Garden Variety: Fences, repellents can protect your garden from wildlife

Rabbits, squirrels and deer are common visitors to flower and vegetable gardens throughout the year, but the lush new growth produced in spring may be especially appealing to them. If plants are eaten or dug up this spring or summer, one of these animals is likely to blame. Exclusion and deterrence are the best options to protect plants from future damage.

Before taking any action, determine which animal is causing the problem. Different methods are most effective for each.

To identify which animal is to blame, look closely at the damage to the plant first. Then, look for tracks or droppings that give the animals away.

Rabbits tend to eat tender, leafy growth close to the ground or bite the ends off twigs at a clean 45-degree angle. You may even catch them feeding since they do so during the day. They also leave pea-sized droppings.

Deer also enjoy tender spring growth. Their feeding is distinguishable from rabbits by the torn appearance — deer lack upper incisors and tear or pull foliage from the plant rather than clipping it. They may also cause damage to young trees by rubbing their antlers on them. Later in the season, they tend to feed on certain kinds of plants, such as sweet corn and sweet potato vines. Their droppings are similar to rabbits’ droppings, but slightly larger and will typically be in larger piles.

Squirrels typically leave plants alone in the spring, but they may take advantage of loose soil in a flowerpot or garden bed to dig. They may dig looking for food or storing it and dislodge newly planted flowers or vegetables in the process. Later in the season, especially in dry years, they may bite into tomatoes and other produce. Sometimes they also shred and/or eat bark from mature trees. They rarely leave any other signs of their presence.

Rabbits and deer can typically be excluded from garden areas with fences or kept from trees with protective wraps. Deterrents and repellents are another option. If these are not feasible, gardeners may replace especially attractive plant species with less desirable ones or choose not to plant certain crops.

Squirrels are more difficult to keep out of the garden. Fortunately, they are typically only occasional invaders.

Fences to exclude rabbits from a garden area should be 18 to 24 inches high. Wire mesh fencing is inexpensive and effective, but other materials may also be used. Be sure to stake the bottom of the fencing to the ground or bury a few inches of it to prevent rabbits from burrowing underneath.

If rabbits are damaging tree trunks or stems of woody plants, use tree guards or hardware cloth around the trunk. Tree guards are available at most garden centers as spiral wraps or tubing, usually made from plastic. They can also be homemade from a variety of materials.

Repellents keep rabbits away by making plants smell bad or taste bad. They must be applied directly onto the plants in question and reapplied periodically according to label directions. Odor repellents usually have a strong garlic or rotten egg smell that will keep people away from the garden also.

Fencing for deer works well for a vegetable garden but is difficult for yards. Woven wire needs to be 8 feet tall to prevent deer from jumping over it. Electric fences are more feasible. There are several layout options available. Using two to three wires at varying heights and distances is the most effective but, in some cases, a single wire fence is sufficient.

Tree guards and hardware cloth can also be used to deter deer from small numbers of trees and shrubs.

Deterrents also work for deer as a temporary solution. Hanging aluminum pans or old CDs creates noise and flashes of light that can scare them away. A scarecrow may also work, or a radio left on at night in the garden. Some gardeners swear by rubbing soap on trees or on posts around the perimeter of the garden. These methods may work for a few days or weeks depending on the deer’s tolerance.

Repellents can be effective for deer but must be reapplied similarly to rabbit repellents.

Squirrels are the most difficult to deal with because they’re the least predictable. If they tend to dig in flowerbeds after planting, place fencing or hardware cloth over the ground to prevent digging. If they bite into tomatoes and other produce, you could try some sort of fencing. A repellent might work but may interfere with harvesting the rest of the crop. The best bet may be to try not to let it bother you and think of it as sharing with the neighbors.

Trapping of rabbits and squirrels is not ideal because the animals must then be relocated and become someone else’s problem. Also, more will likely find your yard soon enough. Both species thrive in urban and suburban areas because of the lack of predators.

— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.


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