Few gardening experiences evince such fury and disappointment as discovering that a nearly-ripe tomato (Lycopersicum esculentum) has gone on the lam — or worse, has a chunk missing. Squirrels and chipmunks are particularly fond of these savory garden favorites and will snag the fruits both green and ripe. Dealing with thieves definitely requires patience and, occasionally, extreme measures.
Squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits are scourges of the vegetable garden, squeezing in through holes in fences and helping themselves to your hard-earned bounty. Chipmunks tend to pursue tomatoes more often than squirrels, though squirrels may be persistent in coming back for more once they’ve developed a taste for tomato. Fruits are often chewed directly on the vine, but are also removed from the plant and gnawed on nearby, to the dismay of the gardener who finds the missing fruit. Common gray tree squirrels normally won’t damage the plant itself, though ground squirrels are known to eat the stems of tender young plants.
2. Replanting and Protection
In cases where the plant itself is damaged, as by tree squirrels, the main task required of a gardener is persistence in replanting. Keep extra seedlings on hand or be prepared to buy more to put in any time a new plant is damaged or destroyed. Floating row covers can help protect tomatoes while they’re still small, but the covers must be securely fastened at the ground level to prevent squirrels getting in from below. Once plants start blooming, they need to be uncovered in order for insects to pollinate the flowers. You can also try enclosing the developing fruit in a fine mesh bag, secured with a twist tie or drawstring fastener at the stem.
While most of us might think that a trap baited with peanut butter is irresistible to the average rodent, try baiting that trap with tomato and you’ll catch your critter every time. In gardens with young children, live traps are the best option, as little fingers aren’t in danger of getting pinched. Remove and release the rodent at a distance of several miles from the house — any closer, and a squirrel or even chipmunk is very likely to find its way back.
Entire books could probably be written using ideas for squirrel deterrents in the garden: soap, urine, human hair and pepper flakes, to name a few. Chemical deterrents are available, but are generally not waterproof and must be applied relatively frequently. Squirrels may shy away from tomatoes sprayed with a mixture that includes capsaicin, the natural compound responsible for the spice of hot peppers. They also do not seem to like blood meal, though this must be re-applied after a rain. Fences will not deter squirrels since they can simply scramble over or through, but electrified fences often work very well in keeping rodents out. A preferred food source, such as cracked corn, and fresh water elsewhere in the yard may also help keep squirrels away.
- University of Minnesota Listserv: Squirrel Deterrents
- University of Tennessee Extension: Managing Nuisance Animals and Associated Damage Around the Home
- University of California: Contra Costa Master Gardeners: The Story of Our Garden
- Texas A&M University: Tomato
- University of Illinois Extension: Solving Tomato Problems
- Washington State University Extension: Bagging Fruit
- David De Lossy/Digital Vision/Getty Images