The very hungry caterpillar

Yesterday’s healthy tomato plant reduced today to a stick? Tomato hornworms may be to blame.

What’s new in your garden? In mine, it’s tomato hornworms.

My vegetable garden is in a location where I walk by it virtually every day. One day, my plants were tall and lush. The next day, one looked like this.

tomato plant foliage stripped off

Holy cow. It couldn’t have been deer or groundhogs; the garden is fenced off in a way that prevents either of those from invading. A closer look (much closer, because the little rotters are exceptionally well adapted to their dinner of choice) revealed them to be tomato hornworms, Manduca quinquemaculata.

These suckers were, as you can see, the size of an adult thumb after having munched a five-foot-tall tomato plant to the stalk.

tomato hornworm caterpillar manduca quinquemaculata

How to treat tomato hornworms

Being an eco-friendly pest management type, I grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen (I will touch a lot of things in the garden, but not these guys) and snipped off the part of the stem where they sat munching away. With a collection bucket in hand, I dropped the stalk remnant and fat caterpillars into it, then collected another three (thankfully, much smaller) ones from adjacent plants. I dropped them in soapy water and disposed of them in the garbage. Alternative control methods include Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) and insecticidal soap, but using scissors means you don’t have to go out to the store.

Monitor plants several times a week to stop these guys before they decimate your entire tomato planting. (Decimaters…?)

My very hungry caterpillar(s)

(an homage to Eric Carle)

At some point last summer, a butterfly lay an egg on a leaf.

One morning, when I wasn’t watching, out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar. Then his brother hatched. And his sister. And his other sister…

They started to look for some food.

On Monday they ate through one Rosa ‘Gertrude Jekyll.’ But they were still hungry.

very hungry caterpillars

On Tuesday, they ate through some gardenias. But they were still hungry.

gardenia 1

On Wednesday, they ate through three 6-foot Osmanthus. But they were still hungry.

osmanthus 3

On Thursday, they ate through a Heuchera. But they were still hungry.

heuchera 2

You know the rest of the story.

We all love butterflies. We want them to fill our gardens and delight our children and ourselves. But if we want them, we had better accept that we must also have caterpillars. As depressed as the chewed-up foliage leaves me, I won’t reach for any sprays. Soon they will be big, fat, sleepy caterpillars and I can pass some time with my kids finding cocoons. I grow several plants that are favorite hosts of different butterfly species: rue (Ruta graveolens), favored by the Old World swallowtail;  bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), favored by the Anise swallowtail; butterfly bush (Buddleja), Senna marilandica, Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) and others. When caterpillar season is over I will cut off the decimated foliage, and wait for the butterflies to emerge.