After two days of rainstorms, I walked outside to check on my tomato plants to make sure they hadn’t been damaged. What I found was even worse: almost every tomato on one of the plants had been destroyed. In fact, one of the offending pests was still there, enjoying the remnants of his evening meal!
Here’s a quick primer with tips on identifying the most common tomato-loving caterpillars, and a few simple steps to prevent any more nighttime attacks on your beloved plants.
These wicked little organic lawnmowers emerge at night, devouring your plants from ground up. They live just under the surface, peeking their nasty little green and brown bodies above your lovely garden soil, waiting to eat up everything in sight. They may simply saw the plant down at the base, or they may climb a bit, but there’s no recovering a plant once cutworms — which aren’t really worms at all, but moth caterpillars — have their way with them.
The telltale sign of a cutworm attack: plants that looked perfectly healthy the night before are wilted and dead when you inspect them the next day. There’s really not a whole lot you can do to come back from that. Remove the plant, dig around the hole where it was planted, and you may find cutworms, curled up, waiting for another night’s fun.
These caterpillars have the most incredible camouflage ever. Their green color and patterning practically allows them to go unnoticed as you run frantically about your once-gorgeous tomato plants, trying to figure out what’s chewing them up. One tell-tale sign is ‘pillar poo. If you notice little black dots speckling the leaves, it’s probably because a tomato hornworm is happily digesting its way through your tomato crop. Another way to ID the hornworm: nubs on your stalks where leaves should be.
They’re large, green critters, almost the length of a finger. Sadly, this caterpillar turns into a rather impressive moth that looks so much like a hummingbird, you may be tempted into encouraging it to hang out, chomping away on your leaves. I feel your pain, as it’s too hot in my neck of the woods for most hummingbirds once the summer heat hits. Be strong! A moth is not a hummingbird, no matter how we’d like to fool ourselves. Entertain them at the cost of your tomatoes this year, and a whole new crop of hornworms next year, as the pupae from this batch emerge out of the soil in the spring. Yuck, right?
Alas, my tomato crop this year was damaged by the tomato pinworm, a teeny thing that does an enormous amount of damage. The light green and yellow caterpillars burrow into fruit and nosh away, as you can see in the photo. They love green tomatoes better than anything and destroy the fruit entirely, which is another sad but effective way to identify the culprit.
Each of these caterpillars makes its home in the soil during winter months and emerges in the spring to party in your garden. While you can’t prevent insects from visiting, there are steps to take to minimize the threat.
This is the third year I’ve grown tomatoes in the same area of our raised vegetable garden, which is the equivalent of sending out engraved invitations to every tomato-loving pest in the neighborhood. To avoid repeat infestations without using insecticides, carefully check all plant cuttings before adding them to your compost pile, and prepare your soil properly. Rotate crops whenever possible, so you don’t replant equally-attractive vegetables in the same soil. During the winter months, till your soil well, and consider tenting the base of your plants with a barrier near the surface to keep caterpillars away from the plants as they emerge from the soil at night. Keep leaves raised and out of direct contact with your garden bed by pinching off those lowest to the ground or tying them back.