Plucking & Plunking

Curt-lineby Curt Kovener

There’s another battle raging in the wilderness. This one isn’t with stinging insects building nests where they are too close for human inhabitants of the woodlands.

I have a small fenced garden in the lower meadow. It is a decent walk from the house but it is one of the closest places that gets full sun.

And it is surrounded with 2”x4” welded wire fencing to keep the deer and turkey from sampling my vegetables.

Last week I went inside the enclosure to do some weeding and fertilizing when I saw really bare stalks on my tomato plants.

“How did deer get in here?” was my first response. But a closer inspection showed me the real culprit: tomato hornworms.

I paused gazing at the plants quiver as fat yellow-green worms chomped on the leaves. A few of the green tomatoes also had been gnawed on.

The large light green worms turn into the brown & gray hawk moth which we sometimes call the hummingbird moth.

I don’t like to use insecticides as frequently they indiscriminately do in beneficial bugs. So I opted for the pluck & plunk method: picking them off by hand and putting them in a small bucket.

It is reminiscent of my youth when my Dad put in a much larger garden with at least 10 rows of potatoes. It was my and my younger brothers task to collect the potato bugs. He would give us a small can with about an inch of kerosene or gasoline. We walked up and down those rows turning leaves looking for orange potato beetle larvae and sometimes find the striped adult potato beetle. Tapping or scraping the insects into the can quickly dispatched them and showing Dad the results of our hunt in the hot sun usually earned us a soft drink.

But picking tomato worms is a pit of a different strategy. They look like they have a stinger on their rear end but the hair-like projection is soft and harmless. They have several sets of rear suckers for feet that firmly affix them to the tomato stalk.

So I just grab them anywhere, tug until they let go on the plant and plunk them in the bucket.

They are tougher to find than the contrasting color potato bug as the horn worms are the same color as the tomatoes plants they are defoliating. So it takes some diligent looking to locate them.

When I first saw the damaged plants the worms were big and fat: about the diameter and length of my middle finger. Which, I suppose, is an appropriate way to describe how I felt about the creatures eating my tomatoes before I could.

But what do you do with a crawling bucket of green worms? Feed the fish.

When they are plunked in the pond the smaller worms float on the surface and a quickly grabbed and gobbled by bluegill. They come charging up to the big worms but abruptly stop to examine when they see the worm won’t fit in their mouth. Finally a brave bluegill grabs the worm a midships and starts to swim off with others with new found courage quickly following.

So this pluck & plunk is my daily process for a while I wage battle on the tomato hornworm. I do not know if this is a fight I can win…but at least the fish will be well fed.