May 31st, 2006

stamp - possum

State of the 'maters

Sometime in April, I got a couple of tomato plants at Whole Foods. It was an impulse purchase; every couple of years I succumb to the temptation to try to grow tomatoes. The eastern exposure at our last apartment made it impossible. No matter how many times I tried it, my plants really never grew or flowered.

In the new place, the front patio faces south/southeast. Not bad at all. And so I got these little plants -- one variety was Ida Gold, the other some variety of dwarf yellow cherry-sized tomato. I immediately forgot which was which. I didn't know anything about growing tomatoes in containers, but I picked up a couple of five-gallon pots and some dirt. I didn't know to plant them deeply, so I didn't, and they grew but remained spindly and weak. It's not entirely my fault; they were leggy little things when I bought them from Whole Foods. They did bloom profusely, so I figured there was still hope. Meanwhile, noticing that I had some dirt left, and that Home Depot was selling nice sturdy little tomato plants, and that I didn't have any red tomatoes to grow yet, I got two more plants: the famed "Patio," which is actually appropriate for container cultivation, and a variety called Husky Cherry Red. Being me, I promptly forgot which was which. The stickers on the pots helpfully told me to plant them deeply, and so I did.

Noticing that I had no dirt left, nor any other pots, but that yellow pear tomatoes are good, I got one last plant. And some more dirt. And a seven-gallon pot this time, because I don't think this variety is very container-friendly. The people one street over have tomatoes in a barrel. I shoulda thought of that earlier.

So there I was, with five little tomato plants....

AND THEN THE CATERPILLARS CAME. They came from far and wide, having heard the tale of the crazy lady with all the tomato plants. At first I didn't realize what was wrong; the two oldest plants were developing odd transparent patches in their leaves. It took me an amazingly long time to figure out that this was due to little bitty caterpillars eating them from underneath. I'm not squeamish; off came the caterpillars. Turned out to be a daily chore; there were usually three to five caterpillars per plant when I checked. But they were only on the oldest plants. Odd.

They are not, by the way, tomato/tobacco hornworms, the hawkmoth caterpillars that are infamous for eating tomato plants. I hate that name, actually; when I raised them in entomology class in college, we called them by their scientific name, Manduca sexta. I became fond of mine, as I am wont to do, and sort of adopted a few extras on the side. A few years later, I rescued a Manduca caterpillar from a sparrow. I'm freaky like that. I'm glad they aren't on my tomatoes, or I'd probably feel a little bit sorry for them. But no, the caterpillars infesting my tomatoes are skinnier, unmarked, and move like inchworms. Now that I know what's going on, I seem to be able to keep them under control by hand-picking them off; it was my initial bewilderment with why my tomatoes' leaves were sprouting thin spots that let them seriously damage the plants.

My wee little tomato plants! So cute, so innocent. Meet Ida Gold and Some Yellow Cherry Thing (or vice versa).

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