In the Garden:
Lower South
June, 2012
Regional Report

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This ripe tomato is a mouthwatering treat for the gardener -- and also for several common pests.

Fending Off Tomato Pests

Few vegetables in the home garden can match tomatoes when it comes to widespread popularity or a fanatical fan base! Each year we are introduced to a new group of cultivars that are promoted as more wonderful than ever. Quite frankly I think tomatoes can top laundry detergent when it comes to claims of "new and improved"!

Don't think I'm being cynical because I am as enthralled as anyone about tomatoes and love trying out each year's new arrivals. There are also a lot of old varieties that have made a comeback as the idea of heirlooms and a return to simple, old fashioned things is definitely "in."

However, we humans are not the only ones that love tomatoes. They have a number of other fans; creatures who I must point out neither purchased, planted, or cared for them, but who are now more than willing to enjoy the plants and fruit at our expense!

I'll leave the topic of diseases to another time and focus on some common pests you might find in a southern tomato patch. Here are a few of the more common destructive, evil, wicked, nefarious, heinous, sinister, reprobate criminals (excuse my candid outburst) that are common pests of tomato plants as the plants approach their harvest season. I will also include some low toxicity control options.

Aphids are especially fond of new growth. They cluster around tender shoots and underneath foliage. Insecticidal soap and summer oil sprays are effective. Avoid spraying in the hot, sunny parts of the day or these products can burn plants. A strong blast of water can also be effective in removing these pests from the plant.

Spider mites love a dry dusty leaf surface. The same recommendations made for aphids apply to mites also. Examine your plants weekly to help detect a spider mite infestation early. Otherwise their populations can grow rapidly, turning your plants to toast!

Tomato hornworms grow as large as your fingers and thus can chomp away a lot of foliage. When you see missing foliage, find the culprit lurking nearby, pick it off of the plant, and step on it. Spraying is seldom necessary if you are able to check your plants every few days.

Several other caterpillars such as tomato fruitworm and tomato pinworm can attack the fruit. Check the leaves in the upper half of the plant for holes, leaves that have been folded and webbed together, and blotchy areas of a leaf where the interior of the leaf has been "mined" out leaving the upper and lower surface. These are signs that some of the above mentioned caterpillars are present and fruit infestation is imminent. Sprays of B.t. (Bacillus thuringiensis) and spinosad (check label for use on tomatoes) are a good preventative against many of these caterpillar species. Once a caterpillar enters the fruit it is too late to control it and the damage is done. I pick any fruit with caterpillar holes and destroy it (along with the caterpillar inside), and just accept the loss of a few fruit each season.

Whiteflies are generally not a problem in my tomato patch but can become a problem in some years. They not only feed on the plants but can transmit viruses. Neem (both oil and azadirachtin forms) is an effective spray for these pests, especially if started when the pests are first detected. Direct neem oil sprays upward from beneath the foliage.

This year I have a number of different tomatoes that I'm growing in the garden. I watched the vines fill their trellis and load up with fruit. I could almost taste the ripe tomatoes as they began to turn orange-red. One day I went out and there was a chunk of flesh missing from several fruit; the work of a mockingbird. They didn't have the decency to just finish off one fruit. They had to sample several!

Now in case any Texans are reading this I won't go any further in providing adjectives to describe the official Texas State Bird, but I am certain that tomato gardeners in Texas and across the south share my disdain for such senseless violence against our precious tomato fruits. As far as control methods -- well, you'll have to come up with your own. If any readers have tried putting red painted Christmas tree ornaments or other such hard spheres in their garden prior to the arrival of ripe tomatoes (so the birds have a disappointing first experience), I'd love for you to comment in my blog as to the results.

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