Gardens, House and Home

Coexisting with Critters In the Garden

My friends would tell you that I have a beautiful garden.

I also have deer, rabbits, raccoons, field mice, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks, fox, possum, coyotes, mink, feral cats, birds, moles, voles, turkey, and dogs that a thoughtless neighbor turns loose each night before retiring to his bed.

I started a garden as soon as I moved to “the country” 23 years ago. I grew up, literally, right next door, so life surrounded by wild critters would not be new to me. I would learn to live and garden with them just as my parents had done, and just as all of the generations of gardeners before them had done too. Learning to live with the wild things is what a true gardener does.

It is frustrating to hear those who call themselves “gardeners” talking about killing and/or relocating “nuisance” animals. Wildlife is a part of the beauty of nature and a reward for living in a green place. Yes, critters can occasionally be a problem. They might dig up a newly planted bulb or devour a perennial. But if you can’t grow a head of lettuce without decimating the wild rabbit population that lives near you, maybe you should hang up your trowel and buy your veggies at the farm market.

Your first mistake is thinking that your garden belongs to you. Wild things don’t see it that way. They were living on the land before the bulldozers moved in to knock down trees, clear building sites, and raise your house and those of your neighbors. Deer will eat your tulips, possums will raid your compost pile, and birds will feast on bushes of ripe, plump blueberries. They will recognize your yard as prime real estate, move in, and invite their friends to join them because that is just what they do.

You are not waging a war against a strategizing enemy. Critters are not hiding behind the shed, waiting for you turn off the light each night so they can sneak stealthily across the grass to chow down on your emerging crops. Seriously, animals aren’t that devious. Stop giving them the same attributes that you assign to bank robbers and con men. Animals are not trying to get the better of you. They eat your garden plants for one reason alone – because they are there.

The bigger problem imposed on those of us who are country dwellers, are the two-legged animals — those people who trap their nuisance animals and then drive them out to the country to release them into the woods. Instead of feasting on their garden plants, they are now left to feast on mine. These people ease their conscience by telling themselves that they have spared an animal’s life and are giving it a second chance. In reality, they are looking for an excuse and an easy way out.

Relocating animals, in many cases, is illegal. It can spread disease. You are not doing an animal any favors either. Relocating an animal is cruel. Relocated animals become disoriented and have no idea where to find food or water sources, shelter from the elements, or a safe place to sleep. You are dropping it into the territory of other animals that will be hostile toward them. You are subjecting it to the possibility of starvation, dehydration, and slow, painful suffering. And your solution to your problem lands it into the garden of someone else.

There are many ways to live with wild animals which leaves them to live their lives how and where Mother Nature intended. It’s not that hard. It may cost a bit of time and money. Mostly it just requires being smarter than the four-legged animal you are trying to outwit.

How to Garden With Wild Things

~A short fence keeps rabbits out of the lettuce patch. A tall fence keeps out the deer.

~Caging or putting a “roof” on your garden fence defeats climbing racoons and groundhogs.

~Netting keeps birds from devouring ripening fruit.

~Fake them out with “predators.” After birds picked a hole through my bird netting, I bought a bobble headed plastic owl to stand guard. Stuck onto an old broom handle and moved around the blueberry patch every day, the birds won’t come close enough to steal the berries! I only bring out the owl again when berries ripen. I don’t want the birds to get too used to it. You could use these owls anyplace you want to repel birds.

~Birds on a wire. Just because I don’t want them eating my blueberries doesn’t mean I chase away all birds. Birdwatching is one of our favorite activities! We have prevented squirrels from devouring the bird seed by hanging feeders on a long wire strung between two posts. The wire is too thin and too long for a squirrel to walk. Feeders can hang low enough to be refilled but too high for the critters to reach. Or like me, you can use a pulley to raise and lower the wire.

Feeders are out of the reach of all critters but the birds. A second post on this side of the garden has a pulley system that allows me to lower and raise the wire for easy refilling.

~Plant wisely. Far from my house, I plant flowers that are deer resistant. Those that would be tasty treats for the critters get planted closer to the house where the wild things are less likely to roam.

~Chicken wire “carpets.” Anyplace I don’t want animals to tread, I lay out a length of chicken wire loosely on the ground and pin it down with garden staples. Animals with small paws do not like to walk on chicken wire. This is an especially useful solution that prevents racoons from raiding bird nests or stealing peaches from my fruit trees.

~Chicken wire cages. Flower bulbs such as tulips may disappear over the winter – eaten by buroughing critters. You can defeat them by wrapping bulbs in chicken wire before planting.

~Loud noises and flashing lights. My neighbor uses some sort of electronic noise maker to scare birds out of his cherry trees. When my peaches ripen and raccoons are drawn to the sweetening fruits, setting up a radio at night and a motion sensor light can protect my fruits for a few nights until they are ripe enough to pick. Audio recordings of predators also can keep critters away.

~Reflective surfaces. Hanging pinwheels, aluminum pans or even old cds to flutter in the breeze can also frighten wild things away from the area where you hang them.

~Repellents. Offend their noses with ammonia, moth balls, or commercial repellents. Some people use coyote urine, blood meal, cayenne pepper or Irish Spring soap (the one in the green box) to repel critters from places they don’t want them to be. These can be good temporary fixes.

~Sticks and stones. Poking short lengths of sticks into the ground or plastic forks with the tines sticking up will prevent critters from approaching your plants. Mulching with stones will also prevent feral cats from using your soft garden dirt as a litter box.

~Let the grass grow. A border of tall grass around the vegetable garden can hide your crops from small animals.

~Provide a water source. When raccoons pulled over and broke my bird bath, I set out a pan of clean water at ground level. Critters now leave my bird bath alone. I keep the water in the pan shallow. Otherwise, small chipmunks and baby squirrels can fall in and drown.

~Provide a food source. It may seem counterproductive to feed animals you don’t want hanging around, but there is a method to such madness. Hungry critters will eat your garden. Critters with a full belly won’t. Planting clover in the lawn or in patches gives animals a tasty food source. A deer block far from the veggie garden which can be seen from my windows provide us with entertainment. Sprinkling cracked corn in places feeds and keeps other wild things satisfied and they almost never damage my plants anymore. After fencing, this has been my BEST solution for trouble-free coexistence.

~Provide shelter. Each winter, feral cats move into our barn where they have protection from cold winter winds as well as from marauding predators. I’ve seen creative folks build outdoor shelters for feral cats using plastic bins, trash cans, old truck tires and other waterproof containers filled with straw. Provide feral cats with a place to live and they will help to keep your small varmit population under control.

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