So, you wake up one morning, all excited to harvest your first tomatoes, only to find burrows, holes in the leaves, and bare stems! The garden you have tended so carefully for months has been completely ruined in the blink of an eye.
Pests are unfortunately part of our ecosystem. And, while some might just steal a few bites from your precious tomatoes, others can destroy the entire plant, forcing you to start all over again! These freeloaders come in the form of wild animals, worms, insects, or birds.
Some of these pests only show up in the evening to attack your favorite crops. They might chew holes in the leaves, stems and fruit, or tear down the entire garden in a single night. Others may steal your fruit in broad daylight, right before your eyes. In fact, even your own pets can sometimes mess up your tomato garden.
Unfortunately, some of these unwelcome visitors can be more challenging than others to eradicate.
Let us walk through, one by one, what may be eating your tomatoes and how to keep them off your garden!
What’s eating my tomatoes at night?
Certain pests are more likely to ravage your garden at night, so that you are welcomed by unsightly damage when you wake up in the morning. Although both animals and bugs can destroy your plants in the dark, we have summarized below a list of worms, crawling bugs, and insects that can harm your greens and fruits.
Worms often hide in the ground or on the underside of your tomato leaves and only come out at night to feast on your plants. The most common of these are hornworms and cutworms.
Hornworms are common tomato pests with horn-like tails. These caterpillars are about three inches long, yet they can still be challenging to spot since they have a green body that is camouflaged by the leaves.
Cutworms, on the other hand, are moth caterpillars that grow about an inch long. Their bodies are fat and colored gray or black. These pests hide in the upper layers of the soil while the sun is up, only coming out at night to feed on your plants.
Whether you have hornworms or cutworms in the garden, know that both of these pests can defoliate and destroy an entire plant! Hence, it is important to manage them as soon as you can before they multiply rapidly and take over your garden.
While most insects are beneficial pollinators, some can destroy your plants. Leaf-cutting bees are the most common of these, and they create half-moon cuts on your tomato leaves. The good news is that they will not harm the fruits. so you can still enjoy your tomatoes at harvest time.
However, if you do not like the leaves damaged and you see their eggs on your plants, then cover your plants to keep them safe. Hopefully, these nuisances will avoid visiting your garden and find another place to lay their eggs.
3. Snails and slugs
Snails and slugs are slimy creatures that can cause extensive damage to your tomatoes and other plants. They love hiding in cool, moist areas such as in mulch or under the shade of pots. Both these pests leave irregularly-shaped holes on the leaves, and can also feed on the ripening fruits of your tomato plants. However, if you are not aware of their presence, you might confuse their damage for that caused by other pests. To know whether your plants are infested with snails and slugs, look for slimy mucous trails on and around the plants.
Animals that eat your tomato plants
Some animals love nothing better than some free tomatoes, and we have listed some of the most common suspects below:
Our little feathered friends are often the culprits when it comes to ravaged tomato gardens. A few birds will not hesitate to feast on your delicious, ripe tomatoes, especially if you have set up a bird feeder near your greens.
Birds, in general, love visiting gardens for fresh worms, spiders, caterpillars, aphids, and mosquitoes, and these visits can be beneficial as they help keep the bugs in check. However, the birds can also take advantage of the produce in your garden while visiting. Thus, it is important to keep an eye on your daily garden visitors to ensure that your ripe tomatoes reach your kitchen!
Some of the common birds that love pecking on tomatoes are crows, cardinals, blue jays, mockingbirds, and blackbirds.
Deer will happily feed on a variety of crops, shrubs, nuts, leaves, and fungi. But do you know that they also love eating tomatoes? These animals can travel great distances just to find food and, given the opportunity, they will not hesitate to grab a few tomatoes from your garden for their dinner.
Usually, these animals wreak garden havoc during the evening or early morning, munching their way through your flowers, shrubs, and vegetables. Fortunately, however, there are safe and humane ways you can prevent them from feasting on your produce, and we will discuss these further down.
3. Small rodents
If you notice golf ball-sized holes in your garden, then you probably have rodent visitors eating your plants while you are not looking! Voles, for example, are opportunists that dig and live in an underground tunnel system. They have long, prominent front teeth which they use to dig holes and chew through the roots of your garden vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, beans, and others.
Unfortunately, these little animals can be problematic for your garden if you cannot chase them away soon enough. Not only will they feed on the fruits of your tomato plants; they will probably damage the entire plant, causing you a lot of frustration and heartbreak!
Squirrels might look adorable and friendly, but that is only until they start feasting on your tomatoes while staring directly into your eyes. Yes – these cuties will not hesitate to climb your fence and vines to get a taste of your garden produce!
Unfortunately, for gardeners, squirrels are everywhere. And, while it can be challenging to keep them off your garden for good, there are kind ways to prevent them from harvesting your tomatoes.
