hornworms attack and other garden stories

Hornworm on my Lemon Boy tomato plant

Hornworm on my Lemon Boy tomato plant

I'm a novice gardener. This year is really the first time I've taken a vested interest in growing anything. It's just not something that ever appealed to me. But when we moved into the apartment last fall, my mom bought me a small houseplant. Then when she moved, I took ownership of several of her plants- a mini Phaleonopsis orchid, a huge golden pathos, and some outdoor plants. It became my mission to handle them as well as possible, since they were entrusted to my care. I did research. I learned about their needs and how to treat them.

Suddenly I found myself very interested in plants. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to have my own garden. I started buying plants and pots, with the intention of planting them in the ground once we moved into a house. Of course, we didn't have an exact timeline, so I was a bit overly optimistic about when that would happen.

I hid my pots and plants with a sign claiming ownership of them behind our apartment building next to the air conditioning units. 

It started small. A few herbs, a few tomato plants, a pepper plant. Again, being overly optimistic, I started seedlings.

They took up our entire dining room table area.

Then we moved.

I stuck the seedlings outside with the pots while we worked to get everything at least slightly in order.

The collection grew....

and grew..

until there were six tomato plants, two pepper plants, rosemary, lavender, aloe, thyme, mint, purple basil, sweet basil, and at least one other thing I'm forgetting.

The goal was to get the plants into raised beds before they got too established in the pots, but by the time we built the first bed, the plants were enormous.

So I built two gardens. One in pots on the back patio, and one in raised beds alongside the house. The growing season is long enough that I could do a second planting and still reap plenty of fruit- so we finished the first bed and planted more tomato seedlings. 

My goal was to maintain organic practices- which I have- but it was totally a learn-as-you-go type situation. I didn't apply any pesticides to the plants at all. Imagine, if you can, my complete horror to find the below visitors one morning on my daily morning visit to the potted garden patch.

Hornworms on my hybrid red cherry tomato

Hornworms on my hybrid red cherry tomato

There were expletives. So, so many of them. And horror! The horror.... It is not an exaggeration to say that these bugs were the rough size and thickness of my thumb. I had never seen such a large caterpillar before. Following the advice of the internet, which as you know is rarely a good idea, I picked these two off with my hands and squished them underfoot. I had flip flops on. It took me about twenty minutes to recover. Not to mention that my sweet cherry tomato plant, which mere hours before had been the healthiest in the patch, was almost completely stripped of leaves from the top to about 1/3 down.

The picture above shows you the droppings of the hornworms littering the ground after their feast. I was furious! Armed with the knowledge that these bugs would stop at nothing to consume the fruits of all my labors, I began waging war against them. And no, that is not too strong of a term. I spent hours each day attacking the bugs on the established plants with everything I had. In the morning before work. Coming home for lunch. And again in the evening. Since I hadn't been looking for them, or known what to look for, there was quite the population boom. They ate the tomatoes. They ate the leaves. They pooped everywhere. I was having nightmares about them.

A few weeks later, after an assiduous campaign for the destruction of hornworms, things were looking up. I had it pretty much under control. I went from finding 10-25 a day to 1-2. 

Then this happened.

The one tomato that survived the hornworm scourge- a beautiful Cherokee Purple- was half eaten when I went out in the morning to check on it. I was devastated.

Soon, I found that I couldn't keep the tomatoes on the vine long enough to ripen- there was a voracious thief in our tomato patch. I tried all kinds of repellents with no success. I couldn't figure out what the critter was- my thoughts ranged from a raccoon, to voles, to any other assortment of large mammals.

Finally, one morning, we woke up and found ten chewed tomatoes littering the ground on the patio, with over a dozen still on the plants with teeth or claw marks.

The path forward was clear. The plants needed protection.

We moved (with much grimacing and please-be-careful-oh-oh-oh-dear from me) the potted, staked tomatoes into the second, unfinished raised bed. We surrounded the two beds with a small electric fence and set up irrigation. My two gardens became one garden- and even better, they weren't getting raided every night.

After a few days of self-congratulatory pats on the back, it started again. The tomatoes would be just starting to ripen, that first blush of yellow, and the next day they would be gone. There were over 50 fruit on my roma tomato and I didn't get a single one. Not to mention any of the big heirlooms- the Cherokee Purple and the Mr. Stripey- nothing. I took to picking the tomatoes as soon as they thought about ripening and keeping them indoors. This effort was met with limited success.

We couldn't figure it out. Nothing seemed to help. A motion-activated light, the electric fence, all the repellents- nothing made one whit of difference. I'd stay up nights, reading gardening blogs, forums, websites, books, anything I could get my hands on to figure out a solution. I learned a lot, but the critters kept right on a'coming.

Finally, one day, a breakthrough. 

It was terrible.

Are you ready?

I went out to the garden in the morning, as always, and saw destroyed tomatoes everywhere, as always. But then, something different. What could only be clearly identified as RODENT POOP. The tomato with the poop on it was growing directly adjacent to a beautiful tomato that had been COMPLETELY DESTROYED- you can see the chewed stem in the foreground of the photo above.

Now, to clarify, this tomato was about 4.5-5 feet off the ground at the time. So they had been scaling the tomato trunks and eating the fruit! Suddenly it all made sense! Horrible, disgusting, unpleasant sense. It was rats. Of course they got through the electric fence- it was 6" off the ground! After a very unfortunate time of grappling with the realization that we had a tree rat problem, I knew what to do.

The positive was now I knew what I was fighting against. So another wave of research began. Trapping them? Live trapping? Humane execution? The more I learned the clearer it became that the rats had to go, permanently. As my favorite Southern belle would say- "they had no place here anymore".  We bought a weatherproof electric trap that uses a shock to kill the rats instantly. 

I will of course, spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that it worked. Very well. And now I actually get to watch my tomatoes ripen on the vine!

Now, after telling you about the rats, you might think that was as bad as it could get. What could be worse?

Here's the thing: we both work full time. We've got this house to tend to, food to make, work to do.....and despite spending as much time as I could in the garden, things got out of hand. Really out of hand.

The garden was so overgrown and out of control that I could barely even reach past the external layer. The tomatoes just kept growing and growing and I was not keeping up. We still haven't gotten the second and third beds finished. 

So...I had to do something. Not only because I had already invested so much time and hard work, but also because I'm pretty sure they would be climbing the rooftop fairly soon.

So, I tackled it this weekend. I used the weed whacker (for the first time ever) and went to town on the tomatoes with the pruners. I took down the electric fence, since we really didn't need it in the first place. 

In the next two weeks we will tackle the second and third beds. I'd like to get beets and carrots planted by the end of September. 

The funny part about all of this is that I don't even like tomatoes.