I am happily watering my garden, taking my time to talk to the thriving little plants. This morning, I realize, I seem to have an extra guest to include in the conversation. And I’m not sure whether he’s an unwelcome one or not.
In fact, I initially mistake him (her? it?) for a tomato leaf: he’s so green, so translucent, so delicate-looking.
But as soon as I get a little closer to him, “he” actually seems to be a little larva. I’m not quite sure, but I think I see little horns on its body too. He’s just hanging out on one of the branches of my tomato plant. And he does not seem to want to leave his new home anytime soon.
To panic or not to panic?
I’m a little taken aback. I am definitely not ready for a “house guest” – at least, not this early. After all, my tomato plants are producing their first fruits only now. So how could they already be so attractive to this little guy?!
In a hurry, I resort to shuffling my memories in terms of plant inhabitants met throughout my life. I do not initially recall having come across anything like this, neither while helping my grandparents on our farm nor during my 20 years of working in the agricultural fields of this world. But the guest is not a total stranger to me. So I rack my brains a little more – but nothing comes to my mind. I therefore decide to get on with the day and get back to him later.
In the afternoon, I am clearing my desk drawers of ancient notebooks from workshops and conventions attended during the past years. I come by a textbook drowned in notes from a discussion surrounding pest management, held with Bioversity International in 2011. As I flip through the voluminous pages, I start to feel like a CIA agent scrolling through databases, trying hard to recognize a serial criminal.
And then – there he is. My new little friend. A mug shot of what is internationally known as the Manduca Quinquemaculata, or tomato hornworm. He’s common in this area of the world. He’ll actually be quite cute once a little bigger. But pretty huge, too, and with a voracious appetite for tomato leaves.
I read that you can handpick the larvae from the plant – when there are only a few – then eliminate them in a bucket of soapy water. Luckily, of our 7 tomato plants, this larva is the only surprise guest to be currently visiting. Therefore my job should be quick and easy.
I call my daughters to the garden, so they too can learn from the biology-plus-agronomy lesson of the day. I put on my gloves and delicately detach the larva from the plant. We take a close look at him. And we know we can’t bare to end him in leftover dish water. Although uninvited, he is the first guest we meet since the beginning of our journey in growing our own food. The first to remind us that nature’s plan is to feed us just as much as him.
So we take him to the abandoned piece of land across the street from our house – and let him go.
Hornworms will surely infest our garden tomorrow, thanks to our cowardliness of today. But I guess the many more experiences that await us will harden us. And, eventually, we will be able to prevent any surprise guests by learning about the most common ones in our area and how to manage them naturally.
We hope you will stay tuned to find out what we come across, as well as leave your experiences and comments below to help us on the long way ahead.