What’s Eating Your Tomato Plants at Night? How to Find Out

by | Plants and Trees

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If you grow tomatoes, then you might know the frustration of waking up in the morning only to find that an insect or animal was eating your tomato plants the night before.

Many animals and pests, such as moth larvae, leaf cutter bees, snails, or even rabbits eat tomato plants at night, between dusk and dawn. To find out what’s eating your tomato plants: look for tell-tale signs in the plant’s damage; look for eggs or larvae on or under your plants; and look for signs of an animal nearby.

But how do you know what insect is cutting shapes in your tomato plant’s leaves, or which animal is chewing up the roots underground? If you know what the pest is, you can take action to stop them.

Recommended Products In This Post To Save Your Tomato Plants (affiliate links below)

Neem Pesticide

Electric wire fence

Bt Pesticide

Motion activated sprinkler

Humane animal trap

Let’s start by identifying the insects and mollusks that might be eating your tomato plants.

Insects and mollusks that eat tomato plants

Photo of tomato plants

As part of the natural ecosystem, about half of all insects eat plants. This makes your tomato plants an attractive treat for many flying and crawling insects. But mollusks, your regular garden snail and slug, enjoy a tomato plant meal too.

If you see signs that your tomato plants are being eaten, there is a chance that one of the following insects or mollusks is the guilty party:

How to tell what insect or mollusk is eating your tomato plants at night

When insects and mollusks attack your tomato plants, they leave behind signs. If you know what to look for, then you will be able to identify the insect or mollusk eating your plants.

The following table gives a list of signs left by tomato-plant-eating insects and mollusks, and which pest you might have in your garden:

SIGNS TO LOOK FORWHAT’S EATING YOUR TOMATO PLANTS
SIGN #1SIGN #2  SIGN #3INSECT / MOLLUSK
Holes in leaves that start off small but become large and raggedHoles usually start around the edges of leavesYellow eggs under leavesColorado potato beetles  
Stems damaged or cut into 2 piecesTomato plants wilt in the sunSmall tunnels in the grass nearby, with green excrementCutworms
Damaged, missing, or wilted leaves at the top of plantsBlack or green droppings on top of the leavesScarred or sunburnt tomatoesHornworms
Half-moon shapes cut into leaf edges  Leaf cutter bees
Holes in the soft parts of leaves – can be in the middle or around a leaf’s edgesSlimy, silvery trails on the plant or on the ground nearby, especially in the morningLook for evidence in Spring, before insects arriveSnails or slugs

How to stop insects and mollusks from eating your tomato plants

Now that you have a good idea of what insect or mollusk might be eating your tomato plants at night, it’s time to find ways to prevent or repel these pests from your garden.

Colorado potato beetles

Photo of Colorado potato beetles
A Colorado potato beetle

If your tomato plant’s leaves have tears or perforations along the edges, with holes that get bigger over time, it’s most likely being eaten by the Colorado potato beetle. Unlike its name suggests, this beetle does not just dine on potatoes – potato beetles also love tomato plants and all nightshade foods (potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, etc.).

Here’s what damage caused by Colorado potato beetles looks like on a tomato plant:

Photo of Damage caused by Colorado potato beetle
Damage caused by Colorado potato beetles

Here are some tips on how to get rid of and prevent Colorado potato beetles:

  • Pesticide is not always effective as this beetle has become resistant to most, but products with Neem and Spinosad can be effective (links will take you to Amazon products)
  • Keep the area around your tomato plants free from weeds
  • Plant catnip or sage near your potato plants, to repel potato beetles
  • Handpick beetles and larvae directly from the plants, or pick up adult beetles under the plants when they burrow in the soil at night. Throw them all in soapy water to kill them
  • Remove any yellow eggs you find under a tomato plant’s leaves
  • Try to attract the potato beetle’s natural enemies into your garden, such as ladybugs and stink beetles

Cutworms

Photo of cutworm
Photo of a cutworm

Cutworms usually chew on the parts of tomato plants close to the ground or underground. If you find that your plants’ stems and leaves are cut around an inch or so from the ground, a cutworm is most likely the insect eating your tomato plants.

