Your Questions Answered: Tomato Thieves

Question: We always love your articles and website. Keep it up!!

In this past weekend article on tomatoes, you didn’t answer the burning question: what did your brother do about the squirrels??????? They have already chomped the small tomatoes that were forming on our one plant and I know they are just waiting for more. The plant is doing very well, is covered in blossoms, but the furry thieves are lurking and watching. I have thought of making a chicken wire cocoon to go over the plant, but I wondered if you had any other suggestions. Lots of wildlife in the centre of the city!

- Virginia

Answer: Hi Virginia,

The quick answer is nothing. He did nothing, and consequently only managed to get a taste of a single homegrown tomato. On the flip side, he did say it was the best tomato he’d ever tasted in his life and it has made him eager to try again this year, but with some kind of security measure in place.

When it comes to dealing with mammalian critters I find that there are no hard and fast solutions. Cities are not the lifeless concrete jungles we’ve made them out to be, which is a very good thing. I appreciate the surprise and awe that comes from discovering a bit of wildlife up on my third floor roof in the sky, even if it means we have to share space and an inevitable loss of food. However, I will admit that it is easier to take this generous attitude in June when my tomatoes haven’t yet begun to produce. I’ll be shaking my fists and raging come July when half-eaten tomatoes start appearing on the vine. Why must they taunt me by only eating half? If you’re going to take my hard-won food, eat it all!

Mammalian critters have complex brains and personalities. Like us, there is a lot of variation in temperament and taste between them, even those of the same species. What works for the raccoons around here, might not work for raccoons across town, let alone across the country, or the continent. In fact, what works this year might not work next year when the local posse have had time to figure out their own solutions to your trickery.

Feeling optimistic yet?

Of course, you could always luck out. The squirrels are particularly ravenous in my brother’s part of the city, whereas I can get away with less protection and still come out at the end with a decent crop and only a few tomatoes lost. I pout and whine, but in comparison to some I don’t lose much. If your garden is in an area like my brother’s, I suggest doing exactly what you mentioned above — wrap the whole thing in a chicken wire cocoon and call it a day. It’s not the prettiest solution, but it does seem to keep the critters off the goods. My brother only has one plant so there’s no point in messing around. Chickenwire may be ugly but it does lend itself to interesting shapes. I like to use lots of extra and sculpt those bits so it’s not just a big blanket of wire around the plant and pot but something almost interesting that looks intentional.

If your critters aren’t great climbers, you can try wrapping just the bottom of the pot so they can’t get in. I’ve never seen a squirrel climb an actual plant, but that’s not to say it can’t happen. They do tend to prefer a perch, whether that’s inside the pot, a chair next to it, or a railing where they can easily sit and get at the fruit near the top.

If you’ve got multiple plants, then you’ve got an opportunity to do some testing to see what works and what doesn’t. There are lots of other solutions that others have employed. Most of these don’t worked for me, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work for you.

  • Pepper flakes and pepper sprays: There’s a lot of contention about this one. Some say the critters touch the pepper and eventually get it in their eyes — not a nice feeling to experience. Some say that’s a load of garbage and the animals aren’t that dumb. I have no answer one way or the other so I don’t use this method. Do know that to be effective, you’ll have to be diligent about reapplying regularly.
  • Obnoxious music: Set a small radio next to your plants and set it to an AM station that plays something grating, like ABBA. Let it be known that I enjoy a little ABBA now and again, but even I will agree that it grates after a while.
  • Things that smell like your pet: Used pet bedding and hair are popular deterrents. Simply spread bits around the soil, hang around plants, or clip it to stakes. This has never worked for me and our immune city critters — they’ve attempted to raid the garden when all of us, including the cat, were sitting right there!
  • Vinegar soaked rags: This is another homemade trick, but you’ve got to contain the rag from dripping vinegar (a natural herbicide) onto your plants and soil. A small margarine container should do the trick.
  • Pinwheels and whirligigs: Set them in the pot with your plants. I find that the constant motion scares away the birds but doesn’t seem to phase our city squirrels and raccoons — they’ll think you’re cute for trying!
  • Sprinkle bloodmeal around the plants: This can work, although I can’t say I love the smell. Coffee is also used but tends to do more to deter digging animals than those looking to score a free meal.

