After a plague of hornworms, the benediction of a tomato sandwich

peach tree

This seems like a banner year for all the plants we harvest for food.

“Everything is just going gangbusters,” said my neighbor Karen this morning, when she came over to take some of the ripe peaches that are threatening to break the limbs off the little tree in our side yard.

And she’s right. Everything we tend here at Sandy Point has been relentlessly productive and shows no sign of letting up. Maybe it’s because of the endless days of warmth and sunshine the past couple of months. Maybe it’s because we’ve been watering more, at the risk of running the well dry this droughty summer.

It could be because we’ve been a bit more diligent than usual about thinning the rows of young greens, about snipping out the non-bearing branches of the tomatoes and the big, water-hogging leaves of the brussels sprouts, about pulling out the weeds that crowd into the beds as soon as our attention shifts.

Whatever the reason, we’re eating chard, collards and salad greens as fast as we can. Our freezer is so full of raspberries, blackberries and blueberries there’s hardly any room for the beans, beets and kale, never mind the whole lamb we just agreed to buy. Who knows what we’ll do with all the tomatoes when they start coming in?

Speaking of tomatoes, I managed to take a last-minute stand against an invasion of tomato hornworms a couple of weekends ago. Somehow, in all my years of half-hearted gardening, I had never encountered these beautiful, terrible marauders before. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings to never see them again, either.

This hornworm is rearing back to take another big bite out of my tomato plant.

This hornworm is rearing back to take another big bite out of my tomato plant.

Here’s what happened. I had gone out to the garden to look over our lovely, lush tomato plants one afternoon after Douglas and I had been away for a few days. My heart sinking, I noticed the plants were suddenly flagging, the leaves stripped away, the setting fruits gnawed-on. Looking closer, I spied little globs of greenish-black goo — it’s their poop — and something in my reptilian brain began to signal danger.

It was then I saw the first hornworm. It was as big and long as my index finger. Its color was a brilliant, tomato-plant green with pretty white stripes and small yellow eye spots. It had a perky little spiky tail — the ‘horn’– on its rear end. It blended in perfectly with the plant it was decimating. It was loathsome. And gorgeous.

I’m actually quite fond of big, fancy caterpillars, knowing that they turn into big, fancy moths. Hornworms, for example, mature into a spectacular sphinx moth with a wingspan of five inches or more. But I have to admit it was with a degree of real horror that I realized my poor plants were loaded with these voracious critters. Everywhere I looked, I saw one. They had eaten away leaves, stems and fruit at a remarkable pace. The plants were nearly destroyed, after just a couple of days of our inattention.

I ran inside for a quick Google search on what to do. The two popular choices were 1) drop the caterpillars into a jar of soapy water or 2) snip them in half with your garden scissors. Here’s a YouTube video I found that was both amusing and helpful:

I came back out with a half-filled Mason jar and began pulling the hornworms off the plants with my fingers. I stopped counting at 15, but I’m sure there were at least 25 on the three plants. Most were three or four inches long or more. They hung on like grim death to the stems of the plants as I tugged at them. When I had one ready to drop into the jar, it would twist around and bite me — bite me! — with its nasty little ineffectual jaws.

It’s rare for me to rail against one of God’s little creatures, but the tomato hornworm is now on my short list. Since that traumatic afternoon, I’ve made daily inspections of the tomato patch. I’m still finding one or two hornworms each time, but they’re small so I think I’ve gotten ahead of them.

And the tomato plants, in the lovely, reassuring way of living things, have rallied and seem on track to supply us with an abundance of juicy heirloom fruits after all. We’ll end up freezing or canning a bunch, but first we’ll eat as many as we can, simple, fresh and fragrant.

I like to cut them in thick, cool slices fanned on a platter, sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper and pass them around the table. My grandmother in Iowa used to sprinkle her tomatoes slices with sugar and cider vinegar, and although I think that’s pretty decadent, it’s also completely delicious.

I also adore a fresh tomato sandwich, the simpler the better. It’s one of the few times I demand white bread — not the cheapo stuff, and not anything artisanal, but a good, solid loaf from the bread aisle. I spread one piece of bread with a little real mayonnaise, add a fat slice of sweet, tangy tomato, grind on some fresh pepper and sea salt, and add the top slice of bread. Cut it in half, put it on a paper plate and go eat it in the back yard. Bring some paper towels to catch the drips. Heaven.

Meg Haskell

About Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at