He was as thick as my thumb and as long as my index finger and was sporting a dangerous looking spike on his rear end. Indiscriminately chowing his way through my tomatoes. If I wasn’t so thoroughly unimpressed with the collateral damage I’m sure I’d be rather enchanted by such an almost Alice and Wonderland sort of caterpillar. I’ve never seen them in my garden before, in fact there was no sign at all until all of a sudden there were just big munch marks on some of the tomatoes. Being the topical kind of writer I am this experience has inspired today’s blog on these giant tomato destroyers.
Tomato hornworms are indeed caterpillars and honestly it’s a strange time for them to just appear in my garden as their mothers (the Five Spotted Hawkmoth) most often lay their eggs in the spring. Hatching occurs quickly in about a week so whenever they are laid they come and they come FAST. They will feast on your plants for 4-6 weeks then cocoon up and overwinter in the garden soil to appear again next year and repeat this vicious attack.
So how do you know if you have them? Well as I mentioned tomatoes start looking as though pac man has been chomping through and plants will sometimes become completely defoliated and begin to wilt. They also take lots of caterpillar poops all over the place so look for dark brown/black to green/brown poops that can range in size from about the size of a flea to the size of a cat kibble! If you see the poop they’re likely near by. Keep your eyes peeled as they blend in well.
So what to do about them? Well the old pick n’ squish method is one of the most effective, however this grosses me out so I’d rather just drown them in a bucket of soapy water. You can also try to spray them with a soap solution, but I’ve had mixed results. Another option involves calling in the proverbial troupes, parasitic wasps. They lay their eggs on the worms and when they hatch they eat the worm for nourishment (also gross). So how do you get the wasps to your garden battlefield. With nectar of course! They especially like the tiny flowers that grow in clusters, like dill, fennel, Queen Annes lace, and daisy-like flowers such as tansy, spearmint, clover, sweet alyssum, daisies, echinacea. These flowers can be planted as a border to your veggie patch and will help to bring these hornworm marauders home. For next year make sure you till the soil well as this seems to almost eradicate a recurrence. So if you spot a Tomato Hornworm remember move quickly but don’t panic as they are large it’s easy to see them and thus remove them!