Thursday, June 7, 2012

Bad News Bugs

Just before I left town for another trip to Oklahoma, I saw three adults of the squash vine borer flitting among my plants, and I smashed two Mexican bean beetles in the bush beans. It looks as though the pests are going to be as early as the veggies have been! These are two pests that typically cause a lot of damage in my garden, and I know that my zucchini-days, especially, are numbered.

Also before I left town, I pulled up two tomato plants that were not thriving. The two were both Rutgers, which is normally my emergency backup, never-fail variety. Apparently, this gardening year is going to throw one curve after another at the veggie gardeners! When I pulled up the two plants, there didn't seem to be anything overtly wrong. The vascular system looked clean (not gunked up with fungus) and the roots were un-knotted (no root knot nematodes); the roots were not vigorous, though, and the plants weren't growing well. Since I don't know yet what went wrong, I planted sunflowers in the spaces those plants were pulled from.

I got back home on Tuesday evening and didn't have chance to do much more than take a quick look around the garden. Everything looked basically fine. But when I went around on Wednesday to check things out more closely, I saw that one tomato plant had been attacked by a pest:

The gaping holes and some black frass (poop) that had fallen onto some lower leaves were a huge give-away that the pest is one or more caterpillars, but I didn't see any at first. When I leaned across to the next plant, though, I found one:

This guy is very bad news. He/she is an armyworm, and like the squash vine borer and the Mexican bean beetles, this pest has made an early appearance. My copy of the book The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control contains this somewhat alarming sentence about these caterpillars:

Larvae can consume whole plants in 1 night.

Needless to say, I have a date with a little sprayer full of Bt (the bottle I have is called Thuricide), the organic-approved pest control substance for caterpillars.

Even worse, when I was looking at the tomato-neighbor to the damaged plant, the plant on which I found the armyworm, I found some of these brown lesions on the lower leaves:

It's a little faint in the photo, but the ringed brown spot indicates a disease called Early Blight, which means that this particular plant is a goner. Several leaves had similar lesions. After verifying the disease with my handbook (hoping that my first guess was wrong), I got out a pair of pruners and a big garbage bag so I could get this plant out of the garden.

The plant was big, and it already had nice big tomatoes on it - making the loss especially annoying - and it had to be cut up to be removed from the cage. Cutting through the stems was a revelation! The insides of all the stems were already completely brown, and the lower stem was mushy inside.

I haven't decided yet what to plant in the space from which the diseased plant was removed. It shouldn't be another tomato or tomato-family relative, but that leaves a lot of options open.

Happily, the biggest problem some of my plants have is that they are so overloaded with pretty flowers that they are falling over.  Bee balm always reminds me of fireworks, but my husband thinks they look like Sideshow Bob, from The Simpsons.


  1. AAAARRRGGGGHHHHHH! I have tears in my eyes for you and at the same time am laughing at that army worm "factoid" that was in your book LOL! I hear you on that blight, it's moving slowly here but moving nonetheless and I am contemplating what to plant in its place :( Much love from my garden to yours...

  2. Erin, One of the great things about gardeners is that we usually prefer laughing to crying, and then we get busy doing something about the problem. The good news is that, this morning, there were still plenty of plants with uneaten leaves in the garden.

    The blight is going to be a definite problem. I don't see any way for just one plant to be affected; it's only a matter of time before others show the same lesions. One of my jobs for today is to fill a large container with potting mix and a baby tomato plant, in the hope that the plant will remain unaffected by the blight. I will be interested to hear what you decide to plant in the place of your sick tomatoes! I'm hoping you already have a brilliant idea, so I won't have to think too hard.



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