Controlling garden pests, the chicken way

One of the biggest, baddest pests we’ve had in our garden is the tomato hornworm. Gardeners, you likely know them: They’re as big as your thumb and perfectly camouflaged—exactly the color of tomato plants, with markings that imitate the veins on tomato leaves, their favorite food. I tend to spot them indirectly, first noticing the tremendous damage they’ve inflicted on one of my plants and then finding the culprit nearby, fat and happy and evil. They’ll strip a plant of leaves in one terrible afternoon, growing bigger all the while.

When you try to pull one off a plant, it has the nerve to hang on tightly with amazingly strong little legs, and then to try chewing on your hand. It’s this kind of creature that makes me understand where the urge to invent pesticides must have come from.

Of course, in our small organic garden, spraying isn’t an option. We pick the hornworms off by hand. Two years ago we had tons of them, and I got into a routine of checking the plants every day after work, pulling off the worms, and stepping on them—an altogether unpleasant task. (During this time, my husband did some research in online gardening forums and got a recommendation we’d never follow: dousing the hornworms in gasoline and setting them on fire!)

Last year, it seems we got lucky: almost no worms. I spotted one near the end of the season, but it was covered in parasitic larvae, which I believe are laid by wasps. Perhaps not coincidentally—and I’d love for someone to fill me in on the ecology here—we had a big wasp nest on the side of the house that faces the garden.

This year, the worms are back, but a different sort of symbiosis is in effect. When we pull off a worm, we take it right over to the chickens, who practically lose their minds with excitement. Whichever bird grabs the worm has to immediately take off running, because the other two will follow her and try to steal it until she manages to get it down the hatch. This is a million times more fun than the old way of killing worms.

What’s your method of hornworm control?

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