How to Keep Critters from Eating Your Garden

By Greg Coppa

A couple of years ago I stood literally one day away from picking many beautiful clusters of seedless Niagara grapes. When I got to the arbor the following afternoon, every vestige of them was gone. Squirrels had a field day at my expense. And what the sloppy squirrels knocked to the ground, the opportunistic possums and a fat raccoon finished off. This was very disheartening—I waited 364 days for the harvest and lost it all in a single unguarded 24-hour period.

bird feeder

Critters in the garden—they come in all shapes and sizes!

Rabbits, too, have been ramping up activity, emboldened because foxes and coyotes have been driven from my suburban neighborhood. As you remember from Peter Rabbit, they’ll hit your beans, lettuce and any other low-growing greens. Deer—don’t get me started! Until they receive the deer equivalent of a tweet that hunting season has begun, they will be after your corn, hosta, certain arborvitae and, lately, even tomatoes—both the fruit and the plant.

No matter where you live, you can be sure that there is some large or small critter that would very much like to share in your bounty. You must be on your guard till the last tomato is picked, carrot is pulled and eggplant is snipped. So let’s go over what does not work, sometimes works and always works in repelling assorted critters.

Critters: What Not to Bother With

First, never use poisons of any type against the marauders. You’re much more likely to injure a pet or some wild animal that is not a threat to you. Don’t do it.

marigolds-French MarigoldPlant marigolds around your garden only if you like orange or yellow borders. All right, maybe some bug variety may be put off by their malodiferous scent, but in 50 years of growing things I’ve seen no great benefit from a marigold perimeter other than the fact that they are nice to look at—for a while. My garden bugs tunnel past or fly over them. And I have seen Irish Spring soap hung on trees for a year or two by some apple growers to discourage marauding deer. But then they stop. Either the soap does not work or the apples become slimy. Or it is too expensive. Lastly, human hair as an all-purpose animal repellant to be strewn across a garden after being swept up at the barbershop and bagged? Are you kidding me? Seriously, think about the judiciousness of doing this for a moment.

Worth a Try

Coyote urine leads the category of “sometimes works.” (The question of how coyote urine is obtained in saleable quantities has never been adequately answered; it conjures mental images that I do not wish to share at this time.) It is expensive, but deer, groundhogs, rabbits and moles do seem to be put off by this, at least for a time. Then, just as with scarecrows and those coyote-silhouette cutouts, the animals usually figure out that just because the garden reeks of coyote pee doesn’t mean there is an actual threat. Same goes for using human urine around a garden perimeter, or so I am told. Mothballs also have a short period of usefulness. Varmints get used to the smell, like people who work in a paper mill do.

I have found monofilament fishing line to be pretty effective in spooking deer, especially when the garden is just planted. I crisscross it over the area to be protected about three feet off the ground. Think of fishing line as a kind of deer ghost; I think the deer don’t like the fact that they feel something that they can’t see, especially at night. I usually keep my web up only until I trip over it myself three or four times.

Various commercial sprays that deploy taste and odor barriers are showing more and more promise, though reviews on most remain mixed. Some have to be sprayed more frequently than others because they are more water soluble. Some are safe for garden vegetables, others are not. Some smell pleasant to humans, others repel people to varying degrees. In general, it is a good idea to mix up the use of these different products to find what works best or to prevent the targeted animals from getting used to the repellant to the point that they ignore it.

Occasionally the gardener feels that he or she has stumbled upon the perfect solution to protect plants from a predator. For a couple of years I found that pole string beans grow out of rabbits’ eating range after you have protected the plants with a flexible plastic mesh screen until they are 18 inches tall. I was smugly confident that I’d found the way to go. But the third year showed that the beans then fell into deer’s eating range, so the effectiveness is a wash.

Your Best Bets

So what really works all the time? Well, trapping persistent pests like squirrels in a Have-A-Heart–type trap, luring them with peanuts or peanut butter on a sesame-seed roll, works remarkably well. But it begs the question of what to do with the squirrels held in custody. Fortunately I have a nearby sibling, who probably will not read this story, who is always telling me to leave the poor squirrels alone or plant a few extra plants for the cute little things.

She actually feeds them and unknowingly received seven of my squirrels last year alone. My wife says I will be punished for this chicanery someday. It has crossed my mind that if one of the squirrels escaped while being chauffeured to the nut house it could be a very interesting admonishment by the Almighty.

Dogs work decently, too, if they don’t mind hanging out around the garden plot. I have witnessed a Portuguese water dog and a part schipperke as they took off like surface to air missiles after squirrels. There is no doubt that the intruders would be looking for a safer venue while these guys were around the garden.

What works best, though, is a fence. Inexpensive half-inch or three-quarter-inch plastic mesh can be continued into the ground about six inches or so to keep out diggers. If the mesh is also run over the top of the garden, it will keep out birds, too. But even this solution requires vigilance. Holes in the mesh may materialize or a particularly persistent animal may decide to go that extra inch down to tunnel. But a fence would be my choice if the foraging wildlife problem got to be too severe.

I have a couple of friends who are new to gardening, and they have been very frustrated at the toll animals have taken on their efforts. I tell them not to give up on such a wonderful activity. I remind them that they still had a great experience and learned, among other things, to appreciate what farmers run up against in trying to bring a crop to market. That’s a very valuable lesson indeed!

Greg Coppa is a dedicated gardener and freelance writer living in Rhode Island. T

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