Bug Battles: What’s Eating My Tomatillos?


July 11, 2014

The first year I grew tomatillos I had one plant. The weather was awful. I finally got a couple handfuls of ripe ones right before the early frost, but not enough for canning salsa… so the next year I planted six of them. Holy cow, I got wheelbarrow loads of tomatillo fruits. Not because the weather was better, but because cross-pollination makes them exceptionally prolific. Unfortunately, some itty bitty larvae had made pinhole tunnels in 99% of the harvest. Yeah – it was a total loss. I gave up hunting through a bazillion damaged fruits trying to locate more than a couple I could use.

Over the winter, I tried to discover what bug’s infants laid waste to my mother-load of tomatillos. That was 4 years ago, and I still have no clue. It seems that my garden is very special. No one else in the world reports this kind of damage to tomatillo fruits. The closest I can come to it is tomato pinworms, but they’re bigger than whatever does this to my crop. “Maybe it was just a one-year fluke,” my dear friend the Dept. of Ag Plant Pest & Disease Inspector says. “Some unusual pest that came with the wet, cold weather. Get me a specimen, and I’ll take it to the lab.” We couldn’t identify them because all I ever found was tunnels, and without a specimen of the perps, even the world’s greatest bug specialists can’t help me. Which doesn’t help me pinpoint the way to get rid of them.

What's eating my tomatillo plant?

So, I planted them again in the spring. Now something is eating the leaves. Who cares! I was worried about fruit, and there was scads of them developing amid the hundreds of yellow flowers. Those larvae are way too fat to make those tunnels. They did however enter the pouches through the tip and tear big holes in the tomatillos. And whatever miniscule varmint is making this tiny tunnels is in there doing the deed right along with those striped things. Definitely time to kill everything that moves on a tomatillo plant, but the bees who make this elusive harvest possible. The problem was I didn’t want to use chemicals. Soapy water wasn’t doing the trick, and there were hundreds of those bugs who are very adept at hiding in a blink.

[column size=one_half position=first ]Three-Lined Potato Beetle Larvae (Courtesy of Scott  State Park)[/column]

[column size=one_half position=last ]Sex On A Tomatillo? Three Lined Potato Beetles[/column]

Tomatillo Loving Potato Beetle EggsBattle Year 3 planting season rolled around. Those leaf eating bugs moved right in. Those were easily identified as three-striped potato beetles (more orange than a three-striped cucumber beetle). So, I armed myself with organic AzaSol, which will control all kinds of plant pests. And every time I sprayed rain fell soon after, sometimes before the stuff can dry. Fine. I’ll just start smashing them. Bugs. Eggs. Everything I find but bees. Who cares if the larvae are slimy, and carrying their poop around on their backs. Ignore the gross factor – squish ’em anyway. They. Need. To. Die.

Between my murderous frenzy and AzaSol (you can’t find them all once the plants are thick and huge), I finally succeeded in getting enough undamaged tomatillos to make that roasted salsa and green sauce. It only took 4 years. And 4 heavily loaded plants.

But, I am victorious. Really glad that beetles only bite leaves 🙂

Do you know what makes these pinhole tunnels?

The entry and exit is between a pinprick and a pinhead wide, many so unnoticeable the tomatillo looks fine until you cut it in half. Lots of them have no holes in the husk either.

The creatures just tunnel straight through. Nothing is left behind. It’s a clean, precisely bored passage. They never wander around. It doesn’t appear that it is hungry like tomato fruit worms, because wouldn’t the thing stay in there munching away at the rest of the meat? Of course not! It just moves onto a fresh one, and repeats the process – or grows wings and flies away.

You would think you could clean it up and use part of the fruit for instant cooking, but like an apple, it turns the inside of the tomatillo brown from exposure to air. There are no other visible exterior signs of rot or damage. The only bugs on the plants are these potato beetles. If I cut open a tomatillo and find a tunnel this fall, I’ll add a pic of the hidden damage to this post.

Anyone who knows the answer to this maddening riddle – PLEASE SHARE!



Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine
The garden played a starring role from spring through fall in the house Amber was raised in. She has decades of experience growing plants from seeds and cuttings in the plot and pots.

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