Plant Pests

What’s Eating My Tomato Plants at Night?

Waking up to find that your tomato plants have been ravaged in the night can be devastating. Depending on the culprit, there may bites on the leaves or tomatoes, or the whole tomato plant may have seemingly disappeared overnight. 

There are many different insects and animals that may be eating your tomato plants at night. Insects that may eat your tomato plants include beetles, hornworms and cutworms, bees, snails, and slugs, while the animals include deer, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, rats, and voles. 

Insects and Mollusks that May Eat Your Tomato Plants At Night

We will first look at the types of insects and mollusks that may be eating your tomato plants overnight. These include Colorado potato beetles, cutworms, hornworms, leaf cutter bees, and snails and slugs.

1. Colorado Potato Beetles

Colorado potato beetles enjoy feasting on all plants in the nightshade family. This includes potatoes, bell peppers, and eggplants, as well as tomato plants. These beetles feed in groups, meaning they can easily decimate tomato plants overnight. 

Signs of Colorado Potato Beetles Eating Tomato Plants at Night

Tomato plant leaves with tears or perforations around the edges and holes that expand in size over time are likely caused by the Colorado potato beetle. 

You may also be able to spot the beetles – mature Colorado potato beetles have distinctive orange and black striped bodies, while the immature beetles are brownish-red. Another sign of these beetles are the elongated orange eggs they lay on plant leaves.

How to Protect Tomato Plants from Colorado Potato Beetles

1. Handpick any beetles you can see from your tomato plants. Place them into a bucket of soapy water to kill them. Alternatively, you can use a handheld bug vacuum or regular vacuum to eliminate all of the insects and eggs without touching them. 

2. Cover your planting beds with floating covers. 

3. Grow plants that repel the beetles; these include tansy, catnip, and sage.

4. Attract natural predators of the beetles that will control populations by eating them; examples of natural predators include ladybugs, lacewings, and ground beetles.

2. Cutworms

Despite the name, cutworms aren’t worms, but actually moth larvae. These grubs hide in your garden soil during the day, before coming out at night to feast on your tomato plants.

Signs of Cutworms Eating Tomato Plants at Night

Cutworms primarily damage tomato plants at ground level, chewing through the parts of the tomato plant that are closest to the ground or beneath the soil level. If the stems of your tomato plants are severed at roughly an inch above the ground, you’re most likely dealing with cutworms. 

In appearance, cutworms are fat and typically around 1 inch long. They have bodies in shades of gray or black. 

How to Protect Tomato Plants from Cutworms

1. Create plant collars around your young crops when transplanting them.  You can make a plant collar by surrounding each plant with a material like cardboard or a toilet paper tube. Leave the collars on the plants until their stems are too thick for the cutworm to get through. 

2. Handpick the cutworms off your tomato plants. You will have to go into your yard at night with a torch to carry this out. 

3. Attract fireflies to your garden; these are natural predators of cutworms and will help to control populations by eating them.

4. Sprinkle a layer of diatomaceous earth around your yard. This substance will kill cutworms quickly after contact. 

3. Hornworms

Hornworms are huge caterpillar-like insects that enjoy eating the leaves and flowers of tomato plants. Although they have a protruding horn at one end of their bodies, hornworms don’t bite or sting. 

Signs of Hornworms Eating Tomato Plants at Night

From feeding on the tomato plant, hornworms will leave behind large holes in the plant’s leaves. When they’re highly active, hornworms can cause the leaves of the tomato plant to fall off completely; this is known as defoliating. As consequence, the tomato fruits can develop black ‘burned’ patches due to overexposure to the sun without the leaves’ protection. 

tomato hornworm

Hornworms are easy to identify by eye due to their distinctive appearance. They have large bodies around 3 inches long, with some growing up to five inches. Their bodies are green with markings of white and black, with a ‘horn’ growing at their back end. Hornworms will also leave behind small black or green droppings on tomato plant leaves.

How to Protect Tomato Plants from Hornworms

1. In fall, make sure to rake the soil in your planting beds and around your crops to expose and kill the cutworm larvae. 

2. Use plastic sheeting to mulch the bed around your tomato plants before spring to eliminate the cutworm larvae before the growing season.