What do you do to keep the squirrels, raccoons, possums, and other mammalian creatures from dining on your tomatoes?


p.s This week’s Globe & Mail article is on basil.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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26 thoughts on “Your Questions Answered: Tomato Thieves

  1. My problem are mice, Last year, the smell of mint (tea bags, plants near the edibles) worked like a charm at repelling these voracious eaters. But this year it doesn’t seem to phase them. I have now resorted to purchasing coyote/urine as a rodent repellent. We shall see if it works.

  2. i catch the squirrels with a havahart trap and release them in a lush forest far far away. its the ONLY thing that has worked for me.

  3. I use chicken wire for my rooftop collection of tomato plants here in Chicago, primarily because of the squirrels. Each plant is enclosed in a “tube” of chicken wire. I was so angry when I saw a squirrel running along the porch railing with a green tomato in its mouth, I vowed it would never happen again! The “tubes” have lasted for a number of seasons, the only tricky part is storing them when the season is over.

  4. My mom said she always used to have this problem, and for a few summers gave up growing tomatoes. The squirrels managed to get one bite out of everyone. A gardener friend advised her to set out a tea cup of water, the animals don’t really like the tomato itself, but are desperate for water in our hot summers. This has worked quite well and our tomatoes are thriving! Companion planting with marigolds has also been quite effective. Good luck!

  5. I have a question that you may be able to answer for me. I have always understood that it was important to remove the little suckers that tomato plants produce, so the energy goes into making fruit instead. However at my local gardening centre, one of the staff told me that you only remove suckers of indeterminate plants and not determinate (or maybe it’s the other way around, I can’t remember). Is that true? Thanks and I absolutely love your blog.

  6. I guess I live in an area with lazy, spoiled wildlife. Maybe there’s so much household garbage and easier stuff that they have never bothered picking my produce.
    That could change any year, of course. This is Year #4 for tomatoes in our garden, and I understand that with each passing year, the critters are more and more aware when your cafeteria opens for the season!!!
    One thing we HAVE done this year (involunatarily) is have noisy, obnoxious neighbours who host at least three loud late-night *Insert-Unspecified-Ethnicity-Here* Music Parties per week.
    We may not love the music, but neither do the raccoons!
    (and we don’t have to pay for the electricity, like we would with leaving a radio on!)

  7. Our biggest problem is deer. We eventually fenced in a portion of our yard with deer proof cat fencing. Now the cats can go out and play, and I have an area of yard where I can garden to my hearts content. Now if you could tell me how to get rid of slugs I’d be all set…

  8. I planted a row of corn along the fence that the raccoons use as an access point to our yard- my theory is that the raccoons will enjoy the corn and not bother to venture further. I’ll let you know how that works out.

    So far with the squirrels all I’ve come up with is yelling at them when I see them and hoping my cats can at least deter them from stealing from the roof garden. We have a lot of trees and my yard seems to be the local playground for multiple families of the little pests so it doesn’t bode well.

  9. I agree with CallieK’s comment regarding the racoons & a corn row. In my urban setting, the squirrels are the pests. I’ve learned to make a game of trying to outwit them and sometimes THEY win- which says something about my IQ, or maybe theirs! My most successful gambit has been a birdfeeder. I fill it with cheap seed and a few sunflower seeds. Dried field (feed)corn would probably work as well. They have no time to bother with my tomatoes as they spend all their feeding hours at or underneath the bird feeder – and my tomatoes are less than 15 feet away. Of course the bird feeder also provides the joy of watching the birds, too.


