Things That Go ‘Squish’ In the Night

Note to self: Put on glasses — and shoes — when the dog needs a trip to the back yard in the wee small hours of the morning.

Our Alaskan malamutes are generally pretty good about letting us sleep through the night. So when one of them — particularly Fargo, he of the perennially wonky stomach — starts doing laps around the bedroom and then emits that single, frantic, high-pitched “YIP!” right in your ear, you pay attention. And you get up, stumble sleepily down the stairs, and put the needy pooch out on the zipline. Which I did, at 1:30 a.m., a few weeks ago.

I usually don’t even get out of bed without putting on my glasses, but this time I sleepwalked all the way through the kitchen and to the back door without them. Barefoot, too. Which was fine — until I stepped on something squishy right outside the door as I hooked Fargo up to the zipline. And then I stepped on another something squishy.

I hopped on one foot back into the kitchen and wiped slime off my bare sole, muttering rude things about dogs who are prone to dietary indiscretions.

Two hours later, we were headed back downstairs for another urgent trip to the yard. This time I had both glasses and shoes on. And this time I got a good look at what I’d stepped on earlier, because the sidewalk was crawling with grayish-white caterpillar-like things. I ran to get my iPhone and took a photo of one of the creatures that was wedged in the sidewalk seam.

It was about two inches long and about as thick as my index finger. There were dozens of them, and they were squirming with remarkable speed across the sidewalk.

Because I’m such a considerate spouse (and neighbor), I didn’t scream. I brought Fargo back inside, crawled back in bed, and said to my sleeping Beloved Spouse, “We may be under attack by alien worms. Just thought you might want to know.” And I went back to sleep.

The next morning, I queried the Facebook hive-mind for ideas about what the bloody heck these critters might be. Pretty quickly we had consensus: tomato fruit worm larvae. Not tomato horn worms, those iridescent green things with the really funky antennae. No, tomato fruit worms are a completely different species of yuck. They come in several stylish colors.

And they’re apparently nocturnal, which explains the 3:45 a.m. rave in the back yard.

Worst of all, they were headed for my ‘Paul Robeson’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes in the raised beds. This. Meant. War.

The next night, Fargo needed to go out in the wee hours again. This time it was Beloved Spouse’s turn to sleepwalk. Downstairs and out to the yard they went, and I turned over and went right back to sleep. Some indeterminate time later they returned, and Beloved Spouse gleefully described hacking at least 30 of the evil tomato-vores in half with a hoe. The sidewalk was a veritable killing floor.

The larvae dance parties continued for a few more nights, and then the worms seemed to disappear almost as quickly as they appeared, never quite making it as far as the raised beds. As we’ve passed our alleged first-frost date here in USDA Zone 6b without a freeze, I’m hoping for a major frost really soon so we see the last of these disgusting creatures.

In other news, Fallengutter’s main garden is winding down for the year. I’m holding off on harvesting the abundant collards until they’ve been touched by frost, since that makes them a bit sweeter. We pulled the Most Pathetic Carrots Ever out of the ground, and I’m utterly flummoxed; I have no idea what could cause such a complete veggie fail. Anyone out there have an explanation for this?

It’s not all alien worms and mutant root vegetables, though. This year we planted fennel for the first time. I’ve always picked up fennel bulbs from our favorite vegetable vendor at the local farmers’ market, and bought dried fennel seeds at the grocery store. (And once, thanks to a dear friend who visited Israel and went spice shopping in Jerusalem’s Old City souq, I had a jar of fennel seeds that were amazingly intense and made me realize just how lame the mass-market herbs in American supermarkets really are.) Fallengutter’s fennel plants exceeded my wildest expectations. I’ll be harvesting fennel bulbs and seeds soon.

We’re heading into the holiday season soon, and I’m already poring over my (ridiculously huge) cookbook collection for ideas about pies, soups, stews, and sides for the many dinners that will happen around Fallengutter’s dining room table. I’m looking forward to many happy hours with family and friends over good food and good wine, so that the memory of squishing tomato fruit worms beneath my bare feet will be banished forever.

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