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Monday, September 2, 2019

Tomato Theft Might be Rats

Q. I have a raised planter box with my tomatoes doing quite well. Some critter is raiding these tomatoes nearly every night and removing the fruit. I found one of my larger heirloom beauties half-eaten and dropped outside the box about 20' from the plant! What kind of critter might be big enough and strong enough to do this?
I think this is ground squirrel damage to the fruit but the incisor damage would be similar to a rat.

A. I would first suspect rats. Rats are common throughout the Valley, probably the second worst problem after birds, and they will eat anything from fruit and citrus to vegetables including tomatoes and even fresh compost ingredients. Normally, though, they eat fruit still attached to the vine, but they can carry the fruit if they must. But damage to the fruit, because of their teeth, is telling.
Not a tomato but Hachiya persimmon with bird damage. Notice the distinct bird pecking in the fruit.

            The two types of rats present are the roof rat and Norway rat, with the smaller roof rat being more common. Regardless, these critters go after ripe, or nearly ripe fruit. If food becomes scarce, then these critters will go after unripened fruit as well.

Southern Nevada Health District and Rats

            Two nonlethal strategies that might work include getting rid of any hiding places such as low-lying and dense shrubbery or piles of debris and harvesting fruit before it becomes fully ripe. Harvest tomatoes when they are still green, provided the green fruit is starting to change color, and they will still ripen off the vine. This color change occurs first near its attachment to the mother plant, called the “shoulder”, and spreads over the rest of the fruit as it ripens. Harvesting fruit early reduces the chance critters will eat them.
            Rats are good climbers so if you enclose a tomato plant with a cage to restrict their smorgasbord opportunities, use hardware cloth with holes smaller in diameter than your thumb but large enough to allow pollinator entry.
            There is a lot of information on the Internet concerning repellents from mothballs to Fox urine. Like any information on the Internet, you are likely to have mixed results so be aware.
            Regarding lethal strategies, snap traps seem to work the best and maybe the safest method to use if other animals are around.

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