3. Handpick any hornworms you can see off of your tomato plants. Place them in soapy water to kill them. 

4. Encourage the presence of hornworm predators; these include birds, ladybugs, green lacewings, and braconid wasps.

5. Plant hornworn repellent plants such as dill, basil, or marigolds close to your tomato plants. 

6. In extreme cases, you can use a pesticide to get rid of hornworms. However, pesticides should only be used as a last resort as these products can also kill lawn-friendly caterpillars. 

4. Leaf Cutter Bees

In general, leaf cutter bees are actually highly beneficial for your garden. They are important pollinators that carry pollen from plant to plant, encouraging plants to produce more seeds, fruits, and vegetables.

Although these bees may be nibbling on your tomato plants, they won’t cause the tomato plant any actual damage. Instead of feeding on the leaves, female cutter bees just take small pieces at a time. They use these leaf pieces to build their home.

Signs of Leaf Cutter Bees  Eating Tomato Plants at Night

Leaf cutter bees will cut half-moon shapes from the edges of tomato plant leaves. 

How to Protect Tomato Plants From Leaf Cutter Bees

As these bees do not damage plants and are very important for pollination, you should avoid harming them. You can still protect your tomato plants from their cuts by covering the crops with cheesecloth. 

5. Snails and Slugs

Snails and slugs fall under the category of mollusks, rather than insects. Slugs and snails like to stay in moist areas where they have shade, but you may also find them in sunny areas close to hiding spots like mulch or flower pots. 

Signs of Snails and Slugs Eating Tomato Plants at Night

Although snails and slugs do sometimes feed on tomato plants, they typically prefer low-growing plants. With that said, they may decide to eat younger, smaller tomato seedlings, leaving behind only a stem.

On mature tomato plants, slug and snail damage appears very similar to that of other tomato-loving creatures like Colorado potato beetles. They will create irregular holes in the soft parts of the tomato plant’s leaves, in between the leaves’ veins. The holes will expand over time as they consume more of the leaves. Small or younger slugs or snails only may scrape thin lines across the leaf rather than creating full holes. 

How to Protect Tomato Plants from Snails and Slugs

1. Spread coffee grounds around the areas where there is slug or snail activity. Coffee grounds act as a repellant for these creatures and are even toxic to them in high enough doses.

2. Set up a beer trap by filling a small container with beer and placing it close to the area where there are slugs or snails.

3. Create a hostile environment for the snails or slugs by spreading roughly-crushed eggshells on the soil surface. The texture of the eggshells hurts these creatures and will deter them from crawling into the planting bed.

4. Use specialized repellant products like slug tape or slug fencing around your plants.

5. Treat the area with a pet-friendly pesticide for killing slugs and snails. Often these products will combat other pests such as cutworms. 

Animals that May Eat Your Tomato Plants At Night

There are a number of other larger animals that may be eating your tomato plants at night. These animals include deer, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, rats, and voles.

1. Deer

If you live in an area where there are deer, these could be the animals eating your tomato plants at night.  These creatures are most likely to visit your yard at night when it’s the quietest. 

Signs of Deer Eating Tomato Plants at Night

Deer will feast on any part of mature or immature tomato plants. They are most likely to go for the most nutritious parts of the plants like the shoots, tearing up the tomato plant’s foliage. An extra clue that you’re dealing with deer is if you notice their distinct heart-shaped footprints appearing in your yard.  

deer in garden

How to Protect Tomato Plants from Deer

1. Put the deer off eating your tomato plants by treating them with a homemade repellant spray made from hot sauce and water.

2. Use a specialized deer repellant. 

3. Create a deer repellant by soaking pairs of stockings in strong-smelling substances like soap; anything that smells like a human will put these creatures off. 

4. If possible, reinforce your garden or entire yard with new fencing. 

5. Alternatively, reinforce your garden with meshy wire to keep the deer out.

6. Set up an ultrasonic deer repellant.

2. Opossums

Opossums prefer to eat overripe or rotten fruits and vegetables. They’re likely going to ignore the fresh tomatoes on your plants, only eating the overripe or bad tomatoes. For this reason, you may not necessarily want to deter opossums from your garden. These creatures also help to control the populations of other animals that may eat your tomato plants, such as beetles, worms, snails, slugs, mice, and rats. 

Signs of Opossums Eating Tomato Plants at Night

Opossums tend to go for the tomatoes that are overripe or rotten. You can confirm whether there is opossum activity in your yard by sprinkling flour around the base of your plants; the next morning, look for the opossums’ small footprints. 

