We’re not the only ones with an eye on the produce that our garden provides. There are plenty of critters out there just waiting for a fresh and healthy meal. Let’s look at some of the more common critters on two and four legs and explore ways we can keep them away from our plants. If you’re a vegetable gardener, you know full well that many animals view all your hard work as free food. You might not see it that way but try telling them that.
For most of us, the four big critter problems are embodied in birds, mice, squirrels, and rabbits. Let me address ways in which we might thwart these buggers as we attempt to feed ourselves and our families.
A common problem for those who grow fruit trees is the presence of birds. Some birds like to punch a hole in every apple, just to see if they all taste the same. Others will strip the cherries off your tree just before they’re ripe. Birds are also a problem for seedlings and small plants. They don’t tend to bother with fully grown vegetables, but if you have seedlings of most any kind, they’ll help themselves to the tender shoots.
I’ve had success with bird netting on fruit trees, and small wire cages made from hardware cloth (hail screen) to surround seedlings. The netting can be awkward to apply, but it works well to discourage birds from readily feasting on your fruit. One of the drawbacks of netting is that birds can become trapped or entangled in it, so its use isn’t entirely passive in nature. Bird netting can also be spread over your plants much like a row cover. Another approach is to trap birds. The major drawback of this is that traps aren’t very discriminatory, and you’ll be trapping birds that aren’t a problem for you as a gardener.
If you’ve grown seedlings outdoors, you probably understand that mice can be a persistent problem. They love seedlings as they’re tender and just the right size for munching. Even seedlings set on a table are susceptible to mice as they’re excellent climbers. About the only thing a mouse can’t climb straight up is a pane of glass. For mouse control, I’ve used traditional snap traps and homemade 5-gallon bucket traps. The advantage of traditional mouse traps is that you can set them in many different places to address likely avenues of approach. The advantage of a 5-gallon bucket trap is that it continuously resets itself after catching and drowning a mouse, so it can practically rid you of your mouse problem overnight.
My experience shows that usually one must catch about 10 to 12 mice before the parade of rodents comes to an end. I figure it’s largely because by then the entire extended family in the vicinity has been cleaned out, and it will take a while before others move in to take their place.
I’ve also built small hardware cloth enclosures to thwart mice until the seedlings get up and running. Once seedlings get to be a decent size after transplanting, the bite that mice take out of them tends to be minimal, so you probably won’t need to trap them anymore. By then, it’s the larger critters that are of concern.
Here’s a pest that comes in both tree and ground variety. Keep in mind that squirrels are rodents. They’re rats that live in trees or underground. The main difference between a squirrel and their cousin the rat is they’re dressed up in a better outfit and they lead a slightly different lifestyle.
Tree squirrels can be damaging in many ways. Not only will they go for your fruits and vegetables, but they may chew and destroy things in your garden or greenhouse that aren’t even edible. Tree squirrels tend to be great climbers and can cause problems just about anywhere they can climb, which is nearly everywhere. They’re also relatively comfortable on the ground if there is something of interest for them there.
Ground squirrels aren’t climbers, but they excel at burrowing. They feel very much at home on the ground and underground. All but your most mature plants are at risk of being eaten down to the ground by these burrowing rodents.
Chicken wire is a good deterrent against squirrels if they’re coming in through above ground openings. For underground invasions, you’ll want something more substantial like a barrier of tin or hardware cloth. Another good deterrent is to spray your young plants with a mixture of water, super hot sauce, and just a few drops of liquid soap. I’ve had success with the fiery hot sauces that contain Oleoresin Capsicum, the same ingredient in self-defense pepper spray. You’ll know you’re on the right track when the bottle warns you to use it one drop at a time. Most critters will be discouraged from eating your plants when the plant bites back and keep on biting back for 30 minutes to an hour. Be sure to spray the mixture into their burrow as well.
Outside of barriers and deterrent sprays, I’d suggest that you trap the squirrels. Small live traps can be effective when properly baited. Another option is to use rat traps. Remember, squirrels are largely rats in a better outfit, so a rat trap can dispatch the unwanted nibbler just as easily as a rat.
If there is a classic pest for the vegetable gardener, it’s the rabbit. An animal that is efficient when it comes to burrowing, capable of jumping over low-profile barriers, and famous for producing many more of its kind in record time. If you have a rabbit in your garden, you have a munch master and tunnel digger to deal with. In the mind of the rabbit, there is nothing quite like well cultivated soil that is lightly packed for making a rabbit den…and how convenient to have tasty vegetables nearby.
For above ground applications, I use chicken wire to exclude rabbits from the garden. For below grade attacks, I lay tin or fine mesh chain link fence at least 18 inches underground. If you’re not in the mood to trench, you can also lay tight mesh fencing material flat on the ground and surround your garden or greenhouse. If you secure it to the edge of your structure or fencing, and come out about three feet with it, the fencing material can be covered with dirt or allowed to be overgrown with grass. While this won’t keep rabbits out, it will discourage them because it will require at least a three feet tunnel before they get to where the goodies are. Usually, a burrowing animal will simply try to get in next to the edge of the structure or fencing and be deterred by the fence barrier they find immediately below the surface.
No matter what critter is giving you fits in your garden, you’ll likely need to experiment before you find what works best. I’m fond of using a combination of methods, with barriers as my first line of defense. I’m not inclined to use poisons, explosives, or firearms because there is too much risk of danger to me and others. The whole idea is to focus the danger on the troublesome critter and make them pay for that meal they otherwise view as “free.”
Clair Schwan is an avid vegetable gardener who makes 5-gallon bucket traps to protect his seedlings from mice. If you’d like to learn how to make one of these traps, see Frugal-Living-Freedom.com/mouse-traps.html.