Help Me Stop the Tomato Thief
July 27, 2009 10:44 AM   Subscribe

Somebody is stealing my tomatoes. How do I stop them?

I have a big vegetable garden in my front (1st photo shows how close it is to my house; 2nd how close to my street) yard. It's on a fairly busy street; there are lots of cars, dog walkers, joggers, etc. I just moved into the house last October and I'm on a friendly basis with all my immediate neighbors - not, you know, much more than chatting acquaintances but not silence and icy looks either.

My vegetable garden has been yielding a giant crop of squash and cucumbers and peppers but I couldn't figure out why the tomatoes weren't ripening until Saturday, when I realized that two tomatoes I had had my eye on as probably being ripe by the weekend were just - gone. There are six tomato plants in the garden. Suddenly it all clicked into place: the persistence of green only tomatoes, the weird non ripening and the peculiar shortage of tomatoes. I have a tomato thief and, clearly, it has to be somebody who is keeping a close eye on the garden, because they're taking them right as they ripen. They're even taking the cherry tomatoes.

So, how do I get this person to stop? I thought about a sign "Please leave my tomatoes alone" or something but my experience with passive/aggressive signs has always been that they backfire and also, I don't want anyone to see the sign and think "Aha! I too could be getting free vegetables here!" I thought about tying my dogs up in the front yard but that's a bit rough on the dogs. I am still thinking about trying to find some kind of electric eye apparatus that would whoop and blink but I'm a complete electronics ignoramus and don't want to spend the earth on this either. I really would like to have a couple of ripe tomatoes this summer, so, please help!
posted by mygothlaundry to Home & Garden (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There are some good suggestions in this thread.
posted by nitsuj at 10:49 AM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Animals eat tomatos at night when you are asleep. Squirrels, raccoons, possums, etc.

"I know the animals are laughing at us. They don't even know what a joke is!"
posted by Aquaman at 10:49 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Make a big point about spraying the crops regularly with chemicals (water in a bottle). People will be less likely to pinch them if they think they'll make themselves sick eating them.

Or, could you contrive some kind of thin mesh screening cage around them that is awkward to get into/out of?
posted by Solomon at 10:53 AM on July 27, 2009

Best answer: I also have a vegie garden in my front yard, on a medium-traffic residential streetcorner.
There's no fence, just grass between the sidewalk and my garden. I have a water scarecrow. It goes off anytime anyone/anything disturbs its' field of vision. I got it to deal with squirrels but it's also had a lagniappe shaming effect on neighbors who come into the garden to "have a look."
posted by pomegranate at 10:53 AM on July 27, 2009 [11 favorites]

I wouldn't necessarily blame people. What I suggest is counting the vegetables every six hours and try to isolate what time of day or night they are disappearing. Furthermore if people are involved, they'll probably be disappearing at the same time each day.

A cheap idea might be to make a budget burglar alarm by running some fishing line in front of the garden, suspended about 4 inches above the ground (high enough to snag feet), and running along a couple of stakes to the house interior. The line is under tension and it pulls some pans out of a stack or knocks over a bell. When you hear the commotion, you can dash outside and see what it is.
posted by crapmatic at 10:53 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Put up a sign that says: "Some of these tomatoes have been poisoned. I can tell which ones. Can you?"

(Note: do not actually poison anything!)
posted by FishBike at 10:53 AM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

P.S. (my suggestions above are mostly valid for if you're dealing with human thieves)
posted by crapmatic at 10:55 AM on July 27, 2009

Try a sign.

Maybe try an official looking sign that says "Caution: garden experiment - irrigated with non-potable gray water." but that might get you in trouble with the city because most districts don't allow for watering with gray water.

Also you could catch the thief with a cheap webcam pointed out the window. There is software available that does "motion detection" that will only take pictures and record when motion is detected. If you frame the camera on just your yard/tomatoes it will cut down on false positives.

I'm not sure at all what software out there is spyware free, but here's a google search for the string "motion detection software".

And decent webcams are super cheap these days. I've seen them for as little as $5 at Big Lots or other discount/dollar stores. You can also find them at thrift stores. New, inexpensive web cams can likely be had for less than $20.

Simply making the webcam semi-obvious in the window even if it's not turned on is a deterrent, too.
posted by loquacious at 10:56 AM on July 27, 2009

Best answer: I think it's far more likely to be squirrels, the sneaky bastards got most of my crop this year and only rarely left a half eaten one sitting around as evidence. They would wait until they were just ready too. I started taking them in as they began to turn red, a couple of days wrapped in newspaper somewhere dark and cool finished them off.
posted by IanMorr at 11:00 AM on July 27, 2009

Buy a red plastic tomato (toy store, dollar store, etc. Maybe you could find one sold as a toy or salt shaker or something like that).

Attach a small note to it, with a pleasant tone. Dear neighbour: We haven't had a single tomato yet this year because have people taken every single ripe one. Please leave some for us! Thank you! Happy summer! -The Gardiner Family.

Put the fake tomato on the plant, deep enough that you have to touch it before you see it's fake, but in such a way that you can definitely see it from the street.

