dependent on God to lend a hand, send some rain, hold back the violent storms, divert the pests, and so on. I have a love/hate relationship with that dependence. It builds my faith and trust in the Lord and at the same time, I just want the bugs to all go away and the rain to fall (every Tuesday and Friday, and overnight while I’m sleeping please.. so I can still get my work done during the day. Too much to ask?)
So now that we’ve identified that there is a problem in the tomato patch, how do we diagnose it, and what is the solution?
Well, what you’ve got on your tomatoes is a Tomato Hornworm. (Maybe several.) A Tomato Hornworm NOT the same as sphinx or hummingbird moths- you’ll only find Tomato Hornworms flying around at night. (So getting rid of the bad guys from your tomatoes will not decrease your pollinators in the future.)
Now I want you to brace yourself. When you first trail your eyes across their massively squishy bodies you’re going to scream a little and get a hot shot of adrenaline tingling your armpits. It’s like a living book of Where’s Waldo? and the moments leading up to the sighting, knowing that it’s going to scare you a little, only serve to create even more nervous tension.
But before you play the game “Peekaboo” with a giant bug that leaves you feeling like a 5-month-old baby, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, what are some of the signs to look for to indicate that you have an unwelcome visitor?
How to Identify Tomato Hornworms
Pick your name of choice to call it, what I’m talking about is the bitten, chewed, digested, and reformed pieces of your tomato plant that have recently passed through the excretory system of a Tomato Hornworm. Their droppings are big and abundant so this is usually one of the first signs that I spot.
Tomato Hornworms never seem to eat the whole tomato. They chew their way across one side and move on up the plant, leaving what looks like an apple with a bite taken out of it. It’s usually scarred over and beginning to brown and is always a source of heartbreak.
Tomato Hornworms are huge and so is their appetite. They work their way up and around the stem leaving nothing in their wake. The good news is they seem to start in the middle and work their way up. Good news because it spares the bottom half of the plant and narrows down your search. The bad news is those are your late season tomatoes that you’ll never be getting.
And now to begin the search. Tomato Hornworms blend marvelously into their surroundings and every curled, holey leaf looks like a hornworm at first glance, building upon the suspense.
After the scream and the hot flush of adrenaline subsides once you spot one, the question is, “What is your plan of action?”
Hopefully, you’re growing organically. (It would be foolish not to.) And hopefully, you’re growing beyond organically. Because let’s face it, pesticides kill indiscriminately. They can’t identify good bugs from the bad bugs and even if you spray organically-approved chemicals on your food, they are going to kill ALL the bugs. Good bugs are your best defense against these juicy monsters, so step away from the sprayer…
7 Ways to Get Kill of Tomato Hornworms (Organically)
This is my least favorite way to control Tomato Hornworms. (I’m still a total girl about it and am usually screaming for a son to come to my rescue… oddly enough though it was daughters who were my pickers this year…) I hate touching that plump, jelly-filled skin, but hand-picking is effective. When I’m diligent, I can usually stop an infestation early in the season. With a life cycle median of about 40 days, if you miss the first few in the spring, you can expect things to get worse later on in the season. Once picked, you can either feed them to your chickens (make sure they’ll eat them… not all will), squish them (shudders), or drown them.
There is much anecdotal evidence from farmers who have had success from interplanting flowers such as marigolds or borage amidst your tomatoes. Of course, they never specify if it’s your granny’s garden marigold (Tagetes) or if it’s Pot Marigold (Calendula.) If you try Borage with your tomatoes, make sure you succession plant early in the season as they grown and bloom quickly. By the middle of the season they’ll be easily reseeding so you can just let them do their thing.
Plant a Trap Crop
Lure Hornworms to a different part of your garden and far from your tomatoes by planting a trap crop of Flowering Tobacco. They’ll destroy the tobacco while your tomatoes can grow in peace and safety. If I was using this method, I would still try to keep them picked off the tobacco until you see Brachnid Wasps appear as you don’t want to encourage the population.
Crop rotation is super important for tomatoes whether you have an infestation of pests or not. Tomatoes are heavy feeds which means they take a lot from the soil. Planting a light feeder such as lettuce in its place next year will give the soil a break and a chance to recover. While many growers are growing tomatoes in the same greenhouse year after year, they’re not doing so without large inputs of fertility that the average home gardener can’t afford (though a homesteader with livestock could make their own), but I digress. Tomato Hornworms, when they are ready to pupate, drop to the soil below to make the change. While tillage can help kill them in that stage, the question is what else are you killing? A no-till gardener has no effective way to rid the soil of the pupae and must practice crop rotation to give their tomatoes a fighting chance.
This is my favorite method of Tomato Hornworm control! It’s totally passive, protects the tomatoes from further damage, and builds healthy populations of beneficial insects over time. When you spot a Tomato Hornworm with little pills of cotton standing up on their back, they’ve been parasitized by Brachnid Wasps. At this point, they’re completely paralyzed and won’t further damage your tomato plants, so make sure to stop hand-picking at this point! Attract Brachnid Wasps to your garden with flowers such as dill, chamomile, and buckwheat. (Here is a list of flowers that attract beneficial insects to your garden. Many, such as the three I mentioned have many uses for you too, so make sure you plant them in abundance.)
This is where your Homestead Management Binder becomes a valuable tool. Taking good notes of exactly what the problem is and what solutions worked for you will become a blessing to you in years to come. What I’ve observed is that unless the infestation is heavy, Tomato Hornworms seem to prefer certain varieties, usually heirlooms. My Yellow Pear and Principe Borghese took the brunt of the damage this year while Mountain Fresh remained virtually unscathed.
Whether you handpicked the worms and fed them to your flock or bring your chickens into the garden as a late season clean up crew, every Tomato Hornworm is that many fewer bites of food you’ll have to feed to your gals. I can think of no better vengeance upon my garden enemies than to one day crack them open into a skillet for an omelet if you know what I mean.
Personally, I find Tomato Hornworms to be one of the easier pests to manage. Though they scare the living daylights out of me and shorten my life a day for every worm I find, I don’t feel such a need to include imprecatory prayer in my management strategy like I do with say Cucumber Beetles. Little devils that they are.) I’m thankful for the many methods I can use to protect my beloved tomato crop without having to resort to spraying poison (pesticides) on my children’s food.