Month: September 2010

Early fall sleuthing

It won’t be too long now before gardens in south-central Connecticut get nipped by frost, and that will be the end of juicy tomatoes such as these Sweet Million cherry tomatoes soaking up any last season sun.

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When I went out to check this plant a couple of days ago I found a late and unwelcome visitor had taken residence.  The visitor left signs, so I knew what to look for, but new gardeners might not.

What first caught my eyes were a few small brown droppings scattered on the stone edging directly below the outreaching vines.

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Then I looked up at the vines above and noticed stems with no leaves.

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When you come across these two indicators look for a tomato hornworm happily munching away. They eat tomato, pepper, eggplant, and potato plants. Find one and you’re likely to find more. Here’s a close-up, but if you were really sharp you might have noticed him on the left side of the plant in the previous photo.

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Tomato hornworms can quickly defoliate plants and will also munch away at the plant’s fruit. Throughout the growing season you should keep a watchful eye for their droppings and the defoliated stems they leave behind. When spotted, take time to inspect the three inch long caterpillars before sending them to their demise. If you see tiny white oblong objects projecting from the back of a tomato hornworm it is already on its way out.  These white objects are cocoons of the braconid wasp. This wasp lays eggs on the back of hornworms. Once hatched, wasp larvae feed on the inside of the hornworm. Since braconid wasps are beneficial insects in the garden, it’s good to let them complete their life cycle on the back of the nasty caterpillar dining on your plants. Don’t worry much about parasitized hornworms feeding further … they won’t eat much once they become a braconid nursery.

If a hornworm has not been found by braconid wasps, then hand pick and drown them to prevent further damage. Just make sure to bring really sharp sleuthing eyes to this task … it can be difficult to spot the well disguised caterpillars.

A quick read of a tomato hornworm bulletin from the University of Rhode Island offers a peak at a parasitized hornworm plus more on the lifecycle of hornworms and the adult sphinx or hawk moths from whence they come.

The last act of my hornworm – it had no braconid wasp cocoons – was to serve a photo model for my favorite photographer … even a hungry caterpillar can have a stunning portrait.

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I splurged.

I’ve been really good at not purchasing a lot of plants for my gardens this summer … too many other things to take care of and too little time. But when I ran across Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Summer Sorbet’ with its showy green leaf variegation and striking electric blue blossoms, I caved.

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I caved, came home, looked around for the right spot, identified two, then caved again. Summer Sorbet deux came to live here too.

My twin deciduous shrubs stand about 3 feet tall and wide. Both are a tad misshapen, but this minor issue will be easily remedied with a good late-winter pruning. The leaf variegation – in multiple shades of green, and the electric blue late-summer blossoms were just too much for me, and a host of bees, to resist.

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And to complement this beauty and striking color is supposed deer resistance. I say supposed since I’ve heard this before. Only time will prove whether the deer in my locale actually find Miss Caryopteris unpalatable … keeping my fingers crossed.

My Caryopteris twins will sit on either side of the steps leading to my long front porch. They will join a few boxwood, some perennials (Louisiana Iris, mounds of Campanula carpatica, Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina), and other small perennials, and they’ll add some much appreciated late season color to a spot that tends to look rather tired this time of year.

Have you splurged on a late summer purchase that you simply could not resist?  What caught your eye?

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