A vegetable garden without a barrier is an open invitation to your local wildlife to come in and enjoy an all-you-can-eat buffet. Some creatures may even be bold enough to take up residence. Nests, burrows and the occasional cat sleeping under the rhubarb are just a few examples of what can happen in a garden open for all.
Before you head to the home improvement store, you should take a moment to assess your situation.
Who’s In the Neighborhood?
Putting a spin on the “Right plant for the right place,” we suggest using the right barrier for the right critter. First determine what animals are gaining entry into your garden.
- Footprints. Check the garden’s soil for tracks and compare those to online guides, such as this one from Wildlife Removal.
- Scat. Sometimes animals leave more than footprints indicating their presence. A scat guide can help with identification.
- Chew marks. How critters make their marks on your crops vary incredibly. Bites taken from young plants by rabbits are cleanly cut and at a 45-degree angle. Deer damage, on the other hand, appears as torn and ragged-edged. Bird damage appears as more of a hole. Chipmunks and squirrels chew and tend to have favorite "spots" they sit and snack.
- Ask your neighbors. If you’re new to gardening in your area, a conversation with your gardening neighbors will give you an idea of what critters to expect.
Now that you know who to watch out for—remember it is almost always multiple creatures—it’s time to erect a protective barrier for the garden.
The size of the animal determines what type of fencing you erect. The smaller the animal, the smaller the openings in the fencing. An 8-ft. high cattle fence with 8in.L x 4-in. mesh openings will block deer and canines but will allow rabbits and rodents to slip right through. Some barriers are made to block a variety of animals; for instance, fencing that is 8 ft. tall with larger mesh openings on the top and much smaller openings at the bottom. If that isn’t available, install the taller fencing and add a second layer of a smaller-gauge wire fencing along the bottom.
Sometimes your invading critters burrow right underneath whatever fencing you’ve installed. Ugh! If you have a burrowing creature—a mole, vole or groundhog, for instance—you’ll need to put in a bit more work in protecting the garden. When installing your garden’s fence, dig a trench into which you’ll place both the bottom of the fence and an additional solid barrier. The depth of your trench depends on the pest you are blocking. Be sure that a portion of that solid barrier is extended above the soil line, as well.
Birds can hop through, fly over and even just casually perch on your garden’s protective fencing. Luckily birds aren’t all that interested in your leafy crops, but fruiting plants are another issue. Peas, strawberries, fruiting bushes and even tomatoes are what they love. The best protection for those crops is netting. Be sure the netting allows for air flow (so, nothing too solid) and is arranged around the crop, not on the crop; i.e. do not just lay the netting over the plant as birds will be able to reach their harvest through the mesh material. Create a frame around the bush or the row that will not permit the bird to reach the fruit if it should perch on the netting. Netting doesn’t have to be surrounding the crop the whole season of growth. Instead, wait until a few weeks before harvest to set up the protective barrier. Fair Warning: netting might snare some birds and hurt or kill them. If you are an old softy (GUILTY!) - it is not a good solution and you just might have to share.
Maybe fencing isn’t practical for your garden situation—or budget. This is especially true if you have a small garden, or multiple smaller gardening areas on a larger property. In these cases, consider using animal and bird deterrents.
Deterrents are not poisons. Their objective is not to kill the creatures but to persuade them it’s not safe to be there or that the food is not safe to eat. Many commercial deterrents use the urine or musk of the animal’s main predator in their formulations. Others use ingredients with odors that repel the animal. For instance, garlic, crushed red pepper, vinegar and ammonia are often used in DIY solutions for rabbit, chipmunk and squirrel control. Some people swear by blood and bone meal, but carefully read the instructions and keep your pets away - they can be dangerous if eaten.
Another popular deer deterrent is hanging bars of strong-smelling soap from trees and bushes. Smelly soap (think Irish Spring) can also work if shaved and put in mole & vole holes. Birds are not fans of spicy or strong flavors, so spraying fruits with solutions containing those elements may repel our feathered friends. NOTE: Be sure to carefully wash any produce picked in a garden using any of these deterrents before you eat them.
Then there are a million versions of shiny, twirly, worley things. Do aluminum pie plates on a length of string distract them? Or shiny ribbons or pinwheels blowing in the breeze? The problem is they only work when it’s daylight and windy and usually only on birds. They are fun though
Perhaps fake predators like plastic owls or inflatable coyotes will scare away your ravenous horde. You can also go nostalgic with a scarecrow, but photos abound on the Internet of them standing in their gardens or fields festooned with perching birds. They are a fun family craft though and will make you smile every time you see them in the garden.
You can also plant garlic and onions on the border of your beds to deter animals from going deeper in the garden. Marigolds are also supposed to repel bunnies and other rodents and have the added benefit of attracting pollinators.
One last, somewhat radical idea: Plant a small garden for the animals well away from your “real” garden, perhaps even on the edge of your property to encourage them in and hope they’ll take their fill from there. You can also plant your particular critter’s favorites along the perimeter of your garden, then add a barrier between it and your “real” garden. Animals will usually choose the easy meal and your crops are safe. To keep the cost of the critter garden down, use seeds or stubs from store-bought veggies. That’s a whole 'nother blog…
Remember animals are smart - and hungry. You will probably have to try several different strategies and mix them up to keep those critters guessing. We have funny footage of various critters being scared away with the Tertill Weeding Robot in our test gardens, but because it doesn't run at night and is frequently charging in the sun, it is not s consistent deterrent. It really shines preventing weeds.