Tomatocide: I’m guilty!


Yes, I, Bob Nixon, am guilty of the shocking crime of tomatocide.

I didn’t mean to do it—of course.  I’m a University of Maryland Master Gardener Emeritus.  I should have known better.   Yes, I should have.

Why did I do it—age, early-stage forgetfulness, or worse?

No, I’m only 80, the new 60, so age isn’t a factor, and please stop smiling. Forgetfulness?  Not really because when I go into the garage to get my weeding hoe or pruning shears, I usually—yes, usually—remember why I’m there.

But I did kill my tomato plants this year—lots of them.

They all started out beautifully, either from seeds I started in cups, or, later, replacements that I bought at the local hardware store and my favorite nursery.  Brandywine, Celebrity, Cherokee Purple, Better Boy, Favorita, and Five Star: they looked great when I set them out in my small veggie gardens that wrap around the top of our backyard hillside.

I had carefully prepared the beds, dug planting holes and sprinkled in a bit of fertilizer, carefully placed the plants, watered them, mulched them, and caged them.  They started to thrive, to reach for the sun.  What joy and contentment for a lifelong tomato grower.

And then I started to worry.  Tender young leaves curled under and sometimes twisted.  Plants stopped growing.

Herbicide drift?  Too much water?  Some insect or mite problem?  Some strange new tomato virus?  

I researched at the Home & Garden Information Center and other online websites and analyzed my situation.  Logical conclusion: herbicide drift. But I knew of no neighbor using 2,4-D or other herbicides.

So, I replaced the most severely damaged plants—all of which I had started from seed—with the store-bought ones.  And relaxed and watched my new plants grow. And then the replacements started to curl and twist.  

Just what is going on, I asked myself?  I went online and fired off my question to “Ask an Expert” at the Home & Garden Information Center. 

An expert replied: “The downward curling and twisting sounds like phenoxy (growth regulator) herbicide injury…. The injury is often random.  A few plants affected in one row.  Plants do not recover.  2,4-D drift can be insidious!  There’s still a chance that some businesses have tomato plants.”  The ellipsis included this link: Herbicide Damage on Vegetables.

I responded: “Thank you… for confirming my worst frustration—probably 2,4-D drift.  And I could have added in my question that some early leaves on a nearby row of zucchini were similarly ‘stunted,’ but those plants seem to be putting out new leaves….  All is not lost—just delayed—as when I saw the problem developing I started six new cups of seeds, and those plants are about two inches tall and I’m looking forward to transplanting them later this week.”

When transplanting day came yet again, I went about pulling out the damaged plants and suddenly had a shocking thought.  This is an herbicide drift problem, and no one is using herbicide in the neighborhood.  Could I be causing the problem?  What about that bag of fertilizer that I have been using—the one a neighbor gave me when he moved away last year?  I had seen the N-P-K figures and had skimmed over all the big print on the bag.

But did I read everything?  I almost ran to the garage and looked at the front of the bag—and it gave no hint of herbicide.  But on the back, in small print at the bottom, a box eventually got around to the point that the fertilizer contained 2,4-D, mecoprop, and dicamba, three herbicides.

Oh, no!  I was shocked!  I had been sprinkling death pellets into my tomato-planting holes all spring.  Herbicide drift?  No, it was herbicide intake through each tomato’s root system.

A green plant in a garden

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Herbicides in the fertilizer product caused new leaves on my tomato plants to be small, curled and twisted.

I am embarrassed, of course.  One rule every Master Gardener learns during initial training classes is “Read the label.”

I thought I had read the label—but I hadn’t read the fine print—just the big stuff.

And my tomato plants curled and twisted and ended up in the trash bucket.

I confessed to my crime to the Expert at the Home & Garden Information Center and explained that I had tried to shovel out polluted soil from the planting areas and wondered how long the problem might persist.

“Helluva story, Bob,” the Expert replied.  “The three herbicides have been shown to break down within 60 days (dependent on sufficient soil temperature, moisture, and organic matter) so no worries for planting later this summer or next year.”

The good news is that my latest tomato transplants are nicely growing—but three weeks behind in the size they should have been.  But the fact remains that I was guilty of tomatocide.  I should have read the fine print.

And I have excellent advice for every gardener:  Read the Label—All of It!

-Bob Nixon

UME Master Gardener, Howard Co.

From moth to monster: Hornworms return

A few weeks ago you were sitting back admiring your freshly planted garden. Neat little rows of tomato, pepper, squash, and cucumber plants accompanied by flowers and herbs were all planted in view from your back deck. As you sat there basking in the evening sun, relishing in your hard work, a little moth fluttered from flower to flower sipping nectar.

hornworm moth
A hawkmoth, the Carolina Sphinx, is the adult form of a tobacco hornworm. Photo: Mike Raupp, University of Maryland, Department of Entomology

With her hummingbird like flutters, a Carolina Sphinx Moth floated through your garden, unassumingly laying her eggs on your newly planted tomato and pepper plants. Within a few days, from her little green eggs emerged a tiny but very hungry green caterpillar.

Hornworm caterpillars. Photo: Rachel Rhodes, University of Maryland Extension

Since that day, the ravenous little green hornworm caterpillar has spent his days munching away, perfectly hidden by the copious green foliage of your tomato plants, growing bigger and bigger. You begin to notice stems of complete defoliation. Maybe you think it’s a bunny or deer having a nighttime nibble as the little green caterpillar stays camouflaged, until the moment you notice the red-tipped horn and the very large green body of a caterpillar measuring almost 4” in length hanging on your prize winning tomato plant. Continue reading