CHICAGO, Illinois–The words “garden pest” usually bring to mind insects and diseases, and these can be devastating. But if you add up all the plants I’ve lost to these scourges in the 20-some years I’ve been gardening, I doubt they’d equal the number lost in a single season to mammalian garden predators.
The worst was the woodchuck. Not only did he tunnel under our fence with ease, coming up to devour entire rows of vegetables and beds of flowers and herbs in an evening, he left huge ankle-threatening holes all over the yard.
My quest for a means of getting rid of the critter netted me such unusable advice as acquiring a shotgun or a large, hungry dog. No repellent we tried worked. Traps failed. The vegetable-garden fence, intended as rabbit bane, was already buried half a foot deep, and the prospect of digging it up and settling it twice as deep was unappealing — besides, that would still have left the flower and herb gardens at risk.
One spring, after particularly heavy rains, my husband’s shovel struck something while digging the beds. When unearthed, it gave off an awful stench. The groundhog’s tunnel had evidently collapsed, smothering the beast. When we had disposed of the corpse and finished retching, we celebrated.
Unfortunately, the creature’s brother — or his sister and his cousin and his aunts — moved right in and took over where he left off. Ultimately we finally did rid ourselves of the pest. We moved.
Other animals are less difficult to discourage. We’ve found that a 2-foot-tall fence dug 5 or 6 inches into the ground will keep out rabbits, probably the most common four-legged pest of the suburbs.
If you don’t want to dig, you can use 3-foot fencing, and fold out 1 foot of the fence flat against the ground, securing it well with stakes. But buried fencing is more effective and also discourages other burrowing animals, such as ground squirrels, moles and gophers. As long as you’re digging, use taller fencing and bury it deep — 2 feet at least.
If you have a serious problem with small burrowing animals, however, you may have to line the bottom of your beds with 1/2-inch wire mesh as well. This is something to think about if you’re putting in raised beds, anyway. The mesh should be about 2 feet below the surface of the soil. Use galvanized wire mesh for anything that’s going to be buried.
If you have flowerbeds you don’t want to fence, that’s more of a problem. While raised beds are discouraging to some extent, hungry critters will jump or climb. Repellents sometimes work, although they must be reapplied after every rain or watering. Some gardeners swear by blood meal as a rabbit chaser. Others like to sprinkle the plants with cayenne pepper or hot sauce. When I tried that, the Tabasco sauce burned the foliage, and the rabbits ate it anyway. We must have Cajun bunnies.
Running about yelling “Hasen-pfeffer!” (a spicy German rabbit stew) is emotionally satisfying but has little long-term effect. Rabbits are mostly interested in the youngest, most tender foliage, though, so if you can protect young sprouts, they’ll often leave established plants alone. Metal cans with their tops and bottoms removed, pushed into the soil around seedlings, often work.
I also deal with bunnies, to some extent, by planting varieties they dislike — such as alliums and daffodils instead of tulips — and planting extra and living with a certain amount of damage. And I let the clover grow in my lawn, since the rabbits seem to prefer that to my flowers and herbs.
City gardeners are just as likely to have wild animal trouble as suburbanites. Rabbits and raccoons are resident throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods. Anyone who lives near a forest preserve is apt to have deer coming by for a snack. Gophers and moles are everywhere.
Besides these, urbanites are more likely to have to contend with mice and rats. Discourage them by keeping your ripe fruits and vegetables harvested, and by growing plants up trellises or in cages that keep the fruit off the ground. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet figured out what to do about the two-legged varmints who steal my ripe fruit.
Leah A. Zeldes is food editor of Chicago’s Lerner Newspapers.