Archived Story

That is one ugly worm [UPDATED]

Published 9:25am Monday, August 20, 2012 Updated 11:29am Monday, August 20, 2012

Bunkey takes pride in having the first and biggest tomatoes in the neighborhood. So he was horrified one morning when he saw three of his six tomato plants had been stripped of half their leaves leaving only the stalk of the plant. It didn’t take long to find the culprit.

There, hiding under the leaves were huge, green and white worms with what looked like a stinger on their heads. He yelled for George, his master gardener neighbor. “Come here and tell me what this prehistoric monster is,” he demanded.

“It’s a tomato hornworm and that stinger is just a growth on its backside. That is to scare birds into thinking it might hurt them so they don’t eat it.”

It took a close look to see that the “eyes” on that end were fake. The color of the worm, tomato green makes it difficult to see at first glance. The white stripes on its sides are the only giveaway. It and a few of its friends can totally strip a tomato, eggplant, pepper or potato of its leaves in a night.

The “ick” factor makes it difficult for many gardeners to pick the worms off the plant, especially since when you do, the worm will twist around and grab your finger with its two-toothed jaws. While it doesn’t hurt, the surprise will make the toughest gardener drop the thing the first time that happens. Picking them off can be an exercise in futility as you seldom find them all. A better way to get rid of them is to spray the plants with B.T. or one of the other bacterial based sprays that paralyses their guts so they stop feeding and die.

If you entertained a sphinx moth this spring you may have hornworms. The moth which at first looks like a hummingbird, lays eggs on your plant that turn into worms. They then turn into black/brown pupae with what looks like a long tongue. That hatches into the moth. You can have two hatches of hornworms a summer so even if you have disposed of them once, don’t let down your guard. Keep patrolling your garden for the next hatch.

If your first tomatoes have a black bottom, don’t despair. This is blossom end rot and is caused by uneven watering. The plant can’t get enough calcium so it develops a nasty looking bottom. Cut it off and you can eat the rest of the fruit. It is quite safe.

Watch your plant for yellowing leaves at the bottom of the plant. This can be a fungus that will eventually kill the plant. Snip the affected leaves off and get them out of the garden.

Keep watering everything until we get regular rains. All plants need at least one inch of water a week; this includes large trees. Soak them until the soil around the tree is soggy for best results. To heck with the water bill, your trees are more important than your billfold.


Bev Johnson is a master gardener for Otter Tail County.

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