What is happening to my tomatoes

Kathy Henderson

Garden Columnist

Maybe you are having problems in your garden and hate to admit that you just do not know how to handle them. So many insects, diseases, pests, environmental conditions and so little time to work with all of them. I have been actively gardening continuously for about 45 years and I have never found all the answers - even to simple questions. What worked last year may not work at all this year; what I have done for years successfully falls close to total failure now.

A hornworm that a braconid wasp has laid its eggs in. Special photo

My biggest problem this year is a massive attack on my tomatoes by squirrels. They ignore every other type of food and are very particular when choosing a tomato. It can be ripe or green, but it must not be blemished. They are kind enough to leave those for me. I am not talking about one or two tomatoes a day, I am talking about 5-10 half-eaten large tomatoes and lots of smaller ones.

My solution: traps do not work, but a pellet air gun does. Since I am not much of a shot and too impatient to sit and wait, the ammunition stores will profit from this solution. Someone suggested that a dog in the area would work to keep them away. However, I have free-range peafowl, guineas, and chickens that few dogs can keep from attacking. The garden is much too sunny and hot to enclose a dog within. A neighbor said he tried that technique and it worked, but the dog decided he liked tomatoes and caused a real problem. I have gardened in this same spot for years and never had this problem.

Disease has reared its ugly head, but not in all the plants and when I pulled them up, I found the roots were covered with knots - nematodes. Fusarium Wilt is also showing up on a few plants. I did use an organic fungicide in the soil when I planted and I do think that helped. At least the squirrels are eating healthy tomatoes.

If a tomato hornworm caterpillar has appeared on your tomatoes or Angel Trumpet plants, it is the larvae of the large “hummingbird” or “sphinx” moth. You don’t need to apply an insecticide, just pick it off and squish it! If you don’t like to do this, cut the leaf that it is attached to and place it in some vegetable oil or soapy water in a can. It will smother. I feed mine to the peacocks.

A tiny wasp, the braconid wasp, lays its eggs in the worm. When the larvae hatch from these eggs, they feed on the inside of the worm, causing it to cease eating. When the larvae is ready to pupate, they form cocoons which appear as white projections protruding from the hornworms body. If such projections are observed, the hornworms should be left in the garden to allow the adult wasps to emerge. Since these wasps kill hornworms they will seek out other hornworms to parasitize.

If you have a large garden and picking hornworms is impossible, you can spray or dust the plants with bacillus thuringiensis (BT) which poisons the caterpillars in your garden, but does not harm other insects. Start these applications early to get the caterpillars when they are young and small.

Watch for yellow or spotted leaves and remove these to the garbage. Also remove the lower leaves of plants so that they do not touch the ground and allow for air movement at the base. Many diseases are transmitted to the plant from the soil by water splashing on the leaves. A heavy mulch will also help.

Remember to lightly fertilize your plants as they start producing in order to help them continue to bloom and form fruits. Water as needed to keep the soil moist, but not wet. Vigilance is required to produce tomato fruit - watching for water needs, disease, and insects.