Welp’s Louisville: The neurotic gardener vs. the whitefly

Like many people who eat, my wife Mary and I enjoy growing some of our own food. Not only does it provide victuals for our family, but it also supplies comic entertainment for the neighborhood’s woodland creatures, who enjoy kidnapping our vegetables and leaving hostage demands spelled out in acorns by the compost.

Our garden is nothing fancy: just a few tomatoes, peas, spinach, lettuce, squash and jalapeño and habanero peppers*, plus a variety of Mary’s curative herbs valued for their ability to cure her of having the afternoon off from weeding. Our garden is organic, which not only provides healthier vegetables, but also lets the insects join the squirrels in driving me crazy. But with spreadsheets and Cal Thomas in the world, there’s no sense in wasting my limited supply of ire on garden pests, so I’ve made peace with the creatures who want to share our bounty. Until this year, that is, when whiteflies infested our tomato plants.

It’s important to note that I regard eating homegrown tomatoes as one of life’s greatest pleasures not revolving around romance or reading. Tomato season is better than Christmas and the day after Derby when everybody goes home combined. So when insects went after my tomato plants, I was madder than Alec Baldwin at a family reunion.

Naturally, I stormed into the house, past the gardening books, past the brochures from the extension agent and past the phone I could have used to call somebody who knows what he’s doing, and went straight to the computer, where I seized upon the first remedy I could google. I quickly found a forum of people whose rage vaguely resembled mine, which led me to a recipe from gardenslut4076 (not her real name) that was a heady brew of chewing tobacco, dish soap and Listerine, which promised to not only get rid of the bugs but also fight their germs that cause bad breath. Gardenslut4076 made it sound like something Thomas Jefferson would have ordered his slaves to spray on the purple calabashes at Monticello, just before he went inside and had sex with their wives.

Without pausing to wonder if the tobacco killed the bugs or drove them away (or merely gave them mouth tumors and made them sound like Harvey Fierstein), I dashed to the tobacco store. Mail Pouch secured, I dashed back home and made my “tea”: one pouch of chewing tobacco, two gallons of warm water, one tablespoon of dish soap and two ounces of Listerine, steeped overnight. The next morning, I sprayed the stuff all over my tomato plants and watched the insects vamoose like the credibility of a Churchill Downs lawyer at a bar-owner’s association meeting.

Shortly after watching the bugs fly up to that big smoking section in the sky, it began to dawn on me that this remedy might be less than organic. Did the nicotine in tobacco — widely admired for its toxicity — count as an organic substance? And even if it’s technically organic, wouldn’t it kill beneficial insects as well as pests, which is one key problem organic gardening seeks to avoid? Further, would the tobacco make my tomatoes go even better with beer?

To find out, I phoned up my friend Ivor Chodkowski, who is the organic farmer, Bardstown-Road-Farmer’s-Market omelet artist and all-around consciousness raiser at Field Day Organic Farm. According to Ivor, I am, despite all odds, not an idiot after all. He said the first thing to try is to wash off the tiny insects with a garden hose and see if water pressure alone would do the trick.

If that fails, the tobacco tea is a suitable remedy. Noting that the tobacco and tomato plants are kissin’ cousins, Ivor pointed out that the approach has a certain poetry. Because of the long-shot chance that a tobacco fungus could spread to the tomatoes and because the tea-spray wouldn’t be practical in a farming operation, Ivor noted that he wouldn’t use it on his tomatoes. But he said the remedy would be fine for a home gardener. Which is a relief. Now I just have to figure out how to put the surgeon general’s warning on my tomatoes.

*Tip for getting your peppers extra hot: Mix sarcasm in with the manure, just like journalism.

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