Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

From the Inbox: Of Rabbits and Worms

Hornworm on newly purchased tomato plant, with tell-tale poop © Tyler Storey From a Correspondent:

So, my friend is now zero for four on tomato plants. Two got eaten down to the nubs in the garden. She bought two more. One got eaten by a hornworm while sitting on her counter overnight and one that she planted has just two leaves. Do rabbits or birds eat the actual plants? I never had problems growing tomatoes - just the fruit was eaten. She doesn't see how rabbits could get in.
Monica, Phoenix, Ariz.

Dear Monica,
I am struck by the image of a caterpillar sitting on your friend's counter, spending the night-time hours casually munching away at tomato plants. It brings to mind John Tenniel's illustration in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." But, it sounds like your friend has a serious problem, so let us set aside juvenile interests such as children's illustrated literature and move on to serious garden writing.

Which brings us to Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit." "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" is often mistaken for children's literature, but it is nothing of the sort. It's a precautionary tale, a warning, a dark fable, a gardener's dystopia, if you will.

While a casual reading of the tale tends to invoke our sympathies on behalf of the poor trapped rabbit, unjustly persecuted by the horrible Mr. McGregor, from the gardener's perspective it's clear: Mr. McGregor is the wronged party. Peter, as cute and cuddly as he may have been in his blue coat with large brass buttons, was clearly the aggressor. Mr. McGregor was simply defending the fruits (and vegetables) of his labor, and it is with him that our sympathies may properly rest.

The lesson we must take from "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" is that nothing will stop a rabbit once it has determined to ravage a garden. Rabbits will eat nearly any kind of vegetable garden greenery and, in the world of rabbit depredations, two tomatoes are but small potatoes (so to speak). In an area with rabbits, the only solution is to adequately fence the garden, including running the fencing down into the ground, or out along the ground for a foot or so on one side or the other to avoid tunneling.

As to the hornworm, it is sound practice to always inspect newly purchased tomato plants for hitchhiking hornworms; they are commonly found on purchased plants and can make short work of them.

There is a silver lining to the destruction wrought on your friend's tomato plants: now, at the end of October, is far too late to be setting out tomato plants, and, had they lived, they would have been setting fruit just about the time they got whacked by the first hard frosts. The rabbits and worms have saved your friend that particular trauma. Tomato plants in the Desert Garden are best set out in late February and March and again in late July and August, to give them adequate time to form and ripen their fruit.

I hope this helps,

Tyler

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