How To Deal With Garden Critters?

Animal pest problems occur in all seasons of the garden, but fall and spring are peak periods for plunder. Luckily these seasons, and fall in particular, are also the best times for beleaguered gardeners to mount a defense against foraging four-legged gourmands such as deer, squirrels, rabbits, voles, moles and other assorted animal pests. In fall, a good garden clean-up tops the list of animal deterrents. After fall bulb planting, remove planting debris to rob squirrels of scent clues.

Mulch is useful to help retain soil moisture and maintain more constant cool soil temperatures. Apply mulch after weather turns cold. To mulch too soon only satisfies small creatures, who find earth-warmed mulch a great cozy place for winter tunneling and nesting.

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Deer

Who is it exactly that is nibbling the nasturtiums and devouring the daisies? Increasingly, in America, the culprits are likely to be deer. According to the New York Times “there are now more deer in the U.S. than when the Pilgrims landed in 1620.” A population of 27 million ranges across the land. And, increasingly, as the deer’s natural habitats are reduced by development, they are by no means restricted to remote woodlands. They’ve leaped into our backyards in what amounts in some parts of the country to a suburban invasion.

Deer are the greatest threat in the spring when, after a hungry winter, they look for anything green, young and tasty.

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Rabbit

Rabbits have long been the vegetable gardener’s nemesis, but they’re happy to taste-test anything new and tender looking. Even if they really don’t love something, they just might chew on it for awhile to make sure.

Squirrels and chipmunks are particular pests at fall flower bulb planting time. Count on them to promptly RSVP to fall garden parties serving tulip, lily or crocus bulbs – but not daffodils which have a terrible taste. Especially popular are gardens littered with bulb-scented debris (those little bags, the papery skins, and other tantalizing things). Yum, yum: just like a neon sign that reads “Good Eats.”

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Squirrel

Special fans of tree and shrub roots are found underground. Moles, voles and mice are the biggest (actually smallish) culprits. They also like roots of succulent plants and flower bulbs.

The groundhog, also called the woodchuck, is a tunnel master who finds any number of garden plants appealing both above and below the ground.

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The groundhog

To dispel any illusions at the outset: there is no magic bullet for the animal pest problem (save the sometimes tempting but not very humane option of actually using bullets). The best one can hope for is an “appropriate” pest management solution. Pest control options basically fall into four major categories:

1. Barriers
2. Sensory deterrents
3. Vegetative deterrents
4. Animal deterrents

About barriers

Barriers are the most straightforward and many say the most effective deterrents. The strategy is to make it impossible for the critter to get to his dinner.


For deer, a fence is the best deterrent – a high one. A deer fence should be at least seven and a half feet high, and an additional overhang of chicken wire is a good idea. The most effective deer fence is a double fence. Deer can either jump something very high, or something very wide, but can’t do both at once. Two fences (one high and one moderately high) spaced about three feet apart are recommended.

Garden centers and other retailers also carry various types of plastic fencing and netting that might be appropriate. It is also possible to have an electric anti-deer fence installed. But this isn’t recommended for areas where there are small children or close neighbors.

For groundhogs and such, fences don’t need to be high, they need to be deep. About three feet deep should do the trick.

Chicken wire is another favorite barrier material. This can be used to form a cage over young plants, or an underground cage in which to protect bulbs from burrowers. It’s perfectly acceptable to place a sheet of chicken wire right on top of the planting. The bulbs will be smart enough to find their way right through it.

Some people take a casual (but very effective) approach when protecting bulbs from squirrels: they just throw on an old window screen after planting and take it up once the ground has settled or frozen.

Sensory deterrents

Of course with all the fencing and caging, some people think the whole thing is too much, turning the garden into an outdoor Alcatraz. So what else is there?

Sensory deterrents seek to dissuade the unwanted garden diner by offending his sense of smell or taste or exciting his sense of fear and caution.

The use of cayenne pepper and such sprinkled protectively on the ground is one method some people say works. But others point out that this method is exceedingly cruel. Squirrels, for example, can easily get the pepper in their eyes while trying to rid themselves of the noxious stuff. Squirrels have been known to scratch out their own eyes in the process.

Well it’s hard to hate a squirrel that much. So other sensory alternatives are in order, ones suitable for squirrels, other small creatures and, of course, deer. These include:

Scattering clippings of human hair around the place (not always a good idea in urban settings, where squirrels may associate the smell of a human with food hand-outs).
Predator smells, such as lion’s dung or urine from the zoo, commercially available predator scents, or even human urine (there’s a guy out there who swears by it, but we didn’t visit his garden to confirm).
Egg mixtures, either the commercially available kind, or made up in your own kitchen. The idea is, well, rotten eggs. You get the idea.
Irish Spring soap hung in little mesh bags around the edges of the garden.
All of the sensory deterrents have their champions and their detractors. Some swear by this one or that one, some say they’re all a bust. Often what works in one garden, doesn’t in another. Experimentation is the key – and certainly worth a try.

Vegetative deterrents

The idea behind vegetative deterrents is to surround the plants your nocturnal visitors like to eat with ones they don’t or find repellent.

Deer, for example, don’t like thorny things. They also don’t eat anemones, astilbes, junipers, foxgloves, daffodils, ferns, grasses and a whole host of things. In fact there are enough things that deer don’t eat that you could build a cordon around your garden. Sort of a garden within a garden.

Fritillaria imperialis is also something deer don’t like and its strong skunky scent is repellent to many other creatures as well, including some humans.

Squirrels and other small creatures won’t eat daffodils or other narcissi bulbs. These are good choices where pests are a problem.

Animal deterrents

One could get very imaginative on the subject of animal deterrents, but why not just get a big dog? We’re not suggesting a “pit bull” or an attack dog. Just a big, frisky fellow with a loud bark. The idea is to scare the deer, not hurt them.The animal shelters are full of good candidates, who in return for your love and care will bark their heads off in defense of your vegetation.

Be advised that the dog should be in a fenced in back yard, or leashed on a line run. Many cities and towns have leash laws which require this, but it’s a good idea anyway. Domestic dogs that roam free have been known to revert to their primal instincts and to attack and kill lame deer and fawns. As for guarding your garden, it’s a case where the bark is better than the bite – even a dog barking from the back porch will do the trick.

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