Sow There! Watching gory tomato hornworm videos from afar, 4-19-18

PUBLISHED: April 19, 2018

My tomato plants remain hidden in plain view on my front porch. When it hailed Monday afternoon, I was glad I had forgotten to transplant them from their four-inch pots to the raised bed.

I bought the beauties from Kinnicutt Family Nursery more than two weeks ago at the Saturday farmers market. On that day, I was wearing shorts and had intentions of planting the tomatoes before dusk.

Beth, the plant gal at the market, had an inspiring display of plants. She helped me decide on Isis candy cherry tomatoes. I drew a word picture in my mind — Egyptian goddess, sweet and cheery. Beth also suggested champion, a tomato type that produces early with medium-sized fruit.

Limited space

There’s only one raised bed in my back yard and I’m a bit concerned about planting tomatoes in the same place again this year. There are plenty of gardening rules of thumb, most of which I don’t follow. One is that you need to rotate your tomato to outrun the tomato hornworms.

Just in case you aren’t familiar with tomato hornworms, these are those green gobblers that systematically devour the leaves from your tomato plants. If you don’t check your plants for three days, the worms will have grown to a ghastly size and made your plant as pitiful as Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

Most gardeners with the time will stand over their plants for extended periods of time searching for the monstrosities. The easiest tactic is to find a stem that is almost entirely stripped of leaves, look for dark green globs of worm poop, and look under the leaves for the cigar-sized (or smaller) worms. The worms will be exactly the same color as the tomato leaves.

If you don’t catch hornworms, they will burrow into the soil where they pupate, emerge as glorious sphinx moths, then spread eggs on your tomato plants like Mardi Gras confetti.

Commercial farmers rototill the soil after each season, which will dice up the pupating critters. However, I’m not going to dig through my entire raised bed. That’s just not going to happen. If I had that kind of free time I would clean my house.

Hornworm video stars

To successfully avoid cleaning my house, I spent some time watching tomato hornworm videos. One gore-filled clip should have included a warning for viewer discretion:

The videographer, named Steve, got up and ugly with tomato hornworms, showing every step of the lifecycle — from egg, to plant-sucking worm, to grubby burrower.

Just when I thought I was done watching the action, Steve zoomed in on a hornworm “natural predator,” the yellow jacket. In the video, the yellow jacket digs into the hornworm’s flesh, like some zombie horror movie. I hate horror films, but while watching this insect film I found myself rooting for the predator.

These days you can watch just about anything on YouTube, including this short flick of a yellow jacket eating meat out of a man’s hands, I am grateful to Steve. I’m understandably wary of yellow jackets after being stung and walking around with an arm swollen to twice its normal size. In Steve’s images, I was able to calmly watch a yellow roll meat into a neat ball, which the bug carried off to devour privately.

Do I still generally hate yellow jackets? Yes.

However, seeing them in this new light gave me respect for their meat-grubbing ways. In spring and early summer, yellow jackets eat insets in the yard, including hornworms. It’s later that yellow jackets crawl into your sugary soda can.

Tomato rotation

As for the tomato hornworms, ideally you should rotate the location where you plant tomatoes each year. I asked Beth about planting tomatoes in pots, but she reiterated what I already knew. Tomatoes don’t do well in pots. However, hot peppers grow well while contained, she said. Beth suggested trying peppers and cucumbers in a large pot. Add a tomato cage and the cucumbers will grow up the wire, she added.

Hail check

During my recent visit to the garden at Nord Country School, I watched as the children planted cucumber seeds. Inspired, I rushed home and planted cucumber seeds in my own garden. Nothing grew.

More recently I checked the seed packet, which is marked for sale in 2011.

Meanwhile, I finally ate the winter squash that had been sitting on my counter since mid-January. Now I have dozens of squash seedlings growing out of my compost.

Garden enthusiast Heather Hacking can be contacted at, and snail mail, P.O. Box 5166, Chico, CA, 95927.

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