* Editor’s note: Debra is on vacation. For your reading pleasure, here is one of her columns originally published in September 1997.
You say your thumb’s so black you can’t even grow hair? Try tomatoes. All they need is plenty of sunlight, some summer heat and a little fertilizer. If I can grow them, trust me, you can, too.
This year, I planted cherry tomatoes. Instead of liquid fertilizer, I experimented with solid spikes. The box said push one spike into the soil at the base of each plant, so I pushed in three.
“Moderation” is not in my vocabulary.
Before long, the plants burst skyward, spilling over the tops of their cages like hanging ferns. By mid-summer each branch hung heavy with clusters of sweet, red, juicy little orbs.
I couldn’t have been prouder if I’d given birth to them.
I strolled out into the back yard last week to view my little beauties and froze in horror at what I saw. An entire section of one of the plants was stripped bare. Nothing left but stems.
There is only one creature on Earth, aside from a 2-year-old child, that can cause this kind of destruction. I moved closer to get a better look. My fears were confirmed. Tomato bugs. The most vile, disgusting little demons ever to violate a garden.
A few tomato bugs can strip a plant bare in a single day, destroying months’ worth of tender loving care. These creatures are devoid of any positive qualities or usefulness or, minimally, even the tiniest bit of aesthetic value.
You look at a tomato bug, and you have to stop and wonder what God was thinking — hideous, fat green caterpillars with voracious appetites, truly loathsome from the end of their spine-tipped tails to the tips of their ever-gnawing mouths.
And (all children please leave the room) they deserve to die.
But how to carry out the mass execution. This required some thought. You can’t squash them, because the result is a phlegm-like green splat. They don’t seem to have any natural enemies and pesticide only makes them mad.
They can’t even be frightened off. If you try to flick them from the plants, they writhe and wriggle like tiny snakes, and if you really pester them, they rear back their ugly heads and make nasty little clicking noises. It’s such a revolting display, that one can only shudder and back away.
I’ve heard of some sort of live bacteria that can be fed to the plants that kills the bugs, but I didn’t like the thought of eating bacteria-laced tomatoes. Which is also why I don’t use steer manure for fertilizer.
I needed help from someone who views life from a, shall we say, “innovative” perspective. Someone about three clicks off center. Someone who thinks of things that would never occur to your average person. Like stuffing Play Doh into his sister’s ear canals.
I called in The Boy.
He observed the infestation, pondered it for a moment, then announced that he had a solution. I told him I didn’t want to hear the gory details, just do them in quickly and tell me when it’s over.
I tried to stay away, really I did, but I got that sinking feeling mothers get when the house is too quiet. I had to look.
There was the boy, gleefully catapulting the little beasties skyward, right over the fence.
Oh, the agonies my neighbors have endured.
I only hope the bugs landed in some fashion other than a slimy green splatter on someone’s patio.
Sending the bugs into orbit was a bad choice, I told him. Try again. I could see the little wheels of his mind spinning frantically, then he outlined this plan: throw the bugs into the swimming pool. Any that didn’t drown, he’d fish out and light on fire with his dad’s lighter.
It was yet another moment when I’ve wondered if the boy was switched at birth.
I relieved The Terminator of his duties and told him I’d solve the problem myself.
I knocked the little devils into a coffee can, sealed it up and waited for them to suffocate. It was a solid plan. My plants looked a bit ragged, but there wasn’t a bug in sight.
For a while.
Unfortunately, I only put a dent in the tomato bug population, and an insignificant one at that. Within days, the branches of my tomato plants sagged from the weight of legions of fat green caterpillars, devouring everything in sight.
Maybe I lost the battle, but I wasn’t going to lose the war. If I couldn’t have my tomatoes then nobody — or no thing — would either. I plucked off every tomato that could be salvaged, pulled the plants up by the roots and heaved them onto the trash pile.
I may have lost my plants, but at least I had a basket full of plump, red cherry tomatoes as a consolation prize. I left them on the table like a centerpiece.
The next morning, I went into the kitchen and glanced proudly at my little harvest. If I was a cartoon character, little eyeballs on springs would have burst from my eye sockets.
Most of the tomatoes had split and were oozing juice like deflating balloons. A cloud of fruit flies swarmed over the basket, crawling over my tomatoes, no doubt depositing their revolting little larvae in every crack and crevice.
This must be Mother Nature’s way of saying “touché.”
— Email Debra DeAngelo at email@example.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com