  10. I was having a lot of problems with squirrels digging in my plants and pulling things out. I purchased a spray bottle and filled it with just plain water. When I see the little buggers on/near my deck they get blasted with water. They definitely do not like it and I am fairly surprised that their visits seem to have lessened significantly. Now the true test will be once my tomatoes start to grow…

  11. Ciao Chuck-

    We use a squirrel feeder filled with dried corn and sunflower seeds, too. I’ve even found one of the raccoons hanging upside down on it. I’ve never had squirrels or raccoons eat any of my vegetables. We also have a mulberry tree and the birds and squirrels seem to prefer those insipid-tasting fruits to the plums, apricots, and pears. Birds get most of the cherries, but the only good ones these days are well out of reach of even our cherry picker, so that’s fine.

  12. As an addendum to my comment yesterday about using the spray bottle: I got home from work last night to find my lettuce plants no longer existed, and a few flowers (root balls and all) laying on my deck. It’s as though the squirrels read my comment and said “heehee…we’ll show you we’re not afraid of a spray of water!”. I’m sure my cursing could be heard all over downtown T.O.

  13. I lost a lobelia from the deck and a brussel sprout from the garden yesterday. Cayenne pepper it is!

  14. You could also try partially burying a clove of garlic beside the plants you are protecting. My sister tried that with potted plants and it worked to keep the squirrels away. Luckily, I have never had need to try it.

  15. That’s brilliant! Water for the squirrels. My one visiting squirrel (and maybe her offspring, this year, by the look of things) only comes up during the dog days of summer. I have a leaky hummingbird feeder I tried to fix with a hamster water bottle spout (not the ideal solution for the hummers, that ball bearing). I’m going to use it for watering squirrels this August, and keep the chicken wire on standby. thanks

  16. I have tried (no luck) to grow a few vegetable (and annuals) near a forest. Squirrels and others (?) eat every leaf that forms so I don’t have to worry about actual produce. So far they have eaten all the icelandic poppies, pansies, impatiens, squash, tomatoes, pumpkins…. you get the idea. I’m willing to share but this is rediculous! I’m trying some of the tips here (water is available so that’s not it.) Someone asked about snails/slugs–Sluggo works and is pet safe.

  17. Put tin foil around the base of the plant (with a few holes for drainage) that keeps the squirrels out. They hate tinfoil. If not, the chicken wire wrapped around them should work well.

    For slugs, pour a few margarine container lids full of beer around. The slugs will drown themselves in it. Also diatomous earth – it scratches their skin and makes them dry out. It’s non-toxic if you use food grade. It also keeps other pests away from plants (but not critters!).

  18. My backyard is full of trees and squirrels are all over the place, I even have a chipmonk visiting my deck! In previous years I could grow nothing in containers because the squirrels would dig them up. This year I have a ton of container plants on my deck and the squirrels have left them alone. The only thing I’ve done different is I’m growing Lemon Balm and Mint, and the containers are close together so there isn’t a lot of room for the squirrels to manuever around. Maybe try Lemon Balm & Mint. Hope this helps!

  19. I have had mostly mice problems (at least, I think) eating melons and eggplant – I put a little pantyhose condom on the ripening fruit and it sure works! It is stretchy so the fruit can still grow (though I do make it pretty baggy to begin with). Not sure it would work with tomatoes though, it might be too light blocking?? I haven’t had to try it on those!

    I love hearing the mint idea! sure do have more of that than I ever know what to do with. :)

  20. Sunnyone – “food grade” diatomacious earth? Is there such a thing, or am I misreading your post?

  21. Maggie: I had never heard of “food grade” either but looked it up and from what I read it is used in livestock as a dewormer. Is actually fed to them.

    My experience in using diatomacious earth is to be very cautious and make sure you are not breathing it in…. and this is from stuff I get at the environmental store.

  22. Chicken wire is the answer to the squirrel problem. The squirrels cannot leave my window boxes along, particularly the pepper plants. Not only do they dig into the soil, but they chewed a thriving pepper plant in half for no good reason, at which point I made giant chicken wire cozies for my window boxes. I haven’t lost a plant since.

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