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Why do we do it? April 17, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening.
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After reading my “Ben Picks Ten: Tomatoes” post, someone asked our friend Ben why we bothered to grow tomatoes when they were so easy to buy. And I won’t deny that in tomato season, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood load up on all sorts of ripe tomatoes from our local CSA* , Quiet Creek Farm, and the area farmers’ markets. We eat tomato sandwiches, tomato salads, and tomato snacks practically every day while the season lasts. Silence makes and cans all kinds of salsas and tomato sauces. If we never grew a single tomato, we’d have as many delicious, vine-ripened tomatoes available to us as we could eat and preserve.

But here at Hawk’s Haven, we also grow ten to twelve different heirloom tomato plants every year, as many as our friend Ben can manage to find space for in our veggie beds. True, we wouldn’t die of tomato deprivation or anything if we didn’t plant them. But I think something would die in our hearts: a sense of the rightness of the world. That’s because, in our friend Ben’s opinion, growing tomatoes shows us the cycle of life made visible, and allows us to find our place in it.

That’s not just because the annual spring ritual of setting out the tender tomato transplants and setting up the tomato ladders and cages around them marks the shift from tentative gardening, when of course we’re planting things but the garden could still be hit by frost, to go-for-it gardening, when the soil is warm and you know that, whatever “it” is, if you plant it, it will grow. It’s like the Kentucky Derby in (very) slow motion: You’ve been walking the horses, grooming them, warming them up for the race. Now, finally, they’re in the starting gate.

It’s not just because watching tomatoes grow is exciting and satisfying, the essence of gardening: First watching the diminutive transplants grow into sturdy, thriving, and finally rampant vines. Then looking on as the tomato flowers, which look like clusters of palest yellow shooting stars, transform into tiny pea-sized green fruits that grow larger from day to day under your watchful eye until they take on their final form and deepest color.

And it’s not just because of the delight of harvesting those sunwarmed tomatoes at their peak of freshness and flavor: Snacking on cherry, pear, or plum tomatoes as you pass the plants while tending to other garden chores and feeling the explosion of flavor on your tongue, the essence of summer made tangible. Bringing in a trugful of mixed heirloom tomatoes for a just-made salsa to go with the tortilla chips and margaritas and kick off a “Mexican Night” gathering under the summer stars (and chile pepper lights). Selecting the biggest, baddest, meatiest tomato for your lunchtime sandwich.

Actually, what gives our friend Ben a sense of the rightness of things is tomato hornworms. Now, tomato hornworms would make pretty much anyone’s—not just our friend Ben’s—top ten list of worst veggie garden pests. But our friend Ben can’t help but admire these finger-sized hawk moth offspring, handsome guacamole-green caterpillars with sharp-looking black-edged white “V”s down their sides and a texture of softest velvet. Big as they are—up to 4 1/2 inches—they often go undetected because their shape and color help them blend into the tomato vines. Undetected, at least, until the chewed-up tomato leaves and concentrated dark green droppings give them away.

Of course, it’s easy to deal with a tomato hornworm once you find it: You can stomp it (eeewww!!!) or feed it to the chickens. But much as our chickens would love to eat a big, succulent hornworm, our friend Ben has never given them the pleasure. That’s because something more important was happening.

We’re lifetime organic gardeners here at Hawk’s Haven—we love birds, toads, butterflies, and the assorted other wild things that share the place with us, and have no interest in harming them or ourselves with toxic chemicals. (And, in fairness, we’re obviously not market gardeners who must turn out perfect produce—and plenty of it—for a picky public.) So we’re much more intimately involved with the whole cycle of nature than those who “solve” their pest problems by dumping something on. Which brings our friend Ben back to tomato hornworms.

Every single time our friend Ben has found a tomato hornworm on a plant, I have noticed that it is carrying rows of white oval “eggs” (actually cocoons) of the parasitic braconid wasp on its back. These garden allies have already found the hornworm and laid their eggs in it, and now the hornworm is nothing more than a meal, helping produce more wasps to help me patrol the garden and keep pest populations in their place.

When I see this natural pest control taking place before my eyes, I am reminded of the wisdom of nature, and the natural cycle of which Hawk’s Haven, Silence, and our friend Ben are a part. Nature is conspiring to help me enjoy ripe tomatoes. In its infinite complexity, it is working in ways I cannot. Tomato plant, tomato hornworm, braconid wasp, ripe tomatoes, tomato sandwiches: the cycle goes on. All is, indeed, right with the world.


* What’s a CSA, you ask? It’s a farm that operates by subscription. (“CSA” stands for “consumer-supported agriculture.”) Members join the CSA and sign up for a half or a full share of produce, pay up front, then pick up produce weekly throughout the growing season. Everybody wins: the farmers, who now have cash up front to finance their growing season, and the consumers, who have a wealth of farm-fresh produce all season.      



