It happens to every gardener at one time or another. You spend hours in the fall, pouring over catalogs and carefully selecting the right varieties and colors of spring bulbs. When they arrive, you carefully plant them in the soil before the first frost of winter. All winter long, you gaze outside and imagine how awesome your garden will look in the spring. When spring rolls around, you expect to see the first sign of green, but instead, you notice dirt tunnels straight through your garden. Or, the bulbs do begin to grow and are close to flowering when one day you notice one or more of the flowers are suddenly shorter than the others. Rodents strike again! Here’s how to protect your precious bulbs, and your peace of mind, from these pesky creatures.
Know Your Enemy
There are many fury vermin who enjoy the taste of bulbs and cause destruction in your garden. Due to the dense, crunchy texture of bulbs, many of the common critters that target them are toothy mice, chipmunks, voles, and squirrels. But these chompers aren't your only problem. Oftentimes, the tunnels that moles and voles will create around your vulnerable bulbs will get reused by opportunistic insects as a means of easy access. When your bulbs eventually bloom, be on the look out for larger intruders like deer who may want to nibble on the flowers.
Keep Your Bulbs Safe
One of the most effective ways to keep critters away is to create a physical barrier.
Install a fence around your garden, making sure to dig between 12 and 18 inches below the surface and place wire all along the border to keep burrowers out. Take it a step further by filling a trough on the outside of the wire fencing with sharp gravel. The gravel will encourage them to turn around and the wire fence will block them indefinitely.
Most garden shops sell gopher cages. Bury these cages in the ground and fill them with dirt. Then, plant your bulbs in them. If you plan on creating a new garden or raised beds, be sure to line the bottom with gopher wire or chicken wire to keep vermin at bay.
Plastic Pots or Baskets
Even the smallest of barriers can have an effect on saving your garden. Planting your bulbs with some dirt in a simple plastic yogurt container might be all the deterrent you need, plus re-using this plastic that would otherwise be discarded is great for the environment. Remember to cut a hole in the bottom of whatever container you use so that your roots have room to spread out. If you have a lot of plastic plant pots in your greenhouse, bury those in the soil instead and plant the bulb and soil inside. Place mulch on top to conceal the edges of the container from sight.
If you have gravel, pour a layer of it in the hole before you plant the bulb. Then, pour another layer above the bulb. Burrowing pests like gophers or moles are opportunistic. The moment they hit a snag while trying to attack your plants, they'll move on to seek out a snack that doesn't put up as much of a fight. The sharp edges on gravel or even used oyster shells are enough to make them turn back.
Spoil Their Plate
Once your barriers are up, make your garden even more inhospitable with natural additions to the environment. For example, planting species that tunneling vermin dislike in close proximity to your sought after bulbs can sometimes be enough to make the critters think twice. While they may love to feast on tulips, they tend to avoid daffodils and alliums. Mix them in or surround your most desired bulbs so when the critters begin burrowing, they’ll run into the less-tasty bulbs instead. For larger intruders like deer, consider some garden additions that have strong scents like lavender, rosemary, or thyme. Deer hate fragrant plants so planting these among your bulbs will cause them to avoid the area.
When you consider that the same animals that are targeting your bulbs, get their sustenance from nibbling on small plants, it becomes clear that they're pretty low on the food chain and thus have an aversion to larger, more aggressive predators. The presence or scent of coyote urine or even just cat or dog urine is enough to make rodents avoid the area. Don't worry about having to make your pets pee in a cup though, as in some cases simply spreading cat litter around your bulbs is enough to keep the pests away. Similarly, sprinkling spicy peppers and human hair clippings on the area can also be a deterrent.
In terms of additives you may want to avoid, think twice about using certain fertilizers around your bulbs. For many gardeners, pouring a bit of fish emulsion or another fertilizer is automatic. However, fertilizers may attract the vermin you wish to keep far away. Don’t apply fertilizer to your bulbs; they have all they need already.
Garden debris not only spreads plant diseases, it can also attract rodents. Try to keep your garden free of debris from dead plants, bulb husks, etc. to prevent curious animals from digging up your bulbs. Sometimes doing something as simple as planting your fresh bulbs even deeper than you normally would can prevent the critters from sensing them to begin with.