A favorite garden plant across the country, tomatoes (Solanum lycoperisum) make desirable food to more than you and your family. It's understandable because of the delicious fruit they bear, but the leaves and stems have a distinct odor and clammy feel that some people find unpleasant to smell or touch. However, many animals consume the foliage. You can tell which creature might be visiting your tomatoes by the signs animals leave, such as chew marks, droppings and footprints.
Since they're nocturnal, small rodents such as mice and voles, or meadow mice, are seldom caught in the act of eating your tomatoes. Look for characteristic chew marks rodents make on fruit with the pair of large upper front teeth called incisors. Mice leave small, oblong droppings. Voles create runways in grasses that give them away. Pocket gophers eat tomato roots, causing plants to wilt and die; they construct underground burrow systems marked by mounded entrance holes.
Combating Small Rodents
You can lessen the damage to your tomato patch by mice and voles by keeping the surrounding area less attractive for them to live in. Remove brush piles, heavy vegetation, thick grasses and weeds. Since mice can climb, a simple fence won't keep them out. Protect plants by enclosing them in a wire mesh cage. Extend the cage 6 inches below ground.
Where gophers are a problem, bury galvanized 1/4-inch mesh hardware cloth 2 feet deep underground on all sides of the garden bed. Extend the wire 12 inches above ground.
Chipmunks and Squirrels
These rodents are active during the day, so you can visually identify the tomato-eaters. They usually eat fruit rather than leaves. Chipmunks have chestnut coats with black and white stripes along their backs and an eyestripe. Tree squirrels descend from their tree homes to eat many kinds of vegetables, including tomatoes. Ground squirrels inhabit burrows in the ground, in rocky places or under walls, depending on the kind of squirrel. Some, such as rock squirrels, can be larger than a tree squirrel.
Chipmunk and Squirrel Damage Control
Squirrels are among the wiliest unwelcome guests in gardens, able to overcome and climb around, under and over all sorts of barriers and preventative measures. Keep squirrels and chipmunks from tomatoes by enclosing each plant with a hardware cloth cage that extends 6 inches below ground and has an attached wire lid.
Larger rodents such as rats and woodchucks also make inroads into tomatoes. Rats leave larger versions of mouse droppings and larger incisor chew marks. They also work at night and are hard to catch in the act. Roof rats live in warmer areas of the country and often invade attics and sheds. Reduce their numbers by removing brush piles and excluding them from buildings. Keep woodchucks out by fencing tomatoes with a chicken wire fence 3 feet tall with an additional 6 inches buried in the ground. Keep fence posts to 2 feet tall so the top part of the chicken wire won't support the woodchuck's weight if it tries to climb over the fence.
Rabbits are nocturnal, so look for their rounded droppings and incisor chew marks. Rabbits will eat fruit and plants. Rabbits can leap with their large hind legs, but they can't jump very high. Exclude rabbits from tomatoes with a fence of 1/2-inch poultry netting around the plants. Use a 4-foot-high netting and bury the bottom 6 to 10 inches beneath the soil to prevent rabbits from digging under it.
Raccoons and deer may also invade your tomatoes. Raccoons are smart, powerful, animals, and they can work around, over or under most traditional fencing or barriers. They eat fruit rather than stems or leaves. Look for their distinctive tracks, with almost hand-like front paw prints. Electric fencing is a good option to keep raccoons away from tomatoes. Use a single strand of electrified wire about 8 inches above the ground and 8 inches out from the base of an ordinary wire fence.
Deer eat tomato fruits and plants, leaving behind usually oblong, pellet-like droppings and deer tracks. For deer, exclusion is more difficult; they can jump 6-feet-tall fences. Protect individual plants or garden areas with poultry wire or woven wire fencing. In areas where the deer population is high, consider a deer fence around your entire garden.