Wednesday, September 18, 2013

the great green tomato worm race

Steve is not a sadistic person, but yesterday he showed some frightening tendencies in that direction.

I was at the computer, and he walked up to my desk with two long but not leafy stems from a tomato plant. One had a nice-looking ripe tomato at the end and the other one didn't, but what they had in common was that each bore a full-grown tomato worm: white stripes, red horn. and all.

This year, after two or three years of failure to grow a decent tomato crop, we took the plunge and bought some 'Topsy Turvy' tomato planters -- not only "seen on TV" but also featured at our local 99¢ Only Store. We're not inundated with tomatoes, as the ads seem to promise, but the ones we've harvested have been very good. And a Topsy Turvy  pepper planter has given us an adequate supply of jalapeno and serrano chili peppers.

We had not seen a single tomato worm until yesterday, when Steve brought these two bad boys into the house, and were thinking that maybe Topsy Turvy planters were immune from this scourge. Evidently not!

A few minutes after Steve walked off with the miscreants, I started wondering what he'd done with them, so I tracked him into our dining room, where he was calmly folding origami boxes. I asked if he had killed the tomato worms, and he said, somewhat diabolically, "No, I put them somewhere." I followed him to the front garden and there, in our cacti and succulent bed, the green tomato worms showed up in stark contrast against the tan background of our permanent mulch, made up mostly of dead leaves from our street trees: Chinese evergreen elms. These leaves are crunchy, small, and pointed -- with serrated sides -- not the smooth and shady green surface on which tomato worms generally spend their time.

It was fascinating to watch the tomato worms scurry around. They would seem to be making assaults on our giant cereus, but then would change their minds and rush off in another direction. The larger one walked between two stalks of a very spiny little cactus that I think may be a miniature cholla, but drew back after an inch of his body had tunneled through. The smaller one headed for the brick border of the bed. He thrust the front half of his body bravely over the edge, but then retreated back onto the carpet of crispy leaves.

How I wish I'd taken some pictures! I went back in a couple of hours and there was no trace of the green guys. Were they eaten by our resident crows or other birds? Were they on a long, dry trek back to the Topsy Turvy planters? Had they merely evaporated in the hot sun? We will never know. Unless we find more tomato worms and repeat the experiment under more controlled conditions.

The whole experience reminded me of a time years ago when we encountered an infestation of slugs. Steve was removing them with his fingers and setting them gently on the pavement. I was flicking them off the plants with a stick, and trampling them, along with the ones Steve had placed so gently. He said: "Isn't it interesting that you can't touch them and I can't kill them?"

I've killed many tomato worms over the years, and watched their liquid centers spill out. Steve didn't kill these two, but he certainly put them in harm's way.

I guess everyone has a sadistic side, whether we believe in treating our victims to a speedy death or a slow demise. Right now, I'm off to look for more tomato worms, and for sure I'm taking my camera.
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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License