I owe this large bowl of home-grown tomatoes–a personal goal of mine for many years–to one person. Actually, to one bird. I call her Mama Oriole.
In case you don’t read every post on my blog, I chronicled my attempts to grow vegetables in my suburban yard in Laguna Beach. To recap, the challenges were daunting–everything from lack of penetrable soil to every imaginable critter that loves to feast on plants. Last fall, I built a planter out of concrete block, and added some large containers, and a simple watering system. My tomatoes plants took an early assault from local deer, but I fought back. (Read about that HERE.)
Anyway, my brother-in-law, who tends vineyards in Northern California and visited over the Fourth of July weekend, sent me some extra bird netting. I was certain the birds would peck all my veggies once they started to ripen, so I tossed it over my stakes. Turns out it also kept out the deer, so I stopped using the sprinkler scarecrow.
But then I found one of these guys on my plants. At first, I thought it was beautiful. But then I Googled it, and learned it was a Tomato Hornworm. And that meant big trouble for my robust tomato plants. They were already starting to yellow and droop. (When I learned that a Hawkmoth lays eggs for these Hornworms, I suddenly recalled stepping into the garden one night in early July and seeing what looked like a whitish hummingbird flying around the plants. I even got my binoculars on it, and it was an amazing creature. But in the future, I will not be quite as delighted to spot one.)
I was so bummed. My tomatoes were starting to look like real tomatoes (These are Cherokee Purple heirlooms, big guys.) Never before had I had such luck. Typically, something would have chewed it up by now. I wanted to stay organic, and the only defense against these Hornworms was to pick them off by hand. Can you see how perfectly they blend with the green stems?
I tried to brace myself for another gardening defeat, as my plants started to look worse and worse. The cherries, such as these tiny Sun Gold (so sweet and prolific!), held up better than the larger types. Then one day, already on the defensive, I noticed a female Hooded Oriole flutter down and land on top of the netting. To my horror, she started pecking through the netting at the plants. I jumped up to shoo her away, but then I noticed something in her beak. And it wasn’t a green tomato. It was one of those fat, juicy, Hornworms! I remembered reading on Southern California gardening guru Pat Welsh‘s helpful Web site how you are supposed to try to attract birds to your garden, that they keep down the pests. I didn’t really believe it until I watched Mama Oriole go after these worms with such impressive zeal.
I can watch my garden from my home office, and loved watching her come almost every 15 minutes to snag another worm. Orioles have a distinct chatter, so it was easy to know when she arrived. I also figured out she had a nest with babies in the neighbor’s palm tree behind us, and could hear the happy fledglings when she delivered a worm. Every morning I opened up the netting so she could get to work, and then covered it again at night.
I’m sure all you veteran gardeners know all about these Hornworms and the benefits of birds, but to me, it was another of those circle of life moments. My tomato plants took a hit from those Hornworms, but once Mama Oriole got busy, they still kicked out tons of fruit (Click HERE for great tomato growing tips!) . I always love when the pair of orioles arrive every April. But next spring, I will be even happier to hear their familiar chatter!
One more thing. If you are lucky and have a bounty of tomatoes, this quickie tomato sauce is super easy and amazing (Just go easy on the chili pepper flakes.). From 101 Cookbooks: CLICK HERE FOR RECIPE.