When it comes to destructive summer garden pests, tobacco and tomato hornworms might just top the list! The ugly green creatures can measure 4 to 5 inches long, and devour tomato and pepper plants overnight. 

tomato hornworms
tomato hornworms can devour plants quickly!

Hornworms are found in almost every corner of the United States and beyond. There are actually two types, and depending on where you live, you might have one or both attempting to ruin your garden. 

Tomato hornworms have a dark spike at the point of their back side, and 8 white stripes down their body. Tobacco hornworms, on the other hand, have a red spike with 7 white stripes. Tomato hornworms are more prevalent in the north, while tobacco hornworms are found in the south and Southwest. They both can quickly decimate the Nightshade family of plants, which include tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and tobacco plants.

Hornworms emerge from the ground as pupa in late spring in the form of a large moth. These moths are dark brown and have the flight skills of the hummingbird. They can hover over plants and be nearly impossible to catch due to their quick nature. The moths then lay small eggs on the undersides of plants, which then emerge as hornworm caterpillars. And the damage begins!

Spotting The Damage

Hornworms come to life and start their foraging at the peak of summer. Their damage is easy to spot. The large green caterpillars usually start stripping off and devouring leaves and stems at or near the top of plants. If you notice the tops of your plants missing large chunks of foliage, with only stubbed remnants left of the branches – you most likely have hornworms! Once they have devoured the leaves and stems, they will find their way onto the ripening fruit. If left alone, tomato hornworms can ruin every tomato on a plant in just a few days. 

Although their damage might be easy to spot, the tobacco and tomato hornworms are not! Their translucent green bodies camouflage them perfectly against the leaves of garden plants. It’s almost like trying to play a game of “Where’s Waldo” trying to locate them on damaged plants. 

Controlling Tobacco and Tomato Hornworms

tomato hornworms
The hawk moth lays the eggs that becomes the hornworm caterpillar

The single, most effective method to control hornworms is the old-fashioned art of daily patrol and hand picking. But they key to total control starts and ends with the word “daily.” In just a 2 day period, the caterpillars can go from 1/2″ long to 4″ from eating everything in sight.

There are some organic insecticides available, but they are not highly effective, and kill many beneficial insects too.

Beyond looking for the tell-tale damage to foliage and stems at the top of the plants, be on the lookout for other earlier signs. Hornworms will leave small piles of droppings on the top side of leaves. If it is bright green, it is fresh, and the hornworm is nearby. If it is darker or dry, it is a bit older and look lower in the plant for the culprit. Once you have trained your eyes, it is amazing how quickly you can start to spot the damage and remove them.

If you have chickens, feed the worms to them, they love them! If not, chop them in half and dispose.

There is one-time not to remove the hornworms. If you spot a hornworm with small white protrusions on it’s back, leave it be. Those white spots are the eggs of parasitic and extremely beneficial wasps. If they are present, the horworm is not a danger to your crops and will soon die. And by leaving it, those wasps can hatch and find their way to take out other hornworms.

Long Term Control

One of the best natural controls against tobacco and tomato hornworms in the long-term is chickens. If you are fortunate to have a small flock, let them forage in the garden each fall after the crops have been pulled. They can scratch and clear the pupa from the ground, eliminating most of the next years batch.

If you unearth any of the brown pupa while digging, destroy them as well. They are usually only a 1/4″ or less under the soil, and look like the hardened shell of a small caterpillar. With a little diligence, you can keep hornworms at bay! For other summertime garden tips, check out our article entitled : 7 Quick Garden Tips To Keep Your Garden Beautiful This Summer!

Here’s to keeping the hornworms under control – Jim and Mary! If you would like to receive our DIY, Gardening and Recipe articles each week, you can sign up via email at the very bottom of this post. You can also like and follow us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram to receive all of our latest tips and articles. This article may contain affiliate links.


9 thoughts on “Tomato Hornworms – Controlling Summer’s Most Destructive Garden Pest!

  • July 25, 2017 at 1:30 pm
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    Thank you so much for this article! I just found a tomato hornworm on one of my jalapeno plants this week and was wondering what it was – especially since it was eating a pepper! I will be doing a thorough check of the rest of the plants TODAY to get rid of them. Thanks again for all the wonderful information you provide.

  • July 21, 2017 at 3:02 pm
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    We hand pick them here and feed them to the Bearded Dragon who goes silly when he sees them and gobbles them up pronto.

  • July 21, 2017 at 12:05 am
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    the best proven method to prevent hornworms in tomatoes is to companion plant marigolds with your tomatoes. Alternate planting (tomato, marigold, tomato, marigold – you get the idea). Something about the marigold, probably the scent, repels the moth which lays the eggs which become the worms. Learned this trick years ago and do it every year. Never have had more than one or two worms each season doing this – except last year when I put off planting the marigolds until later in the summer. Too late. apparently the eggs were already deposited. patch was overrun and devastated by hornworms despite daily “hunts”. This year I planted my marigolds with the tomatoes at the same time and, only 2 worms so far on about 40 ripening tomato plants.
    I have gardened on several plots in 4 different states, and this has never failed to control them.

  • July 20, 2017 at 9:35 pm
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    I grow an organic garden ( no pesticides). I’ve had a tomato hornworm once but noticed it had white spikes on it’s back. I learned that they were the eggs of a tiny wasp that hatch and then eat the hornworm. If you see the eggs leave the hornworm alone so it can host a new generation of beneficial wasps! I checked on that hornworm about two weeks later. All that was left was it’s skin draped over a tomato branch. I haven’t seen a hornworm since.

  • July 20, 2017 at 3:29 pm
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    Good info. Wish there were more pictures of what to look for.

  • July 20, 2017 at 3:13 pm
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    I carry a small pail of water with a small amount of Dawn dish soap on my gardening rounds. Most bugs are just dropped in when picked off the plants. Not having to smash bugs keeps my gardening gloves much cleaner.

  • July 20, 2017 at 9:11 am
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    I have grown tomatoes for thirty years and have followed the advice I got from my mother on how to prevent tomato hornworms in her garden when I was growing up. Plant okra on the East side of your tomatoes. It has worked every year.

  • July 20, 2017 at 8:56 am
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    Thank you for a most informative article. I’m blessed to not have these little guys in my garden for now, but I will look out for them! I did not know about the wasp thing. Thank you!

  • July 20, 2017 at 8:31 am
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    These worms turn into beautiful months. I keep sacraficial plants and relocate them so my garden is safe and I live harmoniously with nature.

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