House Those Tomatoes

Create a simple yet attractive home for your plants to help fend off winged and four-footed pests.

By Chris Hill | Illustrations by Ray E. Watkins, Jr.

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One surefire way of deterring pests is cutting them off from the source. That's where our tomato house comes in.

One surefire way of deterring pests is cutting them off from the source. That’s where our tomato house comes in.

Nothing is worse than spending hours upon hours slaving over a vegetable garden to discover your hard work has been consumed seemingly overnight by critters of flight or foot.

Healthy plants may be their own best defense against insects and disease, but they are deliciously attractive to various rodents such as rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and mice, as well as birds. As any Extension agent will tell you, the best approach to handle this is to adopt an integrated pest management plan (IPM).

Fighting Tiny Pests

IPM plans prevent pests by creating environments that are not only conducive to healthy and productive plants, but also by limiting situations that encourage pests. Familiar agricultural practices can be part of an IPM. For instance, by rotating crops, you remove a suitable food source for insects that hatched from eggs laid by last season’s pests.

Most people know well the success of beneficial insects that kill or eat plant-devouring bugs. In certain situations, insecticides can also help if used sparingly. For smaller vegetable gardens, growers are encouraged to use organic options, such as soap sprays and plant-derived insecticides.

There also are benefits to growing companion plants. Grown in proximity to plants that are often the tasty targets of destructive pests, companion plants can often act as repellents. For example, marigolds discourage a wide variety of insects and nematodes near just about any vegetable. It’s probably no coincidence that many folks choose to grow tomatoes near basil (which are, by the way, two ingredients in bruschetta), as the latter can ward off mosquitoes and flies.

Repelling Varmints

But back to larger pests. Traps are always an option, but they require attracting the varmints and direct contact with them. There are dozens of other tips and tricks—from placing human hair in the garden to tin pie plates and even red, round Christmas ornaments. Such methods are, however, hit and miss, and require the gardener to constantly monitor and maintain them. Yet, one surefire way of deterring pests is cutting them off from the source. That’s where the following project comes in.

While we call it the tomato house, it can protect a variety of plants by creating an enclosure to discourage the vast majority of produce predators. Anyone who has happily gone out to the garden to pick a basket full of tomatoes and has been shocked by the signs of birds pecking away the fruit (mainly to obtain the water inside), can recognize this project’s advantages. Same goes for lettuces that have been devoured by chipmunks or dug up by squirrels looking for buried nuts.

Building the House

Site selection and preparation are essential before beginning this project. A flat but well-drained spot that gets plenty of sunshine is ideal. You can either place your plants directly in the soil in the house area, create raised beds inside or add large pots.

By covering this structure—which is made from treated 2 x 2s, 2 x 4s, 2 x 6s and 2½-inch deck screws—with bird netting or fencing, you create a barrier that keeps pests out but allows sunshine and rain in. A latched door allows you access to tend to the plants. It’s designed to be modular, so you can create a smaller version if desired by simply eliminating some of the side sections.

You can haul materials or level off a spot for your garden projects with a Massey Ferguson GC1700 Series tractor and loader. Yet, you’ll find 100-plus other uses for it too, like mowing the lawn, tilling a spot for the rest of the garden, smoothing out the driveway or moving snow in the winter.