Monday, September 5, 2011


As much as I dislike the pests in my garden and the damage they do to everything I try to grow, occasionally I think I should have been an entomologist, because I find bugs fascinating.

My "favorite"--if you can call it that--garden pest is the hornworm. I don't know why, but I find it kind of fun, hunting these guys. They camouflage so well on a tomato plant, it's like I've "won" when I finally track down a worm that's been decimating my plant.
Can you see the hornworm?

How about now?

There are tomato hornworms and tobacco hornworms, but they look very similar. "Worm" is a misnomer, since they are actually caterpillars. The ones currently plaguing my garden are tobacco hornworms. If you can catch them early, they might be only an inch long and as big around as a pencil lead, but they quickly grow to the size and width of my ring finger. Usually, you'll see the damage to your plants before you see the worms.

If you find the branches of your tomato plants have been denuded, you've got hornworms.

I've heard that if you spray a plant with soapy water, this will aggravate the worms and cause them to move around, making it easier to see and catch them. I tried this once with minimal luck, and found it just as easy to hunt for them myself.

Typically, I start looking for a worm where I see the damage they've left behind. A second clue is the feces, or worm dirt, which they just let fall. I can usually find the culprit quickly if I look above the worm dirt and below the denuded branches.After I find the worm, I shake the dirt off the leaves so that the next time I see worm dirt on a plant, I'll know it's new.

The size of the worm dirt will give you a clue as to what size worm you're looking for.
Removing a hornworm can be tricky. Their bodies stick to the plant, making it difficult to separate them from the limb. Usually if I grab the worm from the hind end, it is easier to separate from the plant. Their back legs are a little more grabby than the front ones, so removing them first gives better control. Occasionally, though, they just don't want to let go. Using a twig or the point of a pocket knife (or anything small and pointy, really) to place between the worm and the plant usually goads them into releasing their grip.

What to do with the hornworms? Well, you can just stomp on them, if you're so inclined. They also would make good fish bait, or you can put them on your bird feeder. If all else fails, you can just throw them in the garbage.

If you take action as soon as you notice the damage, tomato (and other) plants typically recover from a hornworm attack fairly easily.


  1. I was talking with Pioneer Preppy about growing my own tobacco. He said he grew his own, but he had to pick hornworms off by hand. That sounded too labor intensive for me. I'm just going to buy some more big tins of pipe tobacco.

  2. Yes I imagine if you had a large crop, it could get difficult to keep up with. This year I have about 15 tomato plants and that's the most I've ever had. The hornworms have only found about 5 or 6 of the plants, so it hasn't been too hard to stay on top of.