Aargh! I went outside yesterday and found two partially ripe low-growing tomatoes that had been mostly eaten. It felt so bad, after all that work, that I just threw them in the compost; out of sight, out of mind. Then this morning, I went out to check again, and, sure enough, there was more damage. This is one of the worst feelings, to nurture a plant through its lifespan, and then see it destroyed right before it becomes good eating. So discouraging.
I suspect rats, because I live in the city and I’ve had them before. The giant yucca plants in my yard are an ideal habitat for the roof rat, rattus rattus. A couple of years ago, I had had a really nice lettuce crop in the big garden box and it all disappeared overnight.
I have two cats, and one of them had been a spectacular ratter, but she’s too old and mellow now, and her daughter just isn’t interested. In the old days, she would bring dead rats inside, and I would live in fear of finding one when I got up in the middle of the night. I HATE RATS, and they really freak me out, especially in the city.
I don’t have any evidence that that’s what is causing the damage, but I do have a pretty strong gut feeling. I just got on the internet, and tried once again to find some solutions. If nothing else, I did come away with the feeling that I wasn’t alone.
Pam Peirce did a column on them in her Golden Gate Gardener blog. She links to an organization called The Hungry Owl Project which protects owls and other raptors from getting poisoned, and encourages their habitats as an alternative to poison, even selling nesting boxes. I called them and left a message, but wasn’t sure that my big backyard, as wild as it is was appropriate habitat for an owl.
I also called the hardware store, where I was told to put up garden cloth around my tomatoes. This would be hard because my three sprawling plants cover such a large area, and I don’t know that I could keep them out entirely. I have tried the zapper, and that was a total waste of money for me, it just didn’t catch anything at all. I toyed with the idea of putting a trap in the yucca tree, where the cats couldn’t get to it, but am not chomping at the bit to empty a rat trap. And it could still affect birds instead.
So what I decided to do, after trolling blog posts and forums for anecdotal information, was to try cayenne, or red pepper flakes, which I happen to have around in abundance. It seemed to be the easiest, most low impact solution I could find, and since I want to eat the tomatoes, I can live with them having chilis on them.
I also saw mint being recommended a lot, but there’s a ton of mint growing at the foot of these tomato plants, and it hasn’t worked to deter them at all. So I went with what was easy. I sprinkled the pepper flakes all around the stalk of the plants, and also sprinkled it on the leaves. I inadvertently rubbed my eye afterward, and was happy that it burned, because I knew it was strong. Burn, cayenne, burn! I may try making a spray too, if I get around to it, but that will take a day or two to sit.
I know that I still need to do a bunch of clearing to reduce habitat, especially of old yucca crowns that are piled in the back of my yard. I wanted to warn about eating anything on the ground that looks like it’s been eaten, as disease can be carried this way. I’ll keep you posted, see if this helps at all.
I also came across this 19th century text called Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-catcher. It just shows how damn WILY they are.
Here’s another post about tomato thieves from Bees and Chicks.
If anyone has humane rodent control methods that have worked for them, I’m all ears.