Wait and hope it works.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:01 AM on July 27, 2009

I'm not counting out the idea that it could be people, but it sounds exactly like the M.O. of the squirrels who got all our tomatoes last year. All of them.

Our solution was to not bother growing tomatoes this year. *sigh*
posted by JoanArkham at 11:02 AM on July 27, 2009

In our case, the culprit turned out to be our own dog when she went out before bed.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 11:07 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

How about an electric fence? Those are good for scaring off animals and people.
posted by orme at 11:12 AM on July 27, 2009

Best answer: I am still thinking about trying to find some kind of electric eye apparatus that would whoop and blink but I'm a complete electronics ignoramus and don't want to spend the earth on this either.

Here's one that isn't too expensive. I'm sure there are others too.
posted by That takes balls. at 11:12 AM on July 27, 2009

Best answer: Nthing squirrels. The furry little bastards came and shredded our tomato plants to the ground this year, but last year they stole tomatoes, eggplants (!), and watermelons (!!) out of our garden. They would carry the tomatoes up into the trees and throw them at us.

Oh, and ask me if we ever once get a ripe fig off the tree. We can watch them ripen all month, but the minute they're ready? Magically disappear. Squirrels are evil.
posted by Addlepated at 11:21 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, it's probably not people. How do I know?

Because I've caught the little motherfuckers.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 11:23 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whoops, I forget that site has a referrer check. Here's the pic.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 11:25 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Dust them with white powder (flour) that looks like sevin dust. Then put a label out warning about bug killer - do not eat?

But, also, we finally had to give up growing tomatoes because the dang raccoons were taking them. Even after creating a fenced thing that made it annoying for us humans to get in, the coons still did. Yes, we did actually see the critters, and no, they weren't human.

Also, have you seen the deer water sprayer? It may help keep human pests out.
posted by mightshould at 11:29 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

But wait! You can employee a teenager to stake out the place at night - not do anything, just to watch. Think how cool any kid would think the idea is.... Then you can get a report of what's happening to your yummy tomatoes and formulate a plan.
posted by mightshould at 11:33 AM on July 27, 2009

Best answer: Netting? draping a fine net over the crops will keep moths and other egg layers off and may just be enough of a deterrent to thieves, human or otherwise.
posted by Gungho at 11:37 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh gods, I hadn't even considered squirrels. There are plenty of them around and they're completely aware that the dogs are confined to the fenced backyard. I figured they wouldn't take whole big beefsteak tomatoes but I forget the true evil of which squirrels are capable.
posted by mygothlaundry at 11:37 AM on July 27, 2009

You can also slip some pantyhouse over the ripening fruit ... this should discourage squirrels and people, yet allow air to circulate.
posted by Ostara at 11:47 AM on July 27, 2009

And don't discount birds. Same exact thing happened to my tomatoes - except that my garden is located in my back yard, that has a huge block wall around it, in a dead quiet neighborhood. As soon as my tomatoes would be perfect for the pickin', I'd go out to pick them only to find them absolutely gone! GONE! No evidence that my beautiful tomatoes even existed! Somehow animals know precisely when you're going to pick your crop and they beat you to it!

nth-ing draping netting over them. Best of luck!!
posted by Sassyfras at 12:12 PM on July 27, 2009

I knew a family in Portland growing tomatoes in their front yard garden. They lived across from an elementary school, and every day while they were at work, children would cross the street and take tomatoes. In this case, a sign seemed to be a fairly futile solution. So what did they do? They started growing different kinds of tomatoes - green and black. The kids thought they weren't ripe and didn't touch them.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:26 PM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I'd bet squirrels, too. Excellent squirrel-repellent: get a big-assed container of cayenne pepper powder, and shake it liberally all over the leaves and the periphery of your raised beds. This doesn't work for birds, as they don't react to the capsicum, but it should do wonders for the mammalian intruders.

In my experience birds will also peck at the tomatoes. Netting them is not a bad option as mentioned above, but also isn't foolproof. I've seen many birds get caught under the netting after finding their way in. They, uh, can eat a lot when that happens.
posted by Stewriffic at 1:09 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I had posted about this problem in this original thread:

I still can't be sure if the culprit was human or squirrels (or both), but from the suggestions I received, this year, I made a cage by using a cheap triangle wire trellis and wrapping green, wire garden sheets (heavy wire, small squares) around the plant and secured with twisty ties. I also placed it in a spot directly in front of the main window. No thieves yet this year!
posted by Eicats at 1:17 PM on July 27, 2009

I got one of those motion detector sprayers last summer, and it worked really well - I haven't even put it up this year and the raccoons are still scarce. it also occasionally caught my roommate, which was hilarious.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:42 PM on July 27, 2009

I heard of a groundhog who raided the tomato patch of my inlaws. The only solution seems to be to grow more tomatoes.

But whatever you do, don't make a sign "I poisoned this patch". What will you do if someone adds another sign "me too."
posted by Namlit at 3:04 PM on July 27, 2009

Put up a sign that says: "Some of these tomatoes have been poisoned. I can tell which ones. Can you?"

This is all fine and well until someone else puts the same sign in your garden.
posted by bensherman at 7:06 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

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