1. CeeCee - April 17, 2008

Tomato poetry at it’s best!
Last night my sister called and my son brought me the phone. “Where are you?”, she asked. “I’m outside picking caterpillars off the English pea and potato plants.” I replied. “Of course you are, where else would you be after dinner.” I love that she knows that about me. I love that my garden is my sanctuary.
As for Hornworms—I am not so poetic. I am only able to have 2 tomato plants each year for having a small space. I cannot let them eat their fill. For some reason, the braconid wasps don’t find my garden worth visiting. I must then, harvest them and feed them to my chickens or dunk them in soapy water. I will squish them if they are very small, but eewwww, when they are big!

Thanks, CeeCee! A garden refuge is the best. And as for those hornworms, think how the chickens will thank you–all that fat and protein!

2. deb - April 17, 2008

Wonderful post. Right there with you on a no kill policy except when it comes to the horn worms. I can only grow about ten to twelve tomatoes. Unlike you, I can almost never find heirloom or localally grown veggies. The only place with anything decent is a Whole Foods many many miles away. Hopefully, this will change and change soon. As to the horn worms, I simply pull off them and toss them in the road for our local birds. Last year I did see and photograph a horn worm with braconid wasp eggs on it and another dead and pretty much sucked dry. Those were left out in the garden. I want those little wasps back.

Good for you, Deb! As yes, I’m lucky to live right in the heart of “organic country,” about five minutes from the Rodale Institute. Planty of fantastic produce around here!

3. Frances - April 17, 2008

Great story, MFB, and I was surprised at the non kill of the hornworm, the beast. We had them in Texas , but so far not here for some reason. But if we ever do, I shall look for the wasp eggs carefully, before gently throwing him into the woods.

Thanks, Frances! Hopefully they won’t come to plague you!

4. Thomas Clump - April 17, 2008

Thanks for showing the wonder and web of nature in the microcosm of a tomato. It’s not as delicious as, say, pecan pie, but its lessons are abundant. On behalf of the chickens, pass the hornworms, please!

Uh, thanks, Thomas (I think). And I’ll be happy to pass the hornworms if you’ll pass the pecan pie!

5. Cinj - April 17, 2008

I’m not big on growing tomatoes since I’m the only person in my family who will eat them, but I admire your no kill policy too. I figure God created all creatures for a reason. I will however trap and relocate pests that I don’t want hanging around (remeber my mouse turned mole problem?).

Geez, Cinj, you’re the only one who’ll eat tomatoes?! That’s practically blasphemy! Will they at least eat pizza and spaghetti sauce? (If so, all is not lost!) And I admire your relocation policy. We don’t have a mouse or mole problem here anymore, thanks to the outside cats, but I’m still working on training them to eat ants…

6. Tomato Casual »  This Week In Tomatoes - April 18, 2008

[…] beauty, snacking, sandwiches and home green houses and responds a reader’s question regarding why anyone would want to grow tomatoes rather than buy them at a […]

7. walk2write - April 18, 2008

Thomas might want to pass on the pecan pie too, if he knew that nearly all nuts have worms (or at least pieces of worms) in them. When we owned a candy store years ago and bought nuts in bulk for the first time, our supplier warned us that we could expect to find that “treasure” from time to time. Pass the extra protein, please!

Ha, that’s a thought I hadn’t had–I keep planting hardy pecans here and they keep dying on me, so I haven’t had any fresh-harvested nuts–but it makes perfect sense. Of course, now I wonder what they treat ’em with so we *don’t* end up with worms in our pecans. Maybe the worms would be the lesser evil!

8. Cinj - April 19, 2008

Maybe I should send Speedy your way, I’m sure she could teach them to eat bugs! To answer your question they will eat spaghetti, tomato soup, chili, and pizza (as well as ketchup), so I suppose I may possibly be able to make enough use if I only grew a plant or two. Actually MIL told me that Angel enjoys eating her tomatoes, so if she ever comes home I guess she could help me too!

Good plan, Cinj! I had the first wasp of the season in the house yesterday, and had to rush to kill it before Layla, who was eager to investigate, got stung. Then when I was doing the dishes a stinkbug flew into my hair. Eeeewwww!!!! *&%$#@!!!! bugs. And like Angel, my Molly just loves tomatoes. (In fact, she loves all fruits and veggies, except for undressed lettuce. There she draws the line. But if it has even a drop or two of dressing, it’s okay in her book!)

9. Chuck Bartok - April 20, 2008

A Blog after my own heart.
Recovering form a coronary the past year or so, I emerged again.
You and your readers will enjoy following my Odyssey of
Tomatoes for Health and Wealth.

We will post video Progress weekly.
Please comment

Tomatoes for Health and Wealth

Subscribe and stay up to date…
criticize at will, I love it!

Thanks, Chuck, and best of luck to you! Lycopene rules!!!

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