squirrel_tomato.jpgSigh…every year I expect the squirrels to grab a few of my tomatoes. Usually I find a tomato lying on the ground near the plant with just a few bites out of it. I leave that tomato so that the next time a squirrel happens along, he’ll go with the easy thing, the fruit that is already just lying there. This usually works out okay, and I still end up with most of my tomatoes.

I had figured the squirrels didn’t really like tomatoes all that much. Otherwise, why would they abandon one after just a few bites? But….this year, it is a different story. I still find tomatoes on the ground, but they are usually about half eaten. And this year, they are grabbing them while they are still completely green! (In the past I had been picking them just as soon as they started to show any red.) They’re also getting bold. While we were eating lunch on our deck one afternoon, a squirrel trotted right over to the plant I have in a pot by the deck and pulled off a tomato right in front of us!

Many people put forth the theory that the squirrels are really only after the moisture in the tomatoes. I’ve thought that in the past too. But there is a large, lovely birdbath only 10 feet away from my tomatoes. So…I’ve given up that idea. But I do have a new theory about this year’s increase in tomato-stealing by the squirrels. Usually at this time of the year, they are eating as many of the crabapples as they can in my huge tree. But we had a late hard freeze that killed of this year’s crabapple flower buds, hence no flowers, and hence no fruit.

My main tomatoes are in a 4′ x 8′ raised bed, and they have 5 ft tall cages around each of them. I don’t have the space to build an overall cage for the bed (which was my first thought). Then, I wondered about wrapping chicken wire all around the sides, but then how to pick the fruit when I wanted them? Maybe I could just do chicken wire halfway up the cages and I could still reach over and down into the cages to pick. Surely the squirrels would not want to be trapped down in the cages. But….after a little research, I found that most people highly suggested an overall cage around and over the plants.

I was reading about various repellents and other schemes to squirrel-proof tomato plants when I came across an ingenious and very simple idea from a man named Jon Densford in Memphis, Tennessee (www.commercialappeal.com/news/2009/jul/10/produce-protection/). He saves the plastic containers that strawberries come in, cuts a little notch in them to make room for an individual tomato’s stem, and then places the tomato in the container while it’s still attached to the vine! Close the lid, and voila….a protected fruit! I can’t believe I never thought of this!

Unfortunately, our strawberry buying frenzy was over by early-to-mid summer (when the organic strawberries were easily available), and I hadn’t saved the containers. I did have a few of the containers from the store-bought campari tomatoes around though. They are a little small, but they are fine for most of my tomatoes at this point. And the bonus is that when the container is closed, it leaves a little gap all around between the top and bottom, so I didn’t have to cut a notch for the stem. I popped a few of these around some of my larger fruit (oh, it makes me sick to think how many large tomatoes I’ve lost to the squirrels this year). For extra insurance, I also purchased some Repels-All repellent and sprinkled a pretty heavy band of it around the bed too. It’s been interesting. We saw one squirrel just walk right over the repellent – which inspired my husband to beef up the original band that I poured. But since then, we haven’t seen a single squirrel in the bed and we’ve not lost any fruit. There are still plenty of fruit that aren’t in the protective plastic containers (I only had four of them).

The plants look a bit funny with these plastic boxes hanging on them, but, and I’m sure any other gardener would feel the same, I’m willing to have them look silly if I get more tomatoes. You can bet I’m saving every large-enough plastic fruit container that I get before next season!