Preventing Animal Damage in the Garden

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Blueberries in a fruit cage

It happens when you least expect it. Your bed of baby radishes looked breathtaking after dinner, but the next morning it was a disaster area, with many plants chewed off and some pulled from the ground. Whaat?!

Despite our best laid plans, animal pests often wreak havoc in the vegetable garden. Whether your problem animals are dogs, cats, deer, rabbits, birds, squirrels or something else, barriers to prevent or minimize animal damage in the vegetable garden are simple and effective provided you stay ahead of the game. I should know. My garden is surrounded by a dense natural forest with restricted hunting, so the woods are alive with critters. Fortunately, the same measures that provide protection from one animal often work with others, too.

“Row
A row cover tunnel hides spring crops from rabbits, deer, and other animals

Hiding Crops from View

Spring gardening season begins during the hungry season for animals. After a cold winter, rabbits, deer and even chipmunks can’t wait to get a taste of tender spring greens. But animals will not eat what they cannot see, so hiding vegetables from view is the winning strategy of spring. Every spring I set up a row cover tunnel and fill it with spring crops, with no worries that animals will find them.

Protecting Germinating Seeds

As the weather warms and I start direct seeding sweet corn, beans and other summer crops, most of the animal damage in the vegetable garden is done by birds. Crows and blue jays love corn, pea and bean seedlings. Beet and chard sprouts are sometimes harvested by goldfinches.

To keep my seedlings safe, I cover newly planted rows with row cover, placed directly on the surface, until the seeds germinate. A length of plastic garden fencing, held aloft with bricks, also makes a good bird temporary deterrent. Established seedlings are much less attractive to birds compared to tender sprouts.

“Blueberries
Lightweight tulle is ideal for protecting berries from birds

Tulle for Berries

Speaking of birds, they know when strawberries, blueberries and other berries are ripe, so it’s important to be ready for them. Bird netting has not worked for me. Hummingbirds get stuck in it, and robins and other ground feeders find places to sneak inside. Lightweight tulle (also known as wedding net) put in place after the pollinators have done their job works much better, and it’s easy to secure in place with clothespins. Some people erect chicken wire cages over their blueberries, but we have so many big bushes that it’s no problem to share some of them with the birds.

“Spinach
Spinach, carrots and other low-growing crops can be protected from animals with wire cages

Wire Crop Cages for Leafy Greens

I will not, however, share my precious leafy greens and carrots with rabbits and deer, so they are always protected by cages made from wire fencing, cut at the ends and folded into a box. A determined deer can nudge a cage aside to get at beet greens, so I secure them in place with stakes.

In recent years garden retailers have begun selling crop cages to prevent animal damage in the vegetable garden. Crop cages made with poultry netting (chicken wire) can be highly effective, but be aware that rabbits can chew through plastic netting to get to your veggies, a lesson I learned when I tried to protect a stand of young green beans with old window screens. Overnight, a rabbit-size hole appeared in one of the screens, and every bean leaf was gone. Squirrels are good chewers, too, so for crop cages, wire works better.

“Scarecrows”
Scarecrows are fun to make, but there are better ways to manage animal damage in the vegetable garden

Animal-Deterring Sprays

Squirrels, rabbits, deer, and other mammals are repelled by sprays that smell like rotten eggs, which cannot be applied to edible crops without compromising their flavor. However, I have found that using a stinky deer spray on my ornamentals has reduced deer visits in the vegetable garden, probably because they think the whole place smells bad.

Animal-deterring sprays made from hot peppers deter feeding by mammals, and they are especially useful to help defend young trees from being eaten. But I always worry about the pain I’m inflicting by making animals eat capsaicin, and think about a little fawn crying “Mama, what’s wrong?” while licking frantically.

“Electric
A three-strand electric fence defends a garden from rabbits, racoons, groundhogs, and deer

Not that I’m a soft touch. Many of my neighbors use a single-strand electric fence to defend their gardens from rabbits, deer, racoons, and random other wild things, and I plan to use an electric fence to keep bears of out my apple trees later this summer. The zap will feel unpleasant, but perhaps not as bad as having your mouth and eyes burning from capsaicin for hours. After all, this was their home first.

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