I hate hornworms

It’s time to play every gardener’s favorite summertime game: Find the Hornworm. It’s a lot like Where’s Waldo, but with tomatoes at stake.

I bear hornworms a particular antipathy. Other pests seem so incidental. They exist out there in the world, and they’re hungry, so they eat your vegetables. But a hornworm is not incidental. It exists only to defoliate your tomato plants. It is so single-minded that it has evolved to look like the underside of a tomato leaf – and very successfully, I might add.

You know you have hornworms when you go out in the garden one morning and notice that your lovely, lush, leafy tomato plant branches are completely denuded. Then you notice poop that looks likes it’s from a creature much larger than a hornworm and you think, “Pterodactyl!” But no, those are extinct.

Hornworms, alas, are not extinct.

And let me go on record here being a big fan of extinction, properly applied. We’re always going around trying to save things from extinction – and I miss the dodo as much as the next guy – but let’s admit that the world would be a better place without some species. Hornworms, for example.

Once you figure out you have hornworms, that’s when the real fun starts. You stand in the garden, staring at the tomato plants, trying to figure out what is leaf and what is hornworm. It is surprisingly difficult. You go over a plant very carefully, find three hornworms, and move on to the next. Then you glance back and see another fat green worm. And another.

But finding them isn’t sufficient. You have to pull them off, and that is a disgusting job. They are very delicate and squishy, and if you squeeze them too hard, they will collapse into a mess of green goo between your fingers. But they also hold on tight, and you have to squeeze them pretty hard in order to pull them off.

It’s a disgusting job.

It’s gotten to the point where I bring our littlest turkey into the garden with me. When I find a hornworm, I just hold him (we now think it’s a him) up to it and he grabs it right off the vine. He seems to be much better at distinguishing worm from leaf than I am. The only problem is that he has a limited tolerance for this game. He likes hornworms – a lot – but prefers that I remove them myself and throw them out to him.

And that is the only fun part. Watching turkeys and chickens peck apart and gulp down a nice big hornworm gives me a last-laugh sense of justice. Okay, you green squishy bastards, you harnessed the magic of evolution to make yourselves look exactly like a leaf, but I’m going to harness the magic of barnyard alchemy to turn you into an egg.

Take that!


How good are you at Find the Hornworm?  

25 people are having a conversation about “I hate hornworms

  1. I will start by saying when I shared this idea with other Master Gardeners it was met with some opposition…but it works for me! I cut off most (not all) of the leaves of my tomatoes. The first year I did it because I had planted my tomatoes too close together and was trying to increase air circulation; I realized that it also left those little green bastards less places to hide!

  2. I was told that marigolds would eliminate tomato hornworms. That didn’t work for me. The best defense I have going is our cat, Kimber She finds them and plays with them until they are in very bad shape. She has pointed them out to me when they are higher on the vines than she will reach. I clip the branch with the worm and she takes it from there. Although she will not eat them, the paper wasps and ants appear to finish the job.
    In my opinion, squash bugs are worse than tomato hornworms. Much more sneaky Trust me on this. I have been after them with water, gloves, bucket o’ simple green, and duct tape for the eggs. Nasty plant vampire pest. I will be looking into acquiring a few(3) chickens this year. The feed store down the street from where I work advertises; “PICK UP CHICKS HERE”.

  3. I will surely be attempting this when we return from camping. Damn worms, they always show up when we leave.

  4. I haven’t had to deal with hornworms. Gophers yes, but not hornworms. I love how you have the turkey eating them. That’s brilliant! I hate touching bugs, even ones on my beloved veggies. We sic the dog on our gophers. He has caught at least 5 so far this season, not that its made much difference. There is a certain satisfaction though when the dog comes happily running up to us with a gopher in his mouth.

  5. It makes me feel less barbaric to know that there are other gardeners out there who enjoy watching insects meet an unpleasant end.

    Dianne, the turkey doesn’t travel well, but if you bring your hornworms to him, he’d certainly be grateful.

    Stephen, I don’t know about that strategy. But, hey, if it works, I certainly won’t knock it!

    Jean, love the sign. But think twice before you put chickens in the tomato patch. They like tomatoes just as much as they like hornworms. Trust me on this one.

    And I hope I never have to find out about the squash bugs.

    Brooke — Yeah, they’re sneaky that way. Good luck.

    Melissa — Ugh, gophers! We don’t have those, thankfully. We got raccoons, we got foxes, we got opossums, we got insects of all stripes, but no gophers. Yet.

  6. Nasty things….fortunately (I think it’s their “fault”) we have 3 chickens that insist on escaping to the garden for 3 seasons now and have found no yucky worms. Fortunately they dont mess with much else other than scratching up the straw on top of the potatoes…… as far as gophers, voles, etc; would be glad to send you some. We have plenty to spare! Dogs think they are cool toys πŸ™‚

  7. That’s GENIUS! I almost wish I had hornworms now so I could make my chickens earn their living. Just think, all those nasty pests going to produce succulent turkey flesh. If only all pest problems were so elegantly sorted.

