The Legend of the “Land Tarppon”

When we found evidence of a secret garden visitor munching on our homegrown tomatoes, we turned to the locals to fill us in on the details.

by Kevin Fogle

The Legend of the

When writing last week about tomato hornworms, my train of thought was inadvertently hijacked into the realm of random non-insect tomato pests. One of my favorite garden stories on this subject dates to the late 1970s, when my parents moved to the mountains of Virginia, away from busy life in a big Midwestern city. Money was tight but we had plenty of land. To help support our growing family, a big vegetable garden was essential.

One of the first summers in the new garden, my mother noticed a problem with her large tomato crop. Just as soon as a tomato on a lower branch would begin to ripen, she’d find a single bite take out of it. Perplexed, she visited our closest neighbors, an elderly couple named Eunice and Earl, who were raised in the mountains and kept a large vegetable garden, and told them about her tomato problem.

“You have a problem with ‘land tarppons,’” Earl told her.

Whether it was his soft mountain drawl or the pronunciation, my mother was extremely puzzled and was completely clueless about what a “land tarppon” might be. She asked for clarification and it quickly became clear that Earl was talking about box turtles or land terrapins, which are commonly known to munch on low-hanging tomatoes. The legend of the “land tarppon” quickly become part of our family lore.

No Tomatoes for Turtles

The Legend of the

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Native box turtles, found throughout the eastern half of the United States, are one of the more common turtles found in suburban landscapes. Box turtles are true omnivores, but have a special sweet tooth for ripening fruit, such as tomatoes and cantaloupes. The best way to keep them from noshing on your harvest is to either add fencing around your entire plot or around the specific crops they target. If you decide to fence your entire garden, be sure to bury the bottom of your fencing to keep turtles from slyly digging their way in. A viable turtle barrier within your garden can be anything from a tomato cage with chicken wire around the base or a couple boards set up around your melon patch.

Friend or Foe?

While box turtles and other common terrestrial turtles can be a nuisance around the vegetable garden, they shouldn’t be discouraged from your property. Aside from eating your tomatoes, box turtles are known to be a major slug and snail predator (along with many other caterpillars and insects). I think all gardeners would be happy with fewer slugs in their life! Some gardeners even actively encourage turtle visits by planting favorite foods, like berries, in the open or providing good habitat in your yard, like leaf cover beneath hedges or small brush piles where they can forage for prey and find cover.

Do you have any stories of unexpected garden guests? I would love to hear them!

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