Vegetable gardeners are optimists by nature, so we are not inclined to focus on problems that may be hiding in the bushes. But truth be told, almost every garden is threatened by wildlife of some kind, be it hungry rabbits that eat your salad greens down to nubs or the neighborhood cat who uses your beet bed as his litter box. And sure, free-range chickens help earn their keep in summer by eating bugs, but they will scratch through newly planted beds to eat the seeds the moment your back is turned.
Clearly some sort of defense is in order, but enclosing your entire garden with a critter-proof fence is expensive and time-consuming. And, while electric fencing is cheap and effective, it is not a practical solution in gardens shared with children and pets. A better strategy is to protect sensitive new plantings with barriers that hide crops from view and/or keep animals from getting within nibbling range.
Deter Unwanted Wildlife
You may already be using row covers for spring frost protection—this strategy provides the additional benefit of hiding plants from view. When animals cannot see your lettuce or carrots, they won’t try to eat them. When it gets too hot to use row covers, you can switch to covers made of tulle (wedding net), which does not retain heat even when all the edges are securely tucked in with boards and bricks. Tulle is better than bird netting for frustrating berry-eating birds because little hummingbirds don’t get tangled in it, as often happens with bird netting.
Large veggies such as tomatoes and sweet corn quickly outgrow row covers but may still need protection from animals, especially those of the domestic persuasion such as dogs and chickens. Using lightweight polyester poultry netting and a handful of slender stakes, you can quickly enclose a large planting area with a knee-high fence you can step over. Animals will respect the boundary because they encounter it at eye level.
In front-yard gardens or other areas where fences are not practical, many gardeners use motion-detector sprinklers that shoot bursts of water accompanied by clicking sounds when animals come within 35 feet. Although models such as the Contech Scarecrow ($45; available at Amazon) and the Havahart Spray Away ($70; from Havahart) are somewhat pricey, they are effective. They can even change the behavior patterns of animals that have become habitual visitors.
If damage to your garden always happens at night, a solar-powered motion-activated light can work well, especially if you move it every few days so animals do not become accustomed to its light pattern.
Most animals have acute senses of smell and taste, so you also can try scent repellents should rabbits or raccoons try to claim your garden as their territory. Small plastic bottles half-filled with ammonia and placed among plants will repel most wandering animals with one whiff, and ammonia-soaked rags stuffed into burrows may send other animals packing, too. Hot pepper sprays applied around the garden’s edge can help deter veggie-eating mammals, but they must taste it or get it on their paws first. Rather than dousing your salad greens with strong flavors, try soaking strips of cloth in a tea made from cayenne pepper and garlic and placing the strips among plants that are being damaged.
Peaceful Coexistence with Wildlife
Most of us love to watch wildlife, but we don’t want them getting the wrong idea about who’s in charge. Accidental invitations to come back for repeat visits, such as leaving uneaten pet food outdoors or not securing garbage can lids, are how wildlife problems often begin. Never feed wild animals because doing so leads to population increases. If you often see critters having breakfast beneath your bird feeder, consider suspending feeding during the summer months, when birds can find plenty of food on their own.
Defend Your Beds with Homemade Critter Cages
• One 6-foot-long piece of 2-by-4-inch mesh, 5- or 6-foot-wide flexible welded wire fencing, or 12 feet of 36-inch-wide poultry netting (chicken wire) or hardware cloth
• Lightweight bolt cutters
• 12 plastic zip ties
• Heavy-duty work gloves
1. Working on a level surface, cut a 6-foot-long piece from 5- or 6-foot-wide flexible wire fencing (6-foot-wide fencing is hard to find). If you are using narrower poultry netting or hardware cloth, cut two 6-foot-long pieces and use zip ties to fasten them together to make one large piece, 6 feet long and 6 feet wide.
2. Fashion the square of wire fencing, poultry netting or hardware cloth into a box by making two 14-inch-deep cuts on each end, each one 14 inches in from the outer edge.
3. Bend the sides of the cage at right angles, allowing the flaps to stay straight. Then bend down the large middle piece of fencing at each end, at right angles.
4. One at a time, bend the cut flaps inward, over the top piece. As each end is bent into place, secure it with two or more zip ties.
5. Place the cage over a bed or planting in need of protection from animals, pressing firmly so the edges are slightly buried in soil or mulch.
Note: See the Slideshow for a visual of this technique.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.