What Is the Best Way to Save Your Tomato Plants?

A couple of winters ago, in yet another triumph of hope over experience, I planted a couple of tomato plants. I planted them in big pots and installed the standard “cages”. In case you’re unfamiliar with these, they help keep the plants in place and should be available at any hardware/gardening store. Here’s a link to one of the tomato plant cages sold by Lowe’s. (Note: the photo above is not of our tomato plants; heck, no. There’s a photo of one of our sad plants below.)

Confession: I don’t like tomatoes. I like spaghetti sauce, canned diced tomatoes, pizza, and the myriad wonderful ways tomatoes are used, but a fresh, sliced, juicy tomato? Bah! I don’t know if it’s the consistency or what, but no thank you. However, my father, a dyed-in-the-wool city boy who did some terrible things to the surrounding flora when we moved to New Jersey, was somehow incredibly good at growing the famous “Jersey tomatoes.” And to this day, the distinctive smell of a tomato plant brings me right back to my father’s side. It’s one of the main reasons I continue to grow this (fruit/vegetable) that I refuse to eat in its natural form.

Tomato Wars: Florida vs. New Jersey

In case you were wondering, the photo above is NOT of my plants. No, they had absolutely zero chance of looking like that. First of all, growing tomatoes in Florida is not like growing tomatoes in New Jersey.  Second, growing tomatoes in caged pots is not like growing tomatoes in your backyard. Third, growing tomatoes in Florida means growing them in the winter. And – most importantly – I’m pretty sure New Jersey doesn’t have whiteflies, or at least they didn’t back when my father and I grew tomatoes.

I knew all this going in, of course. Except for the bit about whiteflies. Too timid to buy seeds, I started with seedlings; they were about two inches high. I got the right soil, the right pots, the right cages…what could go wrong?

Within a week, I knew exactly what could go wrong: whiteflies. That year, we had a scourge of something like three different kinds of whiteflies (you can learn more about how to identify and get rid of whiteflies from the Farmer’s Almanac, something I wish I’d read that winter).

I Tried Everything

These hideous creatures were everywhere. Eating every leaf. Destroying the structure of the plant from every angle. And I tried…everything:

  • Rinsing the plant daily with a “safe” insecticidal soap
  • Hand removal by plucking off the offending leaves
  • 27,378 home remedies
  • Chemicals

The whiteflies laughed at me. And the problem with a leafless tomato plant is that its stalks are reduced to the strength of spaghetti noodles. By the end of the season, the plants, which had miraculously managed to produce tomatoes, were precariously perched on a labyrinthian artificial structure I’d created out of every piece of string/wood/broom handle/metal rod I could find. Here’s one of them, mid-battle season:

What Is the Best Way to Save Your Tomato Plants?

In desperation, I visited the local gardening shop, an institution that’s been here forever; don’t ask why I didn’t start with them because I don’t know. “Ladybugs!” they said. “We sell them here; it’s $10 for 1000”.

Ladybugs, Natural Whitefly Predators

Who knew? They come in a brown paper lunch bag, and apparently, ladybugs do this sort of hibernation thing, where if you keep them refrigerated, they just sort of hang out until summoned/warmed up. “Put them out around dusk,” I was advised, “when the temperature is cooler. And then, when you don’t see any more ladybugs, that’s how you’ll know the whiteflies are gone, because it means that the ladybugs have eaten all the prey and have left in search of more.”

OK! I brought home the bag of ladybugs and put it in the fridge. Our teenage son was thrilled – his mother had just brought home a bag of bugs and put it in the refrigerator! This was amazing.

The next night, we unleashed the ladybugs. In the morning, I ran outside expectantly, only to be confronted with what I can only describe as a killing field of ladybugs. Yes, there were roughly 995 dead ladybugs, and 47,000 whiteflies doing a dance.

As best we can tell, the ladybugs were poisoned by all the chemicals I’d tried to eradicate the whiteflies.

Ladybugs, I am so very, very very sorry.

In summary, the moral of the story is: always start with ladybugs. Save the nuclear arsenal for later.⧉

If you’re not too mortified to share your worst gardening stories ever, feel free to leave a comment! As for me, I’ll be preparing for our winter planting season, bags of ladybugs in hand.

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