Damage caused by cutworms
This cutworm has cut through the stem of this plant. Finding cut stems is a sign that your tomato plants are being eaten by cutworms.
Source: Clemson University – USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series , Bugwood.org

Here are some tips on how to get rid of and prevent cutworms:

  • Use an insect killer that’s designed to kill cutworms, such as this one from Amazon, but pesticides can also kill many beneficial insects in your garden
  • Rather try to attract birds and fireflies to your garden, as they eat cutworms and larvae
  • Rake the soil around your tomato plants in Fall and in Spring, to expose cutworm larvae and kill them
  • Put cardboard, ground eggshells, diatomaceous earth, or coffee grounds around the base of your tomato plants, to stop cutworms from breaking through and to protect your plants (although these worms can eat the plant’s roots and stem underground)
  • Pick cutworms off the tomato plants by hand at night, then throw them in soapy water to kill them

Hornworms

Photo of Tomato Hornworm
Photo of a tomato hornworm
Source: William M. Ciesla, Forest Health Management International, Bugwood.org

Hornworms are usually around three inches long, but they can grow up to five inches. These worms are green, with white and black markings on their body. They also have a ‘horn’ growing on their rear end. Tomato hornworms don’t bite or sting.

Hornworms make large holes in tomato leaves and enjoy eating the flowers too. The worms’ constant chewing can make the plant’s leaves fall off, which is called defoliating. Once the leaves fall off, there’s little protection from the sun so the tomatoes can get sun damaged.

You can also look for black or green droppings on the plant’s leaves as a sign that you have tomato hornworms.

Photo of sunscalded tomato
Hornworms destroy a tomato plant’s leaves to the point that many fall off. When this happens, the sun burns and scalds the tomatoes because they are no longer covered by the leaves. Above is a photo of a tomato that has been burned by the sun.
Source: Clemson University – USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series , Bugwood.org

Here are some tips on how to get rid of and prevent hornworms:

  • Rake the soil around your plants in Fall, to expose worm larvae and kill them. Put plastic sheets around your tomato plants, to stop worms from coming out the soil in Spring
  • Handpick hornworms from your tomato plants and drop them in soapy water
  • Use a Bt pesticide like this from Amazon on your plants – but this pesticide can also kill butterfly caterpillars, so use it as a last resort and sparingly
  • Attract the following bugs that kill and eat hornworms: ladybugs, braconid wasps, and green lacewings. Birds also enjoy eating hornworms
  • Plant dill, marigolds, or basil near to your tomato plants – click HERE for the full list of pests marigolds repel

Leaf cutter bees

Photo of Leafcutter bee
This female leaf cutter bee is cutting a half-moon shape out of the edge of a leaf. She will take this leaf piece with her to make a nest. This does not damage the plant.
Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

Leaf cutter bees are good for your garden. They carry pollen between plants, helping plants to produce fruit, vegetables, and seeds. Some gardeners put leaf cutter bee houses in their gardens to attract more of these bees.

You can get a leaf cutter house to hang in your garden or even a spray to attract more of these beneficial insects to your garden.

Female leaf cutter bees cut half-moon shapes along the edges of leaves, and then use this leafy material to build nests where they lay their eggs.

If you see half-moon shapes cut out of the edges of your tomato plant leaves, then it’s probably a leaf cutter bee making her nest. Luckily, these gentle-natured bees do not damage the plants when they take a little piece to make their home, and they may even help you grow more fruits and vegetables in your garden!

If you see half moons being cut into your tomato plants’ leaves and you want to keep these bees away, put cheesecloth over the tomato plants as soon as possible. Pesticides will not work on these bees as they do not eat the leaves, plus these bees are beneficial insects for pollination so it’s best not to harm them.

Snails and slugs

Photo of slug and Slug damage
This slug has eaten holes in the middle of the leaf and along the edges. The slug has also left a sticky, silvery trail on the leaf.
Source: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company , Bugwood.org

Snails and slugs are mollusks, not insects. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if the damage to your tomato plants has been caused by a mollusk or an insect…

Here’s how to tell if a slug or snail is eating your tomato plants at night:

Snails and slugs tend to make jagged holes in the soft parts of a tomato plant’s leaves, between the veins running along the leaf. Holes can be in the middle or along the edges, and the holes grow bigger over time. Small or young slugs might start with scraping off thin lines from the leaf.