How to Protect Tomato Plants from Opossums

1. Keep your garden or yard clear of fallen, overripe, and rotten fruits and vegetables, as well as trash. 

2. Avoid leaving pet food bowls out overnight.

3. Trims down thick shrubs and bushes near the garden area. 

4. Reinforce your yard blocking any paths that the opossums may be using to access it. 

5. For a more aggressive approach, you can create an opossum repellant; puncture holes into an empty coffee tin, soak some rags in ammonia, then place the rags into the tin. Set the tin near your tomato plants before dusk to deter opossums overnight. Avoid this method if you have children or pets that may go near the plants.

3. Rabbits

Rabbits are also an animal that may be eating your tomato plants at night. These creatures are most active at the quietest parts of the day, i.e. in the late hours of the night and early hours of the morning. They will eat both the fruits and foliage of your tomato plants.

Signs of Rabbits Eating Tomato Plants at Night

Rabbits are the likely culprit if your tomato vines have chunks of leaves cleanly ripped off their vines. Also, rabbits often eat the tomatoes but leave the rest of the tomato plant intact. If a rabbit has eaten the tomato plant at its stem, the cut will be at a clean slant.

How to Protect Tomato Plants from Rabbits

1. Treat your garden or yard with rabbit mace.

2. Reinforce your garden with electric wire fencing. These fences won’t harm the rabbits, but they will give the rabbits a light shock to scare them away. 

3. Install fencing around your garden deep enough so rabbits can’t jump over it or dig under it. This should be a fence that goes at least 20 inches underground and is at least 4 feet above the ground. 

4. Plant alfalfa in your garden to detract the rabbits from the tomato plants.

4. Raccoons

Raccoons are nocturnal creatures, being most active at night. They may be eating your tomato plants if they make their way into your yard.

Signs of Raccoons Eating Tomato Plants at Night

Holes in the yard may indicate Raccoon activity, as they often dig around in lawn and mulch piles for insects. They will leave a trail of 5-toed paw tracks and may scratch your fencing or trees. These creatures may also loot your trash cans.

How to Protect Tomato Plants from Raccoons

1. Capture the raccoon using a humane trap and release it somewhere far from your yard; check your local laws regarding this first.

2. Treat your garden with raccoon repellant. 

3. Install motion-activated lighting that will turn on when the raccoons enter your yard or shine a light on the area permanently. These animals dislike light and will be repelled by a lit-up area.

4. Make a DIY raccoon repellant using substances like ash, bloodmeal, cayenne pepper, chili, or garlic. 

5. Rats

Rats are another animal that may be eating your tomato plants. They are most active at night and prefer to feed on vegetation that is close to ground level.

Signs of Rats Eating Tomato Plants at Night

Rats may be eating your tomato plants if you spot bites in many of your ripe or overripe tomatoes, particularly those close to the ground. These creatures tend to take a little nibble out of several tomatoes, rather than eating an entire tomato in one go. You will also know you’re dealing with rats if you see their droppings around your tomato plants, which are small and black.

How to Protect Tomato Plants from Rats

1. Pick your tomatoes when they are slightly underripe, i.e. when they’re still green.

2. Rid your yard of hiding places for the rats, including keeping your grass short.

3. Clear your yard of trash and secure your trash cans. 

4. Trap the rats using a humane bait trap. In severe cases, you can use rat poison; however, this is inadvisable if you have pets or children.

5. If your yard can accommodate it, set up an owl house to attract these birds to your yard. Owls eat rats, so will help to keep them out of your yard.

6. Voles

Voles are a small species of rodent that mainly spend their time hiding in underground burrows. They are another nocturnal animal that may be eating your tomato plants at night. 

Signs of Voles Eating Tomato Plants at Night

Voles will eat any part of the tomato plant, including its leaves, stems, fruits, and roots. These creatures may chew through the stems of the tomato plants, causing the top half of the plant to break off. Alternatively, they may burrow underground and eat the roots of the plant from beneath the soil. 

How to Protect Tomato Plants from Voles

1. Treat the garden with a vole repellant. An effective deterrent for voles is a repellant that contains castor oil; they hate the smell of this substance. 

2. Capture the voles using a humane trap and release them far away from your property.

3. Remove weeds and trim down thick vegetation in your yard, and mow your lawn regularly. 

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