Sunday, August 9, 2015

Pecking Problem

Our tomato crop is being ravaged by an unlikely pest: birds.

Normally, I think of birds as being allies in the war against pests, because they eat all kinds of insects and other critters that attack our plants. But lately, we've started discovering tomatoes with big holes in them, as if something had taken a bite out of them, and since we know the groundhogs are fenced out, it seems birds are the most likely culprit. The tomato shown in the picture here is one of the less damaged ones; the more severely damaged ones are practically torn in two, and Brian doesn't even bother trying to bring them into the house.

Based on what I've read on gardening forums like this one, it appears the birds are attacking our tomatoes not for food, but for water. The most commonly proposed solution is to provide some sort of birdbath or bird waterer, so they have another water source handy and don't need to peck at the tomatoes. I looked for ways to mock up a DIY birdbath and found a slideshow on Bob Vila's site that offers a lot of interesting ideas, but basically, it appears that all you really need is some sort of shallow tray to hold the water and some sort of stand to put it on. Since Brian and I had just recently replaced our cat's water dispenser with a bigger one that the kitties can't push around as easily, we decided to fill up the the old one and set it atop an inverted 5-gallon bucket (the same kind we use for our tree waterers). We figured if this worked, we could always replace it with something nicer-looking later. We could have set this up next to the clothesline, where our birdfeeder is now, but Brian thought it would be best to put it as close to the garden as possible, so the birds could see an alternative source of water right next to the tomatoes. So he set the whole thing up in the little back lane behind the fenced-in garden area where our hardy kiwi vines are planted.

So is it working? Well, it's sort of hard to tell. Since we set it up, there have been fewer tomatoes pecked apart, but we've also been getting fewer tomatoes altogether. Also, the weather hasn't been as hot this week as it was a couple of weeks ago, which means the birds may just not be as thirsty. And lastly, Brian has been trying to safeguard the tomatoes against bird damage by picking them earlier, at "first blush" (when they're just getting rosy), rather than letting them ripen fully on the vine. This is the other major tip recommended on the GardenWeb forum for dealing with bird damage, and one gardener says it's a good idea for other reasons too; it protects the fruit from other pests, such as stink bugs, and prevents splitting, which can occur after a heavy rainfall. According to this gardener, "You lose a lot and gain nothing by leaving the fruit on the stem until it is fully red."

That was news to me, since all the articles I'd seen about buying tomatoes urged shoppers to make sure the ones they bought were "fully vine ripened" and not let the store foist tomatoes on them that had been picked while still green and ripened in some warehouse, or in the truck en route to the store. However, when I Googled "should I let my tomatoes ripen on the vine," the articles I found generally seemed to agree that what's wrong with supermarket tomatoes is that they're inferior varieties bred for endurance rather than flavor, and a decent homegrown tomato will taste good whenever you pick it. This garden blogger, for instance, says she has always picked her tomatoes at first blush and gotten a much bigger crop than her neighbors who insisted on letting theirs ripen fully—and when they tasted some of hers, they were sold.

I know from personal experience that it's possible to pick tomatoes when they're still completely green, before the frost gets them, and ripen them in boxes indoors, but I also know that the tomatoes you get this way don't ripen as reliably, or taste as good, as the ones picked at the height of summer. But if these sources are to be believed, a tomato that has started to turn red—even just a tiny bit—can be trusted to ripen fully on its own and will taste just as good as if it had ripened on the vine. (Tomatoes that are completely green, on the other hand, will never ripen and will just rot in the box—so if you pick fully green tomatoes before the frost, you should find some way of using them in their green state.)

Indeed, according to this article from the National Gardening Association, shelf-ripened tomatoes may actually look better, too, since tomatoes don't turn red at temperatures above 86°F. So if you want a nice, full red color, you're actually better off letting them ripen indoors where it's slightly cooler. In fact, considering that our house occasionally does get above 86°F on the main level, we might be better off leaving them downstairs to ripen.

So the plan for now is to keep picking our tomatoes early, which should help not only with the bird problem but also with cracking and possibly ward off other pests. As for the birdbath, we may as well leave it; even if it's not helping, at least it's probably not doing any harm, and offering the birds a drink will encourage them to hang around our yard and keep eating smaller pests.
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