Mother Earth Living

Wildlife Fencing: How to Keep Animals Out of Your Garden

Learn how to keep animals out of your garden with wildlife fencing such as tree guards, bird netting and wire rabbit fencing.
By Marty Wingate
March 2012 Web
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An artfully designed double fence, each 5 ft. high, with a 5 ft. space between, keeps deer from jumping into the vegetable garden and also provides an attractive trellis for climbing plants.
Photo By John Neff
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If you’ve ever felt frustrated by rabbits raiding your vegetables or birds snacking on your blueberry bushes, Landscaping for Privacy (Timber Press, 2011) by Marty Wingate provides solutions for keeping those pesky animals at bay. Landscaping for Privacy lists real-world examples on how to create successful private outdoor living spaces. This excerpt from Chapter 2, “Barriers: Effective Designs that Deter Invasion,” discusses how to keep animals out of your garden with different types of wildlife fencing. 

No garden can be devoid of living creatures, but for many gardeners, some creatures, such as deer, rabbits, raccoons, and other people’s dogs and cats, eat and trample plants or otherwise disrupt the garden. Unwanted wildlife and pet trespassers can be a constant headache—deer eating the roses, raccoons stripping the corn, or the cat next door using the flowerbed as a litter box. We do not want to hurt them, but we want them to stay out of our gardens.

Deer

When it comes to deer, everybody has a favorite remedy—from hanging bars of soap or bags of animal waste in the trees, to spraying leaves with smelly liquids (that must be reapplied continually), to using motion-activated sprinklers that soak the gardener as often as the deer. Restrictive plant lists may work for some, but many gardeners are tired of asking “Will deer eat it?” or trying to second-guess the animals’ likes and dislikes, which change from season to season. At the bottom of almost every list of plants that “deer won’t eat” is a caveat: “They will eat anything if they are sufficiently hungry.”

Motion-sensors that set off a sharp spray from the sprinkler can deter deer and other marauding animals—but you need to remember to turn off the sensor before you head outside to fetch the morning paper. Other gardeners find that they must move the sprinkler around the garden regularly, or else the deer become accustomed to where they will, and will not, get sprayed.

Barriers are the key to excluding deer from the garden. You can protect individual trees and shrubs, when young, by surrounding the plant with a wire cage. Loosely wrap woven wire fences around the trunks of young trees until the tree is established. As the tree grows, it can sustain some browsing damage, although deer will stand on their back feet to reach up into an apple tree and browse on fruit and leaves.

If you are protecting an entire orchard, consider using a fence barrier. A deer fence may not seem feasible—you might think it will be unattractive, that fencing the entire area is impossible, or that your yard will look like a prison. But many examples of successful deer fences in beautiful gardens exist to alleviate those fears.

The necessary height of the fence—one that jumping deer cannot clear—depends on the type of deer in your neighborhood. White-tailed deer may not jump a 6 ft. fence, but mule deer will. Deer are less likely to jump a solid fence, because they cannot see through to the other side. Deer are also less likely to jump a double fence. Surround your most important plants—whether they be vegetables or roses—with two 5 ft. fences with a 5 ft. space between them. You can use hog wire and sturdy 4-by-4 posts. Use the inner fence as a trellis for climbing beans, peas, or flowers such as nasturtiums or sweet peas. The 5 ft. space between the two fences will accommodate more plants or a pathway.

Even if you build an effective barrier to keep deer out of the garden, conceding some garden space to the deer can mean, first, that you are not constantly annoyed, and, second, that the deer will be preoccupied with what they can eat, not what they cannot eat.

Rabbits

To keep rabbits from digging under or hopping over a fence, bury 1 ft. of a 3 ft. tall wire fence in the ground. The fencing should have openings no bigger than an inch. You can attach wire rabbit fencing to the inside of an ornamental fence and it will be hidden, at least partially, from view. Use tree guards made from wire mesh or fencing to protect individual trees and shrubs from hungry rabbits. Fan out the wire onto the ground and make sure it covers at least 2 ft. up the trunk.

Raccoons

Raccoons can be fenced out of your corn patch by installing a floppy wire fence—they need a sturdy structure on which to climb. Install the fence in a C-shape, and secure the bottom of the fence to the ground. Prevent raccoons from climbing up fruit trees or grape trellises by installing a predator guard—wrap a 24 in. wide piece of galvanized vent pipe around the trunk; this will make it too slippery to climb. Or form a funnel out of galvanized sheet metal by snipping and bending, so that the flare points down and extends at least 18 in. from the trunk. Attach the funnel to the tree with short nails or tacks.

