Hornworm Home


Some of my earliest memories involve strawberries and corn. While I know that the garden of my youth had more than that, those plants stand out vividly. I remember the tall stalks of corn in two straight rows along one end of a rectangular garden. Somewhere around the edges I also remember picking strawberries. I loved dirt then and I still love it today, the smell, texture, coolness. I remember that earthy smell and it immediately sends me back to my toddler years.

Growing crops in an arid climate teaches many life lessons. Patience for one. Joy in the miraculous for another. Frustration and sadness, of course too. While I prefer to raise crops more closely aligned with the climate, I also want to encourage the love of gardening, of plants, seeds and all things that grow in my children. So, I let them choose a few items for our garden too. During the summer of 2018, my twins decided to grow watermelon and tomatoes (the cantaloupe planted itself). We also added basil and dill for spice. After three years or so of developing the soil and composting, our garden grew well and the kids were delighted.

Anyone who has ever raised a tomato knows that they often come with hornworms. My son decided to raise some of these worms in a habitat. We built a large structure with dirt and plants. We fed them fresh tomato leaves daily. They grew and grew and consumed at unbelievable rates. The kids measured them daily and let them out for “exercise.” I believe they are the first tomato farmers who love both the worm and the tomatoes.

On July 12th, 2018, we built the habitat fit for four hornworms which included a large area for climbing and about 1 foot of dirt underneath. Three were approximately the same size and one was small. On July 16th, we decided to begin measuring them. On July 19th, the first three worms began to bury themselves for the long winter hibernation. They completely gave up eating, which had been their sole reason for existence, and instead rummaged through the dirt. Constant digging dusted their vibrant green skin with dirt. For two or three days, they would tunnel in and out of the dirt. On about the third day, they disappeared from view. (I don’t know if this is natural behavior, or if they required more than one foot of dirt.) On this day, the largest worm measured twelve inches and the smallest was seven inches. He continued to eat in solitude.

Every day we would pick ripe tomatoes for us and also some branches for the worms. Somewhere in this cycle, we seemed to have brought hornworm eggs in on some of the tomato plants, and so of course, within a few days, we had a tiny worm crawling around the habitat. The kids loved him immediately. However, we were set to leave for vacation, so I told them we could not raise any more worms, but we must put them all back in the garden. My son chose a shady spot under a large juniper tree. It was a warm summer day with little breeze and few clouds in the sky. He was already sad at letting this baby go free and I was encouraging him to let go. He put the baby on a short tomato stalk and set it on the ground. Within seconds, a wasp flew down and ate the hornworm in front of my son who had just raised it.

While I realize that I speak of hornworms, that moment nearly crushed my son. For a long time afterward, he cried. This is how we humans come to understand the life cycle, in bits and pieces, sometimes brutally and sometimes with glory. He learned a great, terrible lesson that day which made his tomatoes more precious, his heart more tender, and his world a little bigger.

Being a mother means one must learn to weigh the immense balance of life in your hands. You see its awesomeness, its awfulness. This delicate balance of instinct and observation requires me to listen.

After a long day’s drive, we returned from summer vacation tired, exhausted, and hungry and the garden provided plentifully. During the summer of 2018, our garden spun stories of growth and decay, dominance and hunger, of life and death. It reminded me that every growth is a form of speech.

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alissa_aj22, “Hornworm Home,” Community of Gardens, accessed July 15, 2024, https:/​/​communityofgardens.​si.​edu/​items/​show/​12378.​
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