As a gardener, it’s hard not to beam with pride over what we’ve grown. Like proud parents, we may feel a glimmer of excitement at the sight of the first sprouts and fruits of the year. We meticulously tend to our plants, offering them water and fertilizer when they need it, pulling weeds that compete for their nutrients, and looking over their leaves, flowers, and stems for any signs of disease and infestation. The point is, we care a lot about our plants, and that’s an understatement.
This is why we sometimes become angry when we notice small, furry creatures filching from our gardens. While some animals like deer and birds eat leaves and berries straight from the plants, other animals like gophers and voles burrow underground for an all-out sneak attack, munching on roots and root crops and pulling vegetables like onions, carrots, and leeks down into their holes. While Peter Rabbit and the other characters from Beatrix Potter’s imagination may be beloved characters in literature, they aren't so wonderful when they're chewing up our yards. When we encounter the animals on which those characters are based, we begin to sympathize with Mr. McGregor and become set on eradicating them from the garden.
The Biggest Threats to Your Garden
Although the kinds of pests you’ll encounter will largely depend on where you live, there are a few that are ubiquitous. Rats and mice not only wreak havoc in our homes, but they can also view the garden as an all-you-can-eat salad bar that's free for the taking. Voles, which look like mice, can also be lumped in with this lot. While they tend to eschew onions or other pungent plants, they may have a nibble on your strawberries, carrots, herbs, and other greens.
Ground squirrels, chipmunks, and gophers also inflict wide-spread damage in the garden, attacking plants, seeds, roots, tubers, and bulbs from underground. In many cases, you won’t even know that these ruthless creatures have attacked until your rose bush begins to die or you realize that your tulips and begonias haven’t erupted through the soil yet.
Many gardeners have a love-hate relationship with moles. On one hand, they help with soil aeration and reduce the population of harmful insects in the area. On the other hand, they snack on your plants and the holes they leave behind are often used by other animals to gain entrance into your garden. Other large pests like rabbits, raccoons, and skunks dine on garden plants throughout the growing season and leave gnawed stems and stalks in their wake. Deer wander into the garden and treat it like a rest stop on the highway, feasting on young roses, tulips, hostas, and other plants along the way. Birds dive-bomb into berry bushes and fruit trees to snack on the harvest.
What’s a Gardener to Do?
Don’t sit idly by while big pests attack your garden. First, figure out what you’re up against. Do you see tunnels or holes in the garden, or does it look like something has been munching on your greenery? Have you seen birds swooping down to pilfer from your berry shrubs? Have you noticed areas along your fencing where something has dug under? Spotted any deer in your neighborhood in the early hours of the morning or in the evening? Look for clues like these to help you find the culprit.
Once you know what you’re up against, you can figure out how to prevent further damage. In many cases, a physical barrier may be a good option. For example, you can prevent birds from filching berries, beans, and other veggies with bird netting, whose small, black, plastic squares will prevent birds from taking off with your harvest. If deer or other animals are damaging your trees (especially the young ones), you'll want to place a cage of galvanized hardware cloth around them. To prevent pests from rubbing against the sensitive trunk, make sure to leave a few feet of space between the cage and the tree.
To handle very large pests, like deer, you should consider building a fence. Although deer can jump high and jump far, they can’t do both at the same time. To keep them out of your yard, build a fence at an angle, or build two fences a few feet apart from each other — this will make deer think twice about jumping between or over them. Be sure to check with your local officials to see if you need a permit before building anything of this magnitude.
If you already have a fence around your garden (such as the one pictured below), you can keep burrowing pests out by extending it at least two feet underground using chicken wire or hardware cloth, both of which are tough for critters to chew through. Remember that as the material weakens over time, you may need to replace it. For moles and mice, try digging a trench between six to eight inches wide and two to three feet deep, filling it with small stones, gravel, and/or oyster shells, and covering it with soil. Rodents usually have a hard time burrowing through rougher materials like these.
When planting a new shrub or tree, place a gopher wire basket into the hole before anything else. Gopher wire is designed to prevent gophers from getting to your plants' root systems. While it may not last forever, it will at least prevent them from gnawing on any roots during the early years, which are the most critical to growth.
When creating new raised beds, line their bottoms with at least two layers of chicken wire before filling them with dirt. If you have an established in-ground garden, you can make some wire frames by nailing boards of non-treated lumber into squares, stapling two layers of chicken wire to the bottom of each frame, and burying them in the ground. It’s best to do this after the growing season is finished, when you’re amending and preparing the soil for the following year.
Keep Pests at Bay
You'll have to go on the offensive to keep large pests away from the garden. One popular option is to obtain predator urine from an animal like a coyote or fox. Prey, in the interest of self-preservation, has an aversion to the urine of these dominant hunters. While predator urine can be effective, you may need to reapply it if it rains.
If procuring urine isn’t exactly up your alley, there are several other options to consider, including motion-activated lights and sprinklers, which will startle animals and cause them to run away before they get to your garden. Alternatively, you can invest in solar repellent stakes, which are placed around a garden and emit a beeping or ticking noise every minute or so. The sound is intended to repel animals, but its effectiveness is ultimately varied.
To ward off troublesome birds, place a plastic owl or hawk in your garden and move it around periodically. If you have a bunch of old CDs you no longer listen to, tie strings around them and place them around your garden, too. Birds hate the flashes of light produced by the discs when the sun hits their shiny sides.
Although deer will nosh on anything green in the garden, they tend to avoid fragrant plants and plants with rough textures, like lavender. Speaking of textures, they’re also repelled by human hair (as are rabbits, for that matter). Ask the local barber or hair salon for hair clippings and spread them throughout the yard. When shopping for plants, look for varieties that say they’re deer-resistant on the tag.
What If the Problem is Really Bad?
If pests are absolutely decimating your landscape and garden, the best solution may be to trap them. There are many types of traps to choose from, some more humane than others. If you’re not comfortable trapping an animal yourself, call a professional to remove the critter from your garden.
It's important to keep pests large and small from destroying your garden and all of your hard work. Identify what’s causing the damage, put up physical barriers, and prevent the critters from coming back.