Photo of snail and snail damage
This is a snail on a leaf. Snails tend to make small holes in the soft parts of leaves, between the veins. These holes are jagged around the edges, not smooth, and the holes grow bigger with time.

However, holes in tomato plant leaves are more likely to be from beetles or caterpillars than snails or slugs, as snails and slugs prefer low-growing plants to tall tomato plants. If there’s a small tomato seedling around, snails and slugs might decide to eat that, leaving only a stem.

Snails and slugs often leave a slime trail on the tomato plant leaves or on the soil around the plants. The best way to tell if you have snails or slugs is to set a beer trap for them, or to look for them at night using a flashlight. You might not see them during the day as this is when they hide away.

Here’s how to set a beer trap to catch snails and slugs:

Here are some tips on how to get rid of and prevent snails and slugs:

  • Use snail bait, such as these dry granules from Amazon
  • Place a copper flashing screen, like this one from Amazon, around your tomato plants
  • Sprinkle ground eggshells, diatomaceous earth, sand, or ash around the base of your tomato plants, to stop snails and slugs from getting to the plants
  • In the evening, water your garden and set a beer trap by placing a small plastic bowl in the ground near your tomato plants. Put the bowl deep enough to be level with the ground, so the soil sits around the rim. Fill the bowl halfway with beer. Check the beer trap in the morning to see if there are any snails or slugs in it. If there are, keep putting fresh beer in the trap every night until you no longer find snails or slugs in the trap
  • Go out at night with a flashlight and pick off any snails or slugs that you can find on or near your tomato plants. Throw them into soapy water to kill them
  • Put a small pond in your garden to attract toads, which enjoy eating snails and slugs
  • Switch from a sprinkler to a drip hose to water your tomato plants, as water and moisture attracts snails and slugs

Animals that eat tomato plants

Insects and mollusks are not the only pests that love to eat from your garden. Animals may come out at night looking for a snack, and your tomato plants might be just what they’re craving.

The following animals are active between dusk and dawn, which makes them more likely to be the animal eating your tomato plants at night:

  • Deer
  • Opossums
  • Rabbits
  • Raccoons
  • Rats
  • Voles

How to stop animals from eating your tomato plants

  • The best way to stop most animals from eating your tomato plants is to install a motion-activated sprinkler (Amazon link). If an animal comes near your tomato plants, the sensor will know and spray a strong stream of water and make a noise, scaring off any animal without harming them. You can even set the sensor to only work at night, so you can safely pick tomatoes during the day without getting wet.
  • Grow your tomatoes in raised beds that are at least 20 inches high.
  • Pick tomatoes before they ripen.
  • You could also grow your tomatoes in pots close to the house, as many animals don’t like going near to places where there are people or pets.
  • Walk around your yard and check for any entry points, where animals can enter your garden. Close these up.
  • Build a fence with aviary wire around your tomato plants or vegetable garden, to keep animals out.
  • Place wire mesh around the base of your tomato plants, to stop animals from walking or burrowing nearby
  • Use an animal trap, like this one from Amazon, to catch the animal and relocate it somewhere else.

How to tell which animal is eating your tomato plant at night

Like the insects and mollusks above, animals can leave evidence behind when they come to visit. Find out below what to look for so you can identify what animal’s eating your tomato plants at night…

Deer

Deer are not particular when it comes to which part of a tomato plant to eat.  They will eat pretty much any part that strikes their fancy, whether it is the leaves, stem, or the fruit itself.

If you want to know if it’s a deer eating your tomato plants, look for heart-shaped tracks or hoof prints in the ground near your plants, similar to this one:

Photo of Whitetail Deer track
This is a closeup photo of a Whitetail Deer track. See how a deer’s print looks a lot like a heart? If you find these tracks near your tomato plants then a deer might be eating your tomato plants at night.