    I’m all about the black bean aphid this season, and the inelegant solution is just me and a spray bottle full of soft soap.

  8. Ok, that photohunt was just maddening. But I really like your elegant solution. Time to bring turkeys to the community garden!

  9. Haha yes I know it defies logic to have primarily leafless tomato plants. Maybe it will be my claim to fame, I can be the old wife behind the tale! I think I might try the marigold companion and let you know. I still have a flat of them…from before May 15. Might as well try! Also I wonder if they might be deterred by lavender as many insects seem to be?

  10. Is it bad that I take great deight in finding a hornworm covered with wasp eggs knowing that they are going to die a slow agonizing death. that is if I don’t feed them to the chicken instead. πŸ˜‰

  11. Hornworms are wretched things. I don’t grow tomatoes, but they are also big fans on my brugmansias (another solanaceous delicacy for them) and one variety of gardenia I grow (“Miami Supreme”). Every year, at least one hornworm grows bigger than all his buddies, first, and leaves behind a pellet where I can see it, which is perfect, because then I know it’s time to break out the scissors and go hunting for them. I usually snip them in half when they’re about 1.5″ long. I also leave a quarter of a slice of bread higher up in the angel’s trumpets trees so the blue jays and doves can find it and take care of the rest of the caterpillars. I’m with Trish on the happy sight of a hornworm covered with rice-grain wasp eggs. Instead of snipping those, I avert my eyes and wish them Godspeed. πŸ™‚

  12. When I was an impressionable child, I once watched a chicken *hork* down a huge tomato hornworm. I think I was nauseated for a week after. πŸ˜›

    We do not see hornworms here anymore. It has been years since I found one. While I do not miss tripping gayly to the garden of a summer morn to find that the @#$*! hornworms have eaten the tomatoes down to stubby branches, I do miss the Sphinx moths that they grow into. I used to watch them hovering around the night blooming flowers in my garden like nocturnal hummingbirds. No hornworms=no Sphinx moths.

  13. So, it turns out the *everybody* hates hornworms! And, Laura, I’m willing to make the tradeoff. No worms, no moths.

  14. So Stephen, I just want you to know I went and removed most of the leaves off my tomatoe plants last eve. I’ll let you know how it turns out. πŸ˜‰

      • Yes! I will make believers out of you all! I asked an agriculture professor at OSU about it in class last year (after almost everyone laughed) and he said it wasn’t completely crazy. Especially with indeterminate heirlooms that grow, grow, grow. He also wondered if it would make the fruit juicier and plumper because less energy would be spent hydrating the plant. Probably all in my head but I do feel that’s true. I’ll email him and try to get a quote out of him πŸ™‚

        • So I have about 30 tomaoe plants, and like Stephen, I was concerned about air circulation. (I can never quiote visualize in the spring when they are planted just how BIG they will get.) So I have pinched the leaves from half. Will compare and share.

  15. I was traumatized as a child when I discovered, upon opening what I believed to be a tub of margarine to butter some toast, that my mother had de-wormed her tomatoes and deposited the worms in the plastic tub. Who does that?!

    Ive been warry of margarine ever since.

  16. We don’t have hornworms here, but we do have earwigs and they’re totally disgusting. They don’t seem to bother the tomatoes, but they eat the leaves of just about everything else.

  17. Like some of you, I’ve been trimming off tomato leaves. I put the plants too close together, forgetting how huge they can get. I’m curious about the idea that they can continue to grow if you take off all the leaves. Growth without photosynthesis? I’ll watch for the answer.

    Anyway, I thought hornworms had given us the year off, but no, I found an enormous, juicy one yesterday. I picked it up on a trowel and offered it to my only chicken, who was quite uncertain about it. She took one peck, got sprayed with green goo, and stood stock still. I suppose it didn’t taste too good, either, as no amount of jiggling the wretched thing could persuade her to reconsider. Perhaps if it had been younger, it would have been meatier, rather than having insides like a fluorescent slushy.

    So it’s just me and the scissors on hornworm duty today.

    • I definitely wouldn’t recommend removing all leaves. I would say I remove somewhere between 50%-75% of lower leaves on my to tomatoes. I would imagine removing all leaves would indeed shut down fruit production. Tamar, I’m sorry I’ve left 200 comments on your post!

      • Thanks, Stephen. I’ve taken your advice. So much easier to find the ripening tomatoes. I removed a few leaves higher up the plant, too. Makes hornworm spotting a little more fruitful.

  18. *laughs* not just me. Phew! I’m vegetarian and can’t bear to kill creatures. but I still throw snails onto the shed roof hoping a bird will come along and eat it. And if I find loads of slugs, I put the on the path and go inside for half an hour hoping a bird will get them before I go back outside.

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