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vegetable growing techniques
Tomatoes
protecting tomatoes 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 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.  They are by far the biggest threat to my tomato crop and if not checked can cause a lot of damage. 

However blackbirds are very shy and elusive creatures and I have rarely caught them in the act of actually eating my tomatoes, I have certainly never been able to photograph them doing it.   In fact blackbirds are so illusive that many gardeners are unaware that they are the culprits eating their tomatoes, often blaming it on rats or possums (if living in Australia) instead.

Rats
While Blackbirds pose the main threat to my tomato crop when it comes to the usual suspects rats are number two in line .  But they tend to be only an occasional problem as their numbers vary greatly from year to year.   Though ever present in most seasons I find them to not to be a problem.
 
Possums
While I have never found any evidence of possums (Australian marsupial found only in Australia and New Zealand) eating my ripe tomatoes I have friends who say possums have eaten their tomatoes.  And I certainly have had evidence  of possums eating my cabbages.

Other animals 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 try and protect your ripening tomatoes will depend on what type of animal is eating them.  Below are what to look for in order to work out which animal is doing the damage.

identifying damage by Blackbirds
Cherry tomatoes with single peck marks in them.
Photo of a tomato that has been damaged by blackbirds
Rouge de Marmande tomato that has been severely damaged by blackbirds.
  • Evidence of beak marks
    Tomatoes eaten by blackbirds can look like they have been eaten by rats.  The key to identifying the damage done by them 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.
  • 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 bird.
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.
  • When the 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 Scale of the Damage
    If a lot of damage is being done then it could well be Possums.  I have had half a large cabbage knocked off in a single night, which was probably done by a possum.  Rats simply don't eat on that scale.
  • When the 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 tomatoes

protecting against Blackbirds
  • Photo of tomatoes just beginging to turn red.
    Although these two tomatoes have only just begun to turn red they are now ready to pick.

    Photo of tomatoes rippening in bowls.
    Tomatoes in various stages of ripening.

    Photo of tomato plants with bird netting over them.
    Bird netting over an A frame with tomato plants growing on it.

    Early harvesting method
    The most effective way I have found is to pick the tomatoes as soon as they begin to ripen.  I then place them in large bowls inside the house to finish 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 down side of this method is that you usually have to pick the ripening tomatoes every second day during the height of the season.  If you leave it any longer than the tomatoes will ripen up enough to attract the attention of the blackbirds.

  • Bird netting
    Placing bird netting over your tomato plants as you would a fruit tree is a sound alternative method to early harvesting. 

    However the netting makes it harder to get at the tomatoes and you only need the smallest of gap in the netting and the birds will get in.  It also restricts the flow of air around the tomatoes which can hinder the ripening process and encourage fungal disease.
Protecting against Rats
  • Bait stations and rat traps
    Unfortunately when it comes to rats there is no easy solution.  The only effective method I have found is to have bait stations and rat traps set at a number of points in the garden.  Keeping the overall rat numbers down greatly limits the damage they can do.

  • Fine wire frames
    While I have never done it I have met people who have built sturdy frames over their vegetable beds with rat proof wire over them in order to keep the rats out.

protecting against Possums
  • Possums are fully protected in Australia so you cannot trap or bait them, which doesn't leave you with many options if they are doing a lot of damage to your tomatoes. 

    The only real option available is to build  frames with wire mesh over them as described above.  Fortunately the possums in my garden do not do much damage so there is no need for me to take such drastic action.