Saturday, September 13, 2008

Critters in the Garden

In an article that appeared in this column in April, I talked about the beneficial creatures that gardeners are wise to welcome into their gardens. Unfortunately, welcoming gardens attract other visitors as well, namely, four-legged furry ones that were never intended as invited guests. Learning to identify them and taking actions to evict these destructive tenants will keep gardens flourishing.

Beginning with the smallest, mice like to make homes in the mulch around trees. If mulching is done in the fall, wait until the ground surface freezes over to apply it. At all times, keep mulch back from tree trunks and don’t pile it more than a few inches high. Also to keep bark nibblers at bay, wrap hard cloth around trees but remember to check it occasionally and replace it as the trunk size increases.

Rabbits also will nibble the bark of trees and shrubs in winter and spring. To discourage them, use quarter-inch mesh hardware cloth at least a foot and a half high or place one-inch mesh wire two inches away from the trunk.

If you feel inclined to fence an entire area, stretch wire mesh two feet high and extend the fence about three inches below the ground. A similar solution to save bulbs from being eaten is to plant them in homemade wire mesh cases. Another device that may frighten rabbits and smaller rodents are soda bottles set with their necks protruding from the ground. These make a whistling noise when the wind blows which may keep these nibblers at bay.

If you’d rather use repellants, ground hot peppers, human hair, and dog hair have proven very effective, but these are "home remedies" with no real guarantees. You may try interspersing garlic, onion, Mexican marigolds and Dusty Miller among their favorite munchables as well.

Except for eating conifer stems and nibbling on trunks, squirrels and chipmunks cause little damage to the garden, but their hoard of nuts may lead to an abundance of unwanted trees. Of course, they love to steal the bird feed, too.

If you have a pond or a low area that collects water in your yard, you may find raccoons drawn to it. While they do prey on mice, the crafty critters are often more harmful than helpful. Some repellants include clothing (with human scent), dog droppings, and blood meal. Baby powder has been found effective by some.

Should you find that woodchucks or ground hogs are a problem, floating row covers may protect young plants or a fence may prove to be the best solution. Chicken wire spread a foot deep and a foot wide along the outside and held in place at the bottom of vertical posts will form a barrier to prevent digging in the garden.

Ground hogs will wander into box-type traps baited with peanut butter and/or apples. Just be prepared to transport the captured animal at least a mile into a wild uncultivated location. Set the trap in early morning so as not to draw in nocturnal skunks which will most likely retaliate before being released.

Skunks usually are not a problem in the home garden because what they generally eat are grubs and insects that inhabit lawns and turf. By chance, they may get into a trap intended for another animal. If that happens, cover the box with an old fabric (rug, drapery, etc.) and gently move it to a release site.

One of the biggest garden pests is the whitetail deer. Some claim they are repulsed by hanging bars of soap or human hair in mesh bags. Others claim a mix of water with eggs, garlic, or hot pepper will do the trick. However, if the deer are really determined and normal food supply is low, a fence may be the only solution.

Excluding deer from a particular area requires an eight-foot high open fence. You may try something different like elevating the fence on concrete blocks or other supports. A solid fence five to six feet high works well because deer will jump over only what they can see through. Even hanging dark plastic sheets has been known to keep them out. For climbers like raccoons, a strand of electric at the top of a fence adds extra protection.

Most of the time the songs and company of birds make them worthy of the name "feathered friends," but just in case they have acquired a taste for the fruits and vegetables growing in your garden, balloons or plastic bags that flap in the breeze or pie pans that rattle when the wind blows can be attached to poles as deterrents. Floating row covers or plastic netting may suffice over low crops. Gentle movement over the top tends to keep birds from hopping underneath along the rows of plants.

Finally, we must remember that a common household pet, the cat, can be a great defense against mice, moles, voles, etc. Especially if your garden is located near a field where they make trails and can easily invade your territory, a cat will serve you well. Dogs, depending on size and type, keep a watchful eye toward ground hogs and rabbits and may not give them a chance to move into your garden.

The same loveable household pets, however, can tackle birds, also. Another disadvantage is that both cats and dogs may dig holes and scratch in the garden. Once again a fenced area can prevent such intrusions on plants.

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