Warding Off Destructive Animals from the Garden
By Brandy Brabham, WVU Extension Service Roane County agriculture agent
Various animals, both large and small, can be destructive to the garden. Damage is done by feeding on the plants, burrowing through roots, and digging around the plants for food sources such as insects, grubs, or worms. Common garden foes include chipmunks, rabbits, mice, moles, skunks, squirrels, woodchucks, and deer. If you better understand these animals, you can employ strategies to keep them from destroying your hard work.
DeerDeer are browsers and will sample almost anything growing in the garden. They will also devastate what is most palatable in just a few days. The most effective way to keep deer out of the garden is to put a tall wire fence, preferably electric, around it. Deer are excellent jumpers, so the fence should be at least 6 feet high, and it should be secured to the ground at the bottom so they can’t push underneath.
Mice and rodentsField mice and related rodents like moles, shrews, and pine mice spend most of their time at or below ground level. While normal foods for field mice are grasses, legumes, and other herbaceous plants, moles have high energy requirements and actively feed day and night on insects and sometimes a small amount of vegetation. However, cultivated crops, such as fruits and vegetables, ornamental shrubs, and especially flower bulbs, can become part of the mice diet or part of the mole’s carnage. Small areas such as flower beds can be protected by sheet metal barriers buried in the ground at least 1 foot deep to prevent burrowing. Trapping is another option.
RabbitsCottontail rabbits are a very common garden foe because they like to nibble on almost any plant, including most ornamentals. To discourage rabbits, place a 1½- to 2-foot tall, 1-inch mesh wire fence around the garden. Use wire mesh fencing no larger than 1 inch because rabbits can squeeze through small openings. The bottom edge of the wire should be staked to the ground or buried several inches to discourage rabbits from digging underneath the fence. If deer fencing is already installed, attach mesh fencing to the lower part of that fence to keep out rabbits, avoiding contact with bottom fence strand to prevent grounding out electric fencing.
Rabbits and field mice may also chew on the soft bark of individual trees and shrubs, especially when food is scarce. Cylinders made of ¼-inch mesh hardware cloth (1½- to 2-foot tall) placed on the ground surrounding the trunk will prevent damage. Bigger shrubs with multiple stems should have the entire base encircled, leaving 2 inches of clearance to prevent installation damage. Attach the cylinder firmly to the ground with small stakes.
ChipmunksChipmunks are naturally found in or near wooded area. They are omnivores, eating both plants and animals. Their main animal foods are bird eggs, insects, snails, and sometimes small mice or young birds. They compete for food in their woodland habitat and store excess seeds. When pressured out of their natural habitat by food shortages, they may dig seeds from gardens, feed on flower buds, and burrow in lawns. The most effective way to control chipmunks is to use trapping. Live traps should be taken at least one mile from the area to relocate them.
SkunksSkunks are nocturnal and quite inactive during winter. Skunk activity rarely causes any serious economic loss in a garden. Their nuisance is mainly related to their scent and the occasional cone-shaped holes found in lawns to remove grubs. Insect-infested lawns may see larger patches of damage caused by skunks. Live trapping is the preferred method of removing nuisance skunks. Especially with a wooden box trap, handle the trap gently to lessen the chance of scent release.
SquirrelsSquirrels eat forest seeds, but they can vary their diet to include seasonal offerings like berries, cultivated seeds, and flowers. They occasionally dig and eat flower bulbs and newly planted seeds. They clip twigs and strip bark on certain conifers and deciduous trees, but they rarely cause tree injury serious enough to cause concern. A 2-foot band of sheet metal secured about 6 to 8 feet above the ground will prevent squirrels from climbing an isolated tree. Repellents are available commercially for special situations, but they are at best a temporary deterrent. Trapping and hunting to control squirrels out of season should only be undertaken after contacting a district game biologist.
WoodchucksWoodchucks are another very common animal in West Virginia. They prefer to construct underground burrows on or near cropland and only rarely travel on the surface. They eat root vegetables from the bottom. Air spaces created by their burrows can be detrimental to plant root systems. They eat a broad variety of vegetation, especially domestic legumes like soybeans. Their feeding and burrowing create hazards in crop fields, home gardens, orchards, and nurseries that make it necessary to reduce their numbers. They can be legally exterminated using fumigation, trapping, or shooting by resident landowners who cultivate their land for a living, regardless of the season.
Building raised beds for vegetable gardening is a good way to protect plants from many garden foes. The sides of the beds should be at least 18 inches high. Before filling the beds with dirt, secure ¼” mesh hardware cloth across the bottom, preventing burrowing animals from undermining the vegetables. Keep deer from eating plants in raised beds by including a fence around the raised beds.
Physical barriers are the surest way to protect the garden, but they’re not always a viable option. Fences can be unsightly, especially in the more visible areas of the garden such as perennial beds. You might consider more discrete options to protect plants from destructive animals.
One of the most low-maintenance ways to keep those animals out of the garden, especially flower gardens, is to plant varieties that they don’t like. Deer and many of the other plant-eating animals will eat almost anything if they are hungry enough. In harsh winters, some damage should be expected, even to “resistant” plants. If you don’t want to limit your gardening to “resistant” plants, make the areas around the garden less friendly to animals by removing brush and tall grasses or anything else that could be nesting areas. Spray repellants can discourage animal damage, and many commercial sprays are available. But, they can be laborious because they need to be reapplied every week or so to be most effective, and always after rain. Dogs can also be great at keeping animals away from the garden.
Most destructive animals in the garden create only seasonal problems. Gardeners should develop an appreciation for all aspects of the landscape, including those pesky animals. A certain amount of joy can be had from relaxing and watching animals feed and scamper about. If the damage is at tolerable levels, consider sharing the environment and use control measures only as a last resort, making it possible to have a garden and eat it, too!
Adapted from the WV Extension Master Gardener Handbook, Chapter 20: Garden Animals: Friends or Foes by Robert Nuss and from www.hobbyfarms.com, “Keep Your Garden Protected,” website: www.hobbyfarms.com/crops-and-gardening/deer-garden.aspx accessed on April 16, 2012.
General Gardening Tips
- Terra-cotta tiles can hasten the ripening of cantaloupes and protect them as they ripen.
- Mulch conserves water, suppresses weeds, and builds the soil, and can serve as a deterrent to some insect pests.
- Sunflowers not only provide vibrant color, but their large root system helps to break up heavy soils.
- Shade cloth cools the soil by 10%, just enough to keep heat-sensitive lettuce and other greens growing when temperatures are warmer than 80 degrees.
- Milk has natural germicidal properties that may help plants fend off fungi like mildew on roses and pumpkins.
- Watering should be done in the early morning rather than in the evening to allow the excess water to dry off the plants sooner and not promote fungal diseases.