The very hungry reclassified caterpillar

Not, in fact, a tomato hornworm.

tomato hornworm caterpillars

Last week I posted about the voracious caterpillars that decimated one of my tomato plants. I theorized, based on as close an identification as I could make, that it was a tomato hornworm, Manduca quinquemaculata.

Made sense. Fat, green guys with white stripes and brown spots? Check. Horns on their rear ends? Check. Munching on tomatoes? Check. My guys’ stripes weren’t as fat as the ones in the photo from the University of Minnesota Extension publication, but perhaps I had juveniles? Maybe after eating my entire plant, the stripes would grow as bloated as the rest of their bodies.

Not so fast. Enter iNaturalist, a fabulous nature-identification app that I’m in love with. Created as a joint project between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, it allows citizens to upload their observations and get critter identifications from other members. The data are shared with databases like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, so you can feel good about contributing to biodiversity science.

Everyone on the app piled on to correct me. I don’t have tomato hornworms, although my mistake is a common one. I have tobacco hornworms, Manduca sexta. This link shows the differences very clearly. Tomato hornworms have V-shaped stripes and bluish- or black horns on their rear ends. Tobacco hornworms have white diagonal stripes bordered in black, and have red horns on their butts.

White stripes, red horns. Clearly, tobacco hornworms.

Treatment is the same: pick ’em off and feed them to hungry birds. I’m happy to report the sad, naked tomato stalk grew a few new leaves this week, so maybe it will pull through.

Here at MHM, we believe in science, so I wanted to correct the record. 🙂

Dear blog, I’ve missed you.

It’s been a lovely, busy, bewildering autumn. Between the new part-time work at Montrose and the new puppy, I’ve barely found a moment to sit down, let alone work in my own garden or record the seasonal comings and goings.

fall crocus at montrose

Autumn-blooming crocus beneath Metasequoia glyptostroboides at Montrose (Hillsborough, NC).

Unlike much of the country, I’m not beneath a foot or more of snow (yet), but it’s plenty cold outside. The houseplants came in weeks ago and the leaves continue to fall steadily. But underneath some row cover, I can still find some green in my garden:

Carrots, parsnips, tat soi, kale, and lettuces in a winter-friendly raised bed.

Carrots, parsnips, tat soi, kale, and lettuces in a winter-friendly raised bed.

Northern hemisphere friends, I hope you’re staying warm. I hope to write again soon.

Grow Write Guild #11: Grow Your Own

The Grow Write Guild’s current prompt is Your Edible Rewards.

The last thing I ate that came from my own garden was mint, which I prepared in a sauce for a delicious North African pork tenderloin recipe. My collection of edibles is meager; having a garden of large oaks means wonderful shade for our semi-tropical summers, but they do cut down on the prospective edible landscape. My edibles, except for some blueberries, reside in pots on the deck.

I am, however, planning to experiment next year by intermingling more food crops with the sun-hogging shrubs and perennials on the south side of my garden. Okra, I know, will do very well; I love a good grilled summer squash but fear that if I’m not careful about the selection the plant may overtake not only the shrubbery but my neighbor’s driveway as well:

exuberant mystery squash

This is a vining-type squash that has overrun the small community garden I oversee. I apologize for the poor-quality photo. I don’t know the variety–the seeds came in a seed-swap and were labeled “squash.” I am reminded to be less frugal with information whenever I share seeds with friends.

I also hope to expand my collection of container-grown veg by delving into the world of bush varieties: bush beans and tomatoes, peas (challenging with our volatile spring weather), compact peppers, and eggplant, and by researching and experimenting with more exotic vegetables from Africa or Asia that perform in hot, humid climates.

Every gardener faces challenges when growing her (or his) own food: if it’s not the infernal weather, it’s plagues of insects, varieties that don’t live up to their promises, pollinators that don’t show, or the wildlife that is so charming when it’s beyond the fence, but less so when it takes precisely one bite out of each tomato on the vine, which of course we were planning to harvest tomorrow. So for me, I try to find my rewards in the process of growing, of observing nature in its cycles, and if I have anything to snack on at the end of it all, then that’s cause for celebration in itself. So it’s a good thing that I have mint for the mojitos.

Breaking bud*

I am in charge of a small community garden whose proceeds benefit our local food bank. It’s time to start seeds for fall food crops, but the weather outside is a bit harsh for seed-starting for those plants that don’t require direct-seeding. Although the summer, I must admit, has been cooler than normal, it’s still in the low 90s and the humidity is unbelievable. We expect thunderstorms every night this week.

So I decided it was time to fire up the grow lights.

You can purchase light stands for seed starting from fancy gardening catalogues for well over $200 apiece, but I always find the cheap hack much more satisfying. Here, I have commandeered a shelf in a closet in our kids’ playroom. The closet was supposed to be dedicated to my husband’s drums, but I hate to see a closet shelf go to waste.

the MHM grow light operation

I had the shop light from my days in Chicago, when I had a similar apparatus in my apartment (yes, I’m cheap enough to haul a $20 shop light halfway across the country. There was room in the truck). A few eye screws and a home light timer later, and we are in business. A not-for-profit, vegetable-growing business, officer.

I love this seed-starting tray. It works as well or better than many of those styrofoam cell packs on the market, and they’re much easier to clean. The base holds about 2 quarts of water, meaning I don’t have to refill often. The individual trays rest on a capillary mat whose ends lie in the base, and the trays wick up water from the capillary mat to provide moisture to the growing plants. Each dome has a circular dial on the top, like you might find on a container of salt from the supermarket, that allows you to adjust the humidity by varying the amount the aperture is open.

separate seed-starting trays allow seven different plants to be started at once.

These trays allow me to start small quantities of seven different kinds of plants at a time,  each progressing at its own rate. I can pot one tray up while the other six continue to grow, and then I can start more plants in the first one again. Here I’ve got Brussels sprouts, short-season bush cucumbers, and kale. Since I took the photo I’ve added broccoli and, what the heck, campanulas (I can plant perennials all year round). My kids have claimed the kale seedlings for kale chips, their favorite wintertime snack (that isn’t chocolate or otherwise sugar-laden, that is).

The timer, for now, brings the lights on at 6 a.m. and turns them off at 11 p.m. I check the plants maybe every other day until I see some action.

Happy fall vegetable gardening!

*No, not that kind of bud.