Battling with tomato worms

Photo by Sacha BurnsA tomato worm covered in the egg sacks of a parasitic wasp.

And just like that it feels as though summer is almost over.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was wishing for warmer days and for the snow to finally melt. Now we are amid full harvest and I can barely keep up with the tomatoes.

As for my bush beans, I think after about the third picking I was already having thoughts of how soon the frost could come. You would think after all the years of me growing bush beans and complaining how I can hardly walk after being bent over picking them, that I would talk my carpenter boyfriend into building some raised beds. However, I already keep him busy enough putting up fencing and building enclosures for all our growing animals. And I am sure that bean picking season will truly be over sooner than I anticipate.

In fact, the entire growing season goes entirely too quickly. This is the time of year I am inspecting my plants even closer and trying to keep diseases and fungus at bay so it won’t choose to inhabit my soil for the next forever and destroy any future plantings.

I am also keeping an eye out for insects. The ones I am still always in a hot pursuit after are the tomato worms and squash bugs. Both guys can cause more damage to plants than you could ever believe. The squash bugs I mostly squish and spray with a mix of dawn dish soap and water. Which only takes a few drops of soap to a bottle of water ratio. The tomato worms, on the other hand, are trying to kill me.

I can go out and see entire tops of tomato plants have been completely stripped of their leaves. Well, in this case their leaves were eaten. Then you find the droppings to these awful worms, which looks like mini hand grenades the size of a pencil eraser. If they are still a shade of green in color, then you are still hot on the trail. If the droppings are brown or black, there is a chance your tomato worm has moved on to the next plot of your tomatoes.

If you are lucky enough to find the elusive tomato worm, you will surely be alarmed by the hook that is protruding from both sides of their body, which looks as if it could be lethal. Don’t worry — I have never heard of any one ever being injured by these guys unless it was the result of the panic attack they may cause.

Once I find a tomato worm, I then take it and throw it to my chickens. They love to eat them and I feel as though they have served a purpose, which in this case is being a source of protein. Before I had chickens, I would throw the worms on the ground and step on them. If you go this route, be sure the worm is covered entirely with your shoe. Otherwise they tend to spray their guts right back at you, which is beyond disgusting.

My mother was never a fan of killing anything, insect or otherwise, and she would always prefer someone else take care of those situations. One time I was at a Farmers Market in Chicago when my mom called me and said she had found a tomato worm and relocated it to the road. She was hoping that a car would run it over. When that didn’t happen, she got in her own car and drove up and down the road until her tires eventually killed the tomato worm. I still get a chuckle from that one.

If you come across a tomato worm and it is covered in little white growths, leave that one alone. Those are the egg sacks from a parasitic wasp. It uses the tomato worm as a host for its eggs to hatch and then uses the worm as a first meal. Now that is a part of nature that I am OK with, mostly because I know that tomato worm’s days are numbered from here on out.

It’s the days when I find all the leaves missing and know somewhere in that row of tomatoes is a tomato worm and I can’t find it. Those are the days that turn into nights where I go to sleep and am convinced I can hear the tomato worms chewing in my fields. That is how the tomato worms are attempting to seek revenge on me. But lucky for me, I know once the days get colder and the frost arrives that I won’t have to worry about tomato worms again...until next year.

Sacha Burns is an organic gardener and owner of Sunkissed Organics in Pinola. She may be reached at sachabrittburns@yahoo.com.

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