Here are some tips on how to get rid of and prevent deer from eating your tomato plants:

  • Spray hot sauce and water on your tomato plants to stop deer from eating them. Here’s how to make a hot sauce and water solution:

  • Use a commercial deer repellent, such as this option from Amazon
  • Hang human-scented items near your tomato plants to scare away deer

Opossums

A female opossum carrying her young on her back
A female opossum carrying her young on her back.

If you notice that your rotten or overripe tomatoes are being eaten, then it might be an opossum. Opossums prefer fruits and vegetables that are going bad rather than fresh ones. And the good news is that opossums can help you combat other things that might be eating your tomato plants, as opossums enjoy snacking on beetles, snails, slugs, worms, rats, and mice.

One way to tell if an opossum is eating your tomato plant is to sprinkle flour around the base of your plant. Check the flour the next morning to look for opossum footprints.

Opossum print in the mud
Opossum footprints in the mud. Opossums have five toes on each foot, with a thumb that sits far from the rest of the toes on the back paws.
Source: Michael Lensi via Wikimedia Commons

According to the University of California, the best way to keep opossums out is to build a fence of poultry wire that…

‘… should be 4 feet high with the top 12 to 18 inches of the fence bent outward, away from the garden, and not attached to any support. Since the top of the fence is not rigid and bends under the weight of the animal, it cannot be climbed over.’

The following methods can prevent opossums from coming into your garden or can chase them away if they are making nightly visits:

  • Keep your garden free from rubbish, fallen fruit, and overripe vegetables
  • Put pet food away at night
  • Clear thick bushes and shrubs from the area
  • Use bright lights in your garden at night
  • Block any paths that opossums might be using to run through your yard
  • Soak rags in ammonia and place them in a coffee tin. Puncture holes in the tin and place the cans near to your tomato plants before the sun sets. Be sure to replace the rags with freshly soaked ones each night. Don’t do this if children or animals go near your tomato plants

Source: Adapted, with thanks, from the National Opposum Society

Rabbits

If you find chunks of leaves cleanly ripped off of the tomato vine, it may be a rabbit eating your tomato plants. Rabbits also sometimes take the tomatoes but leave the rest of the plant intact. If a rabbit cuts your tomato plant off at the stem, you’ll see a clean slanted cut, like this one:

Clean slanted bite mark from rabbit
When a rabbit bites a plant off, the animal usually leaves a clean, straight, slanted line where the cut is made. Rabbits don’t usually eat mature tomato plants because they prefer other food and soft seedlings. But if you do see these cuts in the stems of your tomato plants, then rabbits might be eating your plants out of hunger.
Source: John Ghent, Bugwood.org

Here are four ways to keep rabbits from entering your garden. All are inexpensive and none will cause any lasting injury or death to the animal:

  • Spray rabbit mace around your garden to keep rabbits away. Here’s one available on Amazon that has high ratings, and it repels deer too.
  • Install an electric wire fence around your garden, like this one designed for small animals. This will give rabbits a light shock to the ears, which scares them away and does not harm them. Choose a pulsating fence that gives the animal a chance to let go and get away.
  • Install a fence around your tomato plants that’s higher than 4 feet above ground and deeper than 20 inches underground, so rabbits can’t jump over or dig under it to get to your plants
  • When planting tomato seedlings, put alfalfa around your tomato plants or where you’d prefer rabbits to go. Some commercial farmers use this tactic to trick rabbits into eating the alfalfa (because they love it so much) and forgetting to eat freshly planted seedlings in the field. Once your tomato seedlings have had time to mature, and grow a thicker stem, the rabbits are less likely to eat your plants unless they’re very hungry.
Photo of alfalfa put near to crops to stop rabbits from eating seedlings
The white arrows in this picture point to alfalfa blocks. A farmer has placed the alfalfa blocks along the edge of a field, where lettuce seedlings are growing. Rabbits eat the alfalfa blocks and don’t bother going into the field to eat the seedlings.
Source: Gerald Holmes, Strawberry Center, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Bugwood.org

Raccoons

Photo of a raccoon
A raccoon

If you want to know if racoons are eating your tomato plants at night, you’ll need to look for signs that racoons are entering your garden or going near to your tomato plants. Here are some raccoon signs to look for:

  • 5-toe paw tracks in the ground
  • Holes in your lawn and mulch piles, where racoons dig for insects
  • Scratches on your fence or on nearby trees
  • Looted trash cans
Photo of a raccoon looking at its tracks in the snow
A raccoon’s paw prints look a lot like human hands in the front paw prints and human feet in the back paw prints. A raccoon has five long toes on each foot.