Squirrels

Many gardeners distract squirrels from bird feeders or fruit trees by giving them their own stash of peanuts, presented in some puzzling way that takes the squirrel at least a few minutes to figure out. You can use predator guards similar to those used for raccoons to keep squirrels out of trees. Squirrels are good jumpers; if branches of a tree, the top of a fence, or the edge of a roof is anywhere within range, they will use it as a launch pad.

If you want to keep squirrels out of a bird feeder, try hanging the feeder on a slick pole away from jumping points. Some bird feeders use a grated covering with holes that allow birds to feed at the seed ports; a squirrel’s weight triggers the grated covering to slip down so that the ports are misaligned with the openings and the squirrel cannot feed.

Squirrels love to dig in loose, freshly dug soil. They will also dig up and eat tulip and crocus bulbs, and although they will not eat daffodil or ornamental onion bulbs (Allium spp.), they will dig them up. After planting bulbs, cover the area with hardware cloth—wire cloth with 1/4 in. openings—or plant bulbs in underground wire boxes purchased from a bulb catalog or garden store.

The easiest way to keep the squirrels from digging into soil is to water well after planting—saturate the soil. Squirrels prefer not to dig in wet soil, and by the time the soil has started to dry out, the smell of the bulbs is diminished.

Birds and Fruit Trees

Bird netting keeps birds out of fruit trees, so that you get the fruit before they do. Whether your garden includes individual miniature dwarf trees or just a few blueberry bushes, consider using a pop-up netted box made from all-weather polypropylene or another long-lasting material. Just like a pop-up tent, the netted boxes are easy to set in place; set them up before fruit starts to ripen. Pop-up netted boxes come in various sizes, and you can find short boxes for vegetable beds (to keep crows from pulling up seedlings), to boxes up to 4 ft. high.

Dwarf, miniature dwarf, and espaliered fruit trees—highly productive choices for the city garden—are easy to cover with bird netting, which is usually made of black plastic, with 1/2 in. holes. Most bird netting is folded up, in sizes up to 100 ft. long, which can be unwieldy to unfold and put in place. You and a helper can secure the netting over the plant and tie it in place at the base, leaving no large holes; otherwise, you can trap birds inside, instead of keeping them out.

If you grow much shrub fruit, such as blueberries, currants, and blackberries, and you have a miniature orchard in your backyard, consider creating a walk-in cage of wire mesh to keep your fruit safe from marauding animals.

Cats and Dogs

Do not blame the cat—all it sees is a wide expanse of bare soil. Instead of creating a neighborhood litter box, design your garden with layers of plants that act as a barrier. Cats do not like to walk on uneven ground, so create garden plots that are as uneven as possible. In open areas, lay out slightly crunched-up pieces of chicken wire, lay sticks in a crosswise fashion, or use odds and ends of lattice as deterrents. Some cat-deterring materials use plastic “spikes” (that will not injure you or the cat): Place pieces of the material in the garden where you do not want cats to walk or dig. These products come in shades of brown plastic that fades into the color of the ground. Cat deterrents help the local bird population, too. Indoor-only cats lead long and happy lives: consider keeping your cat inside.

Many city ordinances require that dog owners keep their pets on a leash and/or inside a fenced area; owners are also required to clean up after their dogs. In a perfect world, your garden, your lawn, and your chickens would be safe from dogs, but such is not always the case in the real world. Fences and walls will keep dogs out, and a vast array of products—ranging from garlic, to red pepper, to peppermint oil—is available to help repel dogs (and cats and squirrels) from particular areas.

Electric-Fence Barriers

Electric fences are another option for keeping deer and critters at bay. A mild electric shock will teach animals to keep away from your property. The wire should provide a mild shock that can deter deer but will not harm pets or children.

The larger the property your deer fence protects, the more likely a breach in security will occur. If you use an electric fence, patrol the barrier weekly to ensure that everything is in working order at the correct height; otherwise, you may end up trapping a deer inside your property, instead of keeping it out.

Some general guidelines can help.

• For deer, set a single wire at 30 in. above the ground, or two wires, one at 15 in. and one at 30 in.
• Turn on the current as soon as the fence is installed.
• Bait the wire with peanut butter, which is attractive to deer, so that the animals learn immediately that this is not the place to be.
• For rabbits, use electric netting, which can be found at farm supply stores.

When building your own electric fence, be sure to read and follow all instructions carefully. You can get more information about electric fencing benefits and potential problems online or from your county extension agent.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Landscaping for Privacy by Marty Wingate, published by Timber Press, 2011. 


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