Also known as woodchucks or whistle pigs, groundhogs definitely love invading gardens! Whether you are growing tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, or any other crop, these vegetarians can happily consume your entire garden in less than 24 hours! Some signs that groundhogs have eaten your tomatoes include the presence of deep burrow entrances, teeth marks on the fruits, and tracks on the soil showing clawed toes.
Other adorable pests that can eat their way through a garden are rabbits. These furry creatures love nightshade plants like peppers, potatoes, and – you guessed it – tomatoes! That said, they can also happily and quickly eat almost any vegetables you happen to be growing, be it lettuce, broccoli, herbs or even flowers! Surprisingly, they have quite a voracious appetite, especially during mating season, so make sure that you are ready with your scare tactics and repellents to keep them away from your garden.
If you are raising chickens at home, you should keep an eye on them if they roam freely around your garden. Although chickens mainly consume worms, they might still peck at your ripe tomatoes and other vegetables, causing the loss of some of your fruits. While they will most likely avoid the leaves and flowers, tomato fruits are highly nutritious for your free-range birds. So, consider fencing off your tomato plants to prevent your chickens from stealing the fruits!
If you notice distinctive, hand-like footprints in your garden soil, then you likely have raccoons ravaging your tomato plants at night.
Raccoons are omnivores that love visiting gardens for free treats. They eat any fruit and vegetables they can find, and are also fond of both ripe and green tomatoes. Unfortunately, these pests can quickly dig under or climb over your fences, making it difficult to keep them out of your yard.
9. Stray cats
Yep, even hungry stray cats might occasionally eat your tomatoes behind your back!
However, cats are less likely to be the culprits when your tomatoes go missing, especially during spring and summer when they would rather hunt other prey like rodents or mice. Additionally, most parts of the tomato plant are toxic to cats, except for the ripe red tomatoes themselves, so chances are they will avoid the plants completely. Still, their feces and urine can contaminate your vegetable garden, so it is best to keep strange cats out of your yard.
10. Family dogs
If you have dogs roaming freely around your garden, there is a good chance they might mess with your plants. They might play boisterously near the vegetable garden, or even chomp on the fruits and leaves. This is why it is a good idea to keep a constant eye on your furry companions!
How do I know what is eating my tomato plants?
The only way to know what is eating your tomatoes, especially at night, is to look for certain obvious signs. You might notice traces of claw marks in the garden soil, slimy trails around your plants, burrows or holes in the ground, or the specific type of damage done to your fruits.
If you have the extra cash, you could consider getting a night vision camera to check who is stealing your tomatoes while you sleep. Or, instead of watching your garden constantly, we can recommend a trail camera to help you monitor your property day and night.
How to protect your tomatoes
Depending on the culprit, there are several tactics you can use to protect your garden without hurting your unwelcome guests. Here are some of the humane ways to keep garden pests off your precious tomatoes:
- Cover your tomato plants with garden netting or aluminum screening to stop birds from pecking at the fruits.
- Pick your tomatoes early, before they start turning red. Most pests prefer red, ripe tomatoes, so it would be safest to harvest the fruits early and let them ripen on your kitchen countertop instead.
- Put fake predators at the corner of your garden to scare off birds and animals. Some even come with solar-powered lights that can effectively deter invaders.
- Use motion-activated sprinklers to keep wild animals from getting near your tomatoes. You can also use motion-activated lights and loud noises (if your garden is far from your home and other neighbors) to scare off animals.
- Install an electric fence to scare the animals a bit when they try to access your garden.
- Install a tomato cage with a mesh top to protect your plants.
- Install a fence around your garden, preferably extending a few inches underground to prevent burrowing animals from digging under it. The fence should also be high enough – at least six feet – to prevent larger animals from jumping over.
- Keep your garden clear of piles of mulch and dead leaves, as these can be a favorite hiding place for certain pests.
- Create a decoy garden where you can leave some crops for animals to eat.
- Use repellents to control snails and slugs. Your options include coffee grounds, egg shells, and slug tapes.
- Use herbs like basil and dill to discourage hornworms from coming near your plants.
- Use plant collars and diatomaceous earth on your tomatoes to deter cutworms and their larvae.
- Spend time in your garden and hand-pick any worms you see on the plants. You can also invite beneficial insects like ladybugs and braconid wasps to eat the worms and eggs.
It can be heartbreaking to see the tomatoes that you watered, pruned, and cared for over months, destroyed by pests in just a day! If you are regularly traumatized by worms, insects, and animals ravaging your garden, then hopefully you have found the necessary solutions in this guide. Knowing how to deal appropriately with these unwelcome visitors will ensure that you can enjoy the fruits of your labor yourself, rather than letting someone (or something) enjoy them first!
Image: istockphoto.com / Angelique Nijssen