If you find out that racoons are eating your tomato plants, here are some things you can do to keep them out:

  • Set a humane trap, this one from Amazon, and release the animal far away (just check your local laws first)
  • Spread racoon repellant around your tomato plants – here’s one that’s popular with shoppers
  • Shine lights on your tomato plants or install a motion-activated light that turns on when racoons come into your garden – racoons don’t like light and will shy away from it
  • Sprinkle ash, bloodmeal, cayenne pepper, or garlic and chili around the base of your tomato plants. Here’s how to make a raccoon repellent spray with pepper powders:

Rats

Photo of a rat
A rat

If you notice nibbles taken out of many ripe or overripe tomatoes, especially those close to the ground, you might have rats in your garden. Rats tend to nibble a little on each tomato, rather than eat the whole tomato at a time.

Other ways to know if you have rats is to look for black droppings near your tomato plants, about the size of raisins. You can tell a rat’s tracks from those of an opossum or a raccoon by the number of toes on the tracks: rats show four toes on their front feet and five toes on their back feet.

The best way to protect your tomato plants and get the most tomatoes from your plants is to:

  • Pick your tomatoes when they are still green
  • Keep your grass short and get rid of hiding places in your garden, where rats might set up home
  • Remove rubbish and make sure rats can’t get to your trash
  • Set a humane bait trap, like this one. If you do use rat poison, be sure that kids and animals can’t find it and eat it
  • Stake your tomatoes well with high plant cages like these, so they can grow high. Remove low-hanging tomatoes that rats can reach
  • If you have a big yard, get an owl house to attract owls that eat rats

Voles

Photo of a vole eating
A vole is also known as a meadow mouse or field mouse.

Voles are rodents that spend most of their time in burrows underground. They may eat any part of your tomato plant, including the tomatoes, stems, leaves, or roots.

Sometimes voles chew right through the stem, breaking off the top of the plant. Other times they make an underground tunnel to the plant, and eat the roots.

Photo of a tree with root damage from voles
This photo shows a tree that has died because a vole ate its roots below the ground and the bark around the base of the tree trunk.
Source: Mary Ann Hansen, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Bugwood.org

When it comes to the actual tomatoes, you’ll know it’s voles eating them if you find bite marks about 3/8 inch long and 1/8 inch wide. These bite marks will be in patches on the tomatoes and will be made from various angles. (Source: The University of California’s Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program)

Voles usually eat tomatoes hanging near to the ground or on the ground.

Other signs that you have voles include 1.5-inch-wide trails where the grass has been bitten shorter than the rest, or networks of small burrows in your yard.

The best ways to keep voles from eating your tomato plants are:

  • Spray this PlantSkydd to protect up to 100 tomato plants – but don’t spray it on the tomatoes. It’s safe for the birds and the bees
  • Use a castor-oil based vole repellent, like this one, that makes the soil smell like castor oil – a smell that voles hate!
  • Use a mouse snap trap with some peanut butter to catch voles (put these inside a pvc pipe so children, cats, dogs, birds, and other animals can’t get to them)
  • Be sure to pull out weeds, keep your lawn mowed, and remove thick vegetation, so there’s nowhere for voles to hide and nest
  • Try to attract voles’ natural predators to your area, such as owls with an owl house
  • Trench in a stainless steel L-shaped mesh fence, pointing away from your plants. Make it 1 foot deep and 1 foot above the ground. This should stop most voles from trying to get to your tomatoes, but if you live in a cold area, voles might dig deeper than that to keep warm

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MONIQUE

Monique loves gardening and spending time in her backyard, where she grows flowers, succulents, herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

Monique spends a lot of time researching how to protect her backyard from harmful pests and trying to attract beneficial insects and animals.

She shares everything that she learns and tests here at Backyard Pests.

 

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