Green monsters attack gardens

Published 7:00 pm Thursday, July 4, 2013




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“Attack of the Tomato Worms”

     A new, action-packed thriller, coming to a theater near you, will be featured in 3-D.

      The story line: Native Mississippians and foreigners fight a desperate battle to preserve their gardens and a simply way of life.

     The villain, aka Manduca quinquemaculta, fills the screen. Children, under age 13, will not be admitted to the violent movie.

     The hero: Bubba…a hard-working middle-aged male who enjoys raising vegetables for his family and the community.

     Meanwhile, at tomato hornworm headquarters, Macho Tomacho, conducts a strategic meeting with millions of his cohorts. “We’ve enjoyed two mild winters in a row in Mississippi. Fellow worms, it’s time to launch a war against the farmers and the gardeners. Get those tomatoes!”

     My wife, Laurie, aka chief editor in charge, had made a statement a few weeks ago when yours truly wrote about his love affair with gardens. The dreaded tomato worm had been described in detail.

     “Tom, we haven’t had tomato worms in three years. Why did you write about them?”

     Sure enough, the head hornworm must have read my column. Battle strategy was planned among caterpillars. It began as underground warfare when the worms hatched.

     Being a lover of husky cherry tomatoes, a young, green plant had been purchased before springtime arrived. It was lovingly planted in a large, plastic pot, surrounded by topsoil and nurtured by Miraclegro. Each night, the plant  was moved off the deck and placed in the back hallway to avoid a late-winter frost. Each morning, it returned to the sunny corner of the deck.

     As the days warmed, the plant grew stronger and taller. Tiny, yellow blossoms appeared. I could already taste the delicious tomatoes, which were still several weeks away from maturity. Finally, small green balls began to appear, changing daily from plate orange to bright cherry red.


     Suddenly, the leaves on a stem disappeared.

     Could it be a worm?

     My worst fears were realized. A twisting, powerful 3-inch tomato worm was discovered, quickly removed from the stalk and crushed under foot. War began.

     In the meantime, our main garden had made steady progress. Grape, husky cherry and Big Boy tomato plants prospered as the spring temperatures grew warmer.

     This became the sight of the main battlefield. There was an all-out offensive by the worms. They chewed, swallowed and digested the leaves and young tomatoes. For a deposit, they left their dark droppings on the ground.

     My first impulse was to purchase some powerful insecticide. Laurie disagreed. She preferred an organic garden, completely free of insecticides.

     As an alternative, we began well-organized hunting parties, early morning and late afternoon. Peering closely at the vines, we carefully searched for the elusive worms. Their green camo uniforms blended perfectly with the green stalks. One worm even took a liking to a bell pepper plant growing next to the tomatoes.

     There was a record catch one day. A 5-inch worm, obviously on steroids, virtually ate one side of a tomato plant. I thought about having the trophy mounted but my size 13 shoes disagreed.

     Tomato hornworms look vicious but their mandibles aren’t strong enough to pinch your skin and do any damage. The moth version, identified by orange spots, is known as the 5-spotted hawkmoth. It lays its eggs on the topside of leaves in the spring. The pupae or caterpillars hatch and begin to grow. They will gorge themselves on the leaves and fruit of tomatoes from four to six weeks before burrowing in the ground and becoming a cocoon.

     The Farmer’s Almanac recommends plowing your garden in late winter and again after the harvest. An extended, cold frost will kill most of next spring’s worm population.

     On the local scene, negotiations with the Lincoln County fire ant colony have been under way. If the ants agree to attack the tomato worms, we won’t use weapons of mass destruction on their ant beds. Stay tuned for updates on Fox News.

     Summer vacations around our household often become working vacations. My wife has a to-do list longer than my 6-foot-1 frame. And it’s growing, too.

     Laurie had a plan. She looked forward to my vacation time in late June. There were flowerbeds to mulch and endless hours of weed-eating labor.

     During my first week of vacation in early April, a flowerbed located on the west side of our home had been covered with black, nylon sheets to choke the weeds and discourage grass growth. At last the time arrived for the next step.

     A giant, front-end loader deposited a humongous mass of mulch in the bed of my Dodge Ram pickup truck. I groaned louder than the truck’s shock absorbers as I envisioned the work awaiting me.

     The Phillips Bark Co. will be more than happy to supply a customer with all the mulch they need, at a reasonable price. The hard part is spreading the stuff in the heat of summer.

     “Make sure you spread the mulch evenly and keep the tarp covered,” my wife provided instructions. “Don’t put it against the bricks of the house. That might cause termites.”

     I sighed and replied. “Si, senora.” Hopefully, she would provide me with a plate of beans and taco for lunch. She included an ice cream cone for dessert.

     It was a 2-day process unloading and shoveling that mulch. The front flowerbed was covered on the second day. A long, restful siesta awaited me each afternoon, after a cooling shower and lunch. We watched and enjoyed movies together.

     For years, Laurie has maintained a Garden of Eden in our front and back yards. Beautiful flowers bloom continuously and so do the weeds. Mulching discourages weed growth and makes maintenance much easier.

     Besides, it looks beautiful.

     By the way, what time to the Braves play today?

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