The tomatoes are growing great guns around these parts. Nothing turning red just yet, but another week or two and we’ll be seeing the first blushes. I’m a little excited to tell you about my solution to the inefficient tomato cage dilemma.
The problem with conventional tomato cages are they are just too damn short. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an indeterminate tomato just two feet high. Hell, even the roma’s will get three feet tall at least, and they really only need a stake to help hold them upright.
So my solution to the problem was this. Rather than put a cage around the tomato plant when it’s young, I would build the cage around the plant as it grew.
building a tomato cage, one level at a time.
I stuck 8 foot rebars into the boxes at each corner as my uprights. Then each week, as the tomatoes grew I added cross bars of bamboo. they are spaced vertically about a foot apart. I attached the bamboo rods with zip ties and added some cross bars between the plants to lend support.
This has proven to be an awesome way to support the tomatoes without worrying about them flopping over the top of a cage. Those babies are over 5 feet tall now. I can go another foot before I’m out of vertical rebar. Sweet!
The 1 foot vertical spacing gives me plenty of room to get into the plants to check on how things are growing and the fruits are not crowded and get plenty of light.
Which brings me to the other little surprise in the tomato patch.
The horn worms have arrived.
There I am, admiring my handiwork, and congratulating Mother Nature on another fine looking tomato crop when Holy Crap! There, on the backside of a leaf, proud as a peacock, and chewing to beat the band is the biggest honkin’ caterpillar you would ever want to see.
Finger-sized Horn Worm
Did I mention they are finger sized? Now I’m not usually squeamish, but the first time I ever saw one of these babies, I jumped. Mostly because I wasn’t even looking for something the size of my index finger. I just saw some poo on a leaf, and started to investigate. I accidentally grabbed it while trying to move the leaf! Holy Moses! I’m not sure who was more startled, me or it.
So, I’ve learned a bit more about these little creatures in the time since my sudden introduction. there are two kinds actually, the tomato horn worm, and the tobacco horn worm. Each gets just as big.
The tobacco horn worm has single white stripes along it’s body. The tomato horn worm has little V shaped stripes. Technically, I believe I’ve got the tobacco variety. ( we don’t even grow tobacco in this part of the country) In either case, it’s an adult moth that lays the eggs. Usually one per leaf, but today, I found a leaf with 3 on it. They must be working overtime.
The’re tiny. Like little glass beads. Very easy to overlook.
Now I’m not opposed to sharing the garden with critters. I don’t mind a nibble or bite or two here and there. Let me tell you, these guys are voracious eaters. When they’re small, and they are really small to start with, maybe 1/8 inch, they munch a leaf here, a leaf there. As they grow, so does their appetite. The full grown ones will happily eat your tomatoes. And not just eat a whole tomato, I guess that wouldn’t be so bad, but they take huge chunks out then move onto the next one. That my friends, is completely unacceptable.
Hand picking is the best way to remove them. If you can remove the eggs from the leaves, so much the better. There is only one instance where you do not want to pick them off of the plant. You may find one, with little white sacs hanging off of it’s body.
braconid wasp eggs on a horn worm
The braconid wasp lays it’s eggs on the body of the horn worm. When they emerge, they eat the horn worm. As an added bonus, all those newly hatched wasps will be looking for a host to lay their eggs on. They will find all the little buggers you missed!
Now in all fairness, I have to say, that some folks actually find these little creatures endearing, and go to great pains to ensure their survival. The caterpillar you see, pupates into the ”sphinx”, “hawk”, or “hummingbird” moth, depending on if you’ve got a tomato or tobacco horn worm.
(courtesy University of Minnesota)
This moth is big. Very big. With narrow front wings. It’s got a mottled gray-brown color with yellow spots on the sides of the abdomen and a wing spread of 4 to 5 inches. It’s a pollinator. OK. I get it. But so are bees and they don’t do nearly as much damage.
The horn worms feed only on solanaceous plants, namely tomatoes. But, larvae can also attack eggplant, pepper, and potato. You could plant trap plants, other solonaceous weeds like horsenettle, jimsonweed and nightshade. Which means, I have to go inspect my Datura. Darn it.