Urban Food Garden

PROTECTING YOUR TOMATO CROP AT HARVEST TIME

Tomatoes are relatively easy to grow, however many if not most of the crop can be lost just as the tomatoes ripen due to attacks by animals such as birds and rodents. This page looks at how to protect your tomatoes from these animals at harvest time.

The Threats To Ripe Tomatoes

Blackbirds

As well as scratching up your vegetable beds in search of worms blackbirds will readily eat a variety of ripe fruits including tomatoes.

Rats

Rats will at times eat tomatoes, though they will ignore them if other more tasty food is available.

Possums

Possums an ( an Australian marsupial found only in Australia and New Zealand) will occasionally eat ripe and semi ripe tomatoes.

Other Animal Threats

Of course there would be other animals that eat ripe tomatoes, however the remedies listed below may also apply them as well. If not, then I suggest you consult with experienced local gardeners or seek advice from a local reputable nursery about how to deal with them.

Identifying What Is Eating Your Tomatoes

How you protect your ripening tomatoes will depend on what type of animal is eating them. Below are what to look for to work out which animal is doing the damage.

Identifying Damage By Blackbirds

EVIDENCE OF BEAK MARKS
The key to identifying the damage done by blackbirds is to look at tomatoes that have only been eaten a bit. There you will find individual puncture marks consistent with a bird’s beak as it is driven into the soft flesh. Even with a tomato that has been attacked more severely you will find evidence of these individual puncture marks on the edge of the damaged area.

WHERE THE MOST DAMAGED FRUIT ARE ON THE TOMATO PLANT
Blackbirds tend to target fruit that is higher up and on the outer edge of the plant.  That is because the fruit is easier to access there and there is less risk from predators such as cats.

WHEN THE DAMAGE IS OCCURRING
Blackbirds are only active doing daylight hours. If the damage is being done during the day then it is most likely have been done by blackbirds or some other birds.

Identifying Damage By Rats

EVIDENCE OF GOUGING TEETH MARKS
Rats tend to gouge out a section of a tomato, in doing so the often leave distinctive track marks caused by their incisor teeth.   The holes are also more rounded with fewer sharp edges.

WHERE THE MOST DAMAGED FRUIT ARE ON THE TOMATO PLANT
Rats tend to target fruit that is close to the ground and in the centre of the plant as it offers them greater cover.

WHEN DAMAGE IS OCCURRING
Rats are largely nocturnal, so if the damage is only been done at night it is most likely to be rats.

Identifying Damage By Possums

THE SIGNS OF THE DAMAGE
It is not easy to differentiate between damage done by possums and that 0f rats.   If half eaten fruit do not have jagged puncture marks (signs of blackbirds) nor track marks caused by incisor teeth (rats) then the damage may well have been caused by possums.   

WHEN DAMAGE IS OCCURRING
Like rats possums are nocturnal, so if the damage is being done during the day it is not being done by possums.

Protecting your ripening tomatoes

Protecting against blackbirds

HARVEST THE FRUIT EARLY
Pick the tomatoes as soon as they begin to ripen then  place them in large bowls in the kitchen to finish off the ripening process. A fully green tomato will not ripen when picked but once the skin of a tomato shows a hint of red it is OK to pick it.  The slightly red tomatoes in the above photo are ripe enough to be picked.

NET THE TOMATO PLANTS
In some years blackbirds will attack green tomatoes.  If this occurs then the only real option is to net the tomato plants.  Though this makes it harder to harvest the fruit, I only net my tomato plants if the green tomatoes are being heavily targeted.  In most years there is no need to net as the blackbirds only go for the ripe tomatoes. 

Protecting against rats

KEEP RAT NUMBERS DOWN
The best way to avoid rats eating ripe tomatoes is to keep the rat numbers down.  The only effective way to do this is to maintain rat traps and/or bait stations.

REMOVE LOWER LEAVES TO REDUCE COVER
By removing the lower leaves you will reduce the amount of cover for the rats to hide in.  This can deter rats from eating the fruit as they do not like being out in the open and therefore vulnerable to predators.

NET YOUR TOMATO PLANTS
If rats are still causing damage despite the use of rat traps it is possible to net your tomato plants, but note that the nets have to be secured firmly to the ground with no gaps, even the smallest hole will allow rats to get at the fruit.

Protecting against possums

NET YOUR TOMATO PLANTS
Possums are fully protected in Australia so you cannot trap or bait them.   The only option available to protect your ripening tomatoes from possums is to net your tomato plants. 

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