How to protect your tomato harvest from marauding squirrels and birds

My continuing passion to not just grow food but actually harvest it in my urban and tree-ful environment often poses all sorts of challenges.  Early on I would spend so many hours planning, planting and raising my food crops only to lose all of it to squirrels or birds. All of it.  Not some, or even half. All of it. No longer. I haven’t found every perfect solution, but I’ve made a lot of progress. In my last post I wrote about protecting various kinds of berries for harvest. In this post I am going to address big and tall vegetables like tomatoes.  

But first a short story.  A few weeks ago I was taking an evening stroll in my neighborhood and was blown away by something I had never seen before.  A neighbor had constructed a large, permanent cage that took up the middle of her small L-shaped lot. This large cage is roughly 8 feet wide feet, 7 feet tall and 20 feet for each leg of the L.  The cage is constructed of wood 2x4s and corner posts and the whole structure is wrapped in chicken wire. I happened to walk by as the owner was about to give her friend a tour and I was welcomed along.  

Wow.  Right?  This unexpected sojourn in a garden where the owner was clearly as committed as I am to growing and harvesting food and who had tackled so concretely the issue of food theft was amazing/exhilarating/inspiring to me. For so long, I had really thought that I was the only one in my neighborhood who had so many challenges in harvesting food. And to see my neighbor’s bold approach was just awe inspiring.  So, my yard and foods aren’t quite set up for a permanent human sized cage system.  But boy has seeing what she did been inspirational.  In fact just the previous week I had purchased similar temporary human size cages for my tomatoes and other large crops.  

Tomatoes and taller crops:  These taller crops need a lot. The cage needs to be tall and big enough to contain several tomato and basil plants and have room for you to get in to reach all of the produce. Additionally, if you rotate your annual vegetable crops like I do you want to be able to move it around from year to year. Unless, of course, the cage is so large that you can create multiple planting beds in it like my neighbor above.  To move it around it needs  to be easy to put up and take down the cage.  And ideally when taken down, it should be small enough to be stored easily. And ideally, unless the cage is truly beautiful, it shouldn’t jump out visually in the garden.  

Over the years I have tried many solutions. One year, with my father-in-law I created a  structure mostly made of wood and covered in birdnetting. Although it protected most of the crop, it was hardly reusable. A few years ago I developed a more reusable design constructed with PVC piping and bird netting. This was fairly inexpensive and easily stored. And I am convinced that someone just a bit handier than I am could fashion a sturdy, lightweight, reusable cage with this basic design. However, I could never get mine to really be sturdy enough.  If it was tall enough to cover the tomato plants, sometimes it would pull out of the ground an jiggle about. Also, birdnetting is not particularly designed to be Velcro-ed or sewn together for seems. So the take down and put up was challenging. And sometimes the birds would find their way in anyway. This method works better on a more permanent structure like the berry cage I wrote about in my last post. Another challenge I had with this approach was the shocking white of the PVC piping. It just always draws the eye. It never really faded into the background of the landscape nor looked even vaguely attractive in the garden.

This year I finally found the best solution for me. Not a DIY solution, but a reasonably priced and does-what-I-need solution. I bought this lightweight, stable, not god awful ugly food cage:  https://www.gardeners.com/buy/crop-cage-4×8/8596539.  I actually purchased two. In my backyard for my raised bed the 4 x 8‘ size fits well. However in my front yard food forest I have the 4′ x 12′ version.  So far this summer, these have been doing a reasonable job.  Here when I first set it up.

Here in mid summer.  Sweet joy:)

Photo Aug 10, 6 34 45 AM.jpg

Here is the larger one in  my front yard food forest.

You can see I have lots of plants in this one.  Tomatoes and basil but also eggplants, comfrey for the chickens, Swiss chard and some sad, gone-to-seed lettuce.  This is my first year.  If they last many years, which I am hopeful they will, they may even be cost effective.  Of course I have not set out to grow the cheapest tomatoes but rather summer ripe and oh so tasty tomatoes.  This is not some sort of paid advertising for these cages.  They are just the best solution for me right now.  But hopefully, also for years to come so I can focus on other challenges.  Like getting apples from my apple trees…

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