Sow There!: Snails and tomatoes, a great combo for the classroom 9/7/18

September 7, 2018 at 3:52 am

My third graders love fresh vegetables. We eat lunch in the classroom, and one day I was walking between the aisles demonstrating healthful eating habits.

I was about to make an announcement that one of the children had asked to share something with the class.

“Class, it’s time for sharing.”

Hands shot up into the air.

The children naturally thought it was time for me to share my snap peas. I obliged.

This inspired me to bring in my excess tomatoes. Each day I slice them up and the arms shoot up in the air.

If you’re growing tomatoes in the back yard, you also likely have enough tomatoes to feed a large classroom. You may also have some unwelcome backyard visitors — tomato hornworms.

Hornworm habits

The University of California Cooperative Extension website states that midsummer is when these monstrous munching caterpillars hit their peak. You’ll also see a second generation right about now. I snipped two hornworms in half with my pruning shears several weeks ago, which is a record low number for my yard.

In the past, I had the luxury of spending 10 minutes or more chasing these camouflage beasts with a careful eye. First you notice dark green blobs of worm poop on a leaf. Soon you’ll spy some barren tomato plant limbs. Keep looking and the ugly creatures will come into view and it’s a surprise you could have missed it during the first 20 sweeps of the eyes.

If you’ve ever been up close with these ugly guys, you’ll notice the hideous mouth, the masticating machine that drives the green leaf destroyer.

You’ll sometimes find baby hornworms, but I mostly find them when they are up to five inches long and have eaten four times their weight in tomato stems.

If you spot one, don’t be too quick to kill. Take your time. Take a good look. They’re fascinating to watch and they don’t bite. They move slowly, giving your plenty of time to enjoy the creature that simply wants to eat and eat until turning into something that looks like a burrowing, mummified pinky finger.

As heinous as hornworms can be, please think twice about using chemical control.

Handpicking is easy if you just give it a few minutes. Insecticides can harm bees, and you need bees to pollinate many things in your garden, like the mystery squash growing out of the compost pile.

To the birds

Last week I spotted obvious signs of a hornworm hidden somewhere in the overgrown tangle of tomato vines.

• Dark green blobs of worm poop? Affirmative.

• Barren branches with leaves stripped? Yes, indeed.

But where was the worm?

I looked and looked, but I did not have the time to be a diligent worm detective.

There’s a moment that arrives when you shrug your shoulders and create a fantasy in your head. This hornworm must have been devoured by a bird. Yes, that’s it. My plants will be safe because that hornworm was obviously whisked away into the air, perhaps taken to a nest where a family of chirpers gobbled him greedily.

Birds into action

It’s not unlikely. Hornworms and bird beaks are known to bump heads.

Several garden chat websites noted you can try to lure birds to your tomatoes by posting a makeshift bird feeder. A tuna can filled with birdseed and mounted on a small post should do the trick. The birds arrive and soon spot what you would have spent half an hour searching for with your human eyes.

I read somewhere that raptors actually have specialized vision that allows them to see mice urine from a distance. It glows a different color letting them move in for the kill. I’m not sure if this is the case with birds and hornworms, but it makes me feel better about not being able to spot the buggers quickly.

Show and tell

Last week I was thrilled to learn about æstevation, a form of hibernation snails go through when there is lack of water. A few days later, one of the children in my third-grade class was discovered with a handful of snails.

In hindsight, I should have told her to keep the snails outdoors.

“Great,” I said, “I had hoped to track down some snails for a thing I want to do. Can I have one?”

I dropped the other two snails out the window when she wasn’t looking.

For about two days I kept her snail captive in an enclosed, yellow pencil sharpener. Later that week it was my time for show-and-tell. The snail had sealed up tight, creating a tight gluey goo over its normally oozy section.

First, I showed the children the sealed snail. Then I asked them to make predictions about what they thought would happen if I put some water and the snail in a small bowl.

They’re smart. They figured it out.

Just a few minutes later, the snail was racing to escape the bowl. Unfortunately, I had to resist the students’ request to keep the mollusk as our class pet.

The children were mildly impressed with æstevation. I was thrilled.

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