Critters in the veggie patch are every gardener’s worst nightmare. The frustration of having all your hard work devoured by garden pests is enough to make you want to give up gardening altogether. But with these strategies, you will finally be able to take back control of your garden space.
Start by identifying which creatures are causing damage in your garden from the list below. Then, you can employ the appropriate combination of critter control solutions.
It’s easy to go all out Mr. McGregor style on every critter you can, but not all garden visitors are bad. Beneficial animals and insects can help pollinate plants or prey upon pests. Here is a list of creatures you should gladly invite into your garden:
- Pollinators – bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, flies, beetles, ladybugs, ants, birds, bats.
- Predators – chickens, birds, opossums, garter snakes, frogs, toads, salamanders, bats, spiders, beneficial nematodes, green lacewig, praying mantis, ground beetles, pirate bugs, assassin bugs, predator bugs, dames bug, wasps, predatory mites, mealybug destroyer, aphid midges, flies, fungus gnat predator.
- Soil Improvers – earthworms, ants, ground beetles, wasps.
There are some creatures from this list that can be both beneficial and destructive depending on the species or plants involved. Beneficial nematodes, for example, are a parasite that feeds upon insects and greatly help the garden, but some species of nematodes are destructive and feed upon plant roots, stems, foliage, and flowers. Some species of nematodes can also carry diseases and infect plants, humans or animals. Be sure you know what species you’re dealing with.
Pests and Nuisance Animals
Before you can begin to battle garden pests, you need to identify and understand them. Every garden location is going to have different challenges when it comes to pest control. Understanding the habitat and preferred foods of pests in your area will help you determine what action is needed to keep them away from your garden.
There are many different types of insects that feed upon garden plants. For a complete list with identification photos, read The Gardener’s Guide to Insect Pests.
There are many species of rabbits, but they all love free food! Rabbits may look large with all that fur, but they can squeeze through holes as small as 3 inches. They can chew through plastic fencing and burrow as deep as 12-18 inches underground. So they can be quite the challenge to keep out of the garden.
Favorite Foods: Beans, Beets, Berry Bushes, Broccoli, Fruit Trees (and their bark), Grape and Kiwi Vines, Peppers, Lettuce, Peas, Spinach, Strawberries, Swiss Chard.
Squirrels are tiny, agile and great at climbing. They will quickly dig up all your freshly planted seeds for a midnight snack. They are nearly impossible to keep out using fences. Squirrels will eat just about everything in a garden, so those who live in wooded areas may need to use some of the more creative solutions below.
Favorite Foods: Any Fruit, Any Vegetable, Seeds, Nuts.
Raccoons are nocturnal and these omnivores will eat just about anything. Trash and compost are easy pickings for these intelligent creatures, and they will make a tasty snack of your sweet corn and watermelon before they’re finished.
Favorite Foods: Corn, Melons, Berry Bushes, Fruit Trees, Grubs and Insects, Strawberries, Grapes, Peas, Potatoes, Seeds.
Moles, Voles and Gophers
Moles eat insects which can be beneficial to the garden, but their tunneling activities can cause some serious damage to plant’s root systems and garden structures. Moles typically dig 3-12 inches deep into the soil, although they may go as deep at 3 feet when carving out their living and food storage areas. Moles can also be confused with voles, who enjoy eating vegetables or gophers, who prefer grain crops.
Favorite Foods: Beetle Larvae, Earthworms, Grains, Grubs, Snails, Spiders, Vegetables.
Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, are large rodents that hibernate in the winter months and emerge hungry in the early spring. They enjoy eating most vegetables and will snack in the garden around dawn and dusk. Their burrows can extend as long as 50 feet and cause serious damage to garden beds, fences, foundations and driveways. Groundhogs are attracted to areas with good hiding spots such as tall grass or brush piles.
Favorite Foods: Cantaloupe, Carrots, Cucumber, Lettuce, Peas, Strawberries, Sweet Corn, Tomatoes, Zucchini.
Deer are skittish creatures and tend to do most of their foraging around dawn and dusk. They will eat just about any garden vegetable and can jump a fence up to 8 feet high. Deer tend to avoid plants in the onion family as well as strongly scented herbs and flowers.
Favorite Foods: Beans, Broccoli, Carrots, Gourds, Peas, Lettuce/Greens, Sweet Corn, Tomatoes.
Crows and Blackbirds
Birds can be helpful in the garden by ridding it of pest insects, however, they will also scratch up all your freshly planted seeds. Blackbirds are especially attracted to areas with mulch since insects tend to be more plentiful there.
Favorite Foods: Insects, Seeds, Some Fruit/Berries.
Turkeys are omnivorous foragers. They absolutely love to nab fresh berries in the summer. Although they can be helpful to the garden by eating pest insects, they may also eat some plants as well. Their scratching activities may cause many of your garden plants to be trampled in their search for grubs.
Since the wild turkey population once dwindled to a dangerous low due to habitat loss, they are now a heavily regulated and protected species. Any attempts to keep them from your garden must be done without hurting the birds.
Favorite Foods: Berry Bushes, Grains, Insects, Nuts, Seeds, Some Greens, Strawberries.
Although we don’t typically think of foxes munching on vegetables, they are actually omnivores. Foxes are attracted to gardens because the bare soil makes it easy to dig up grubs and worms. There may be other sources of easy prey around too like small rodents and birds. If you use any type of “meal” or bone/fish based fertilizer, you may be inviting foxes from hundreds of feet away. Foxes prefer “messy” areas that provide shelter, hiding places or strongly scented toys (such as gardening gloves, shoes or pet toys).
Favorite Foods: Berries, Birds, Frogs, Earthworms, Other Insects, Rabbits, Rodents, Seeds, Squirrels, Vegetables.
There are 4 main types of poisonous snakes found in North America – cottonmouths, copperheads, rattlesnakes and coral heads. Snakes are beneficial to the garden since they eat many pests, however, poisonous species can pose a serious threat to the wellbeing of humans and pets if bitten.
Favorite Foods: Birds, Frogs, Insects, Small Rodents.
Pests vs Diseases
You may see damage to your plants and assume it has been caused by insects or animals, but it could be a different issue altogether. Research is the key to success here.
For example, the first time I tried to plant corn in my backyard garden, it started out healthy and strong. Then one day I went out to discover it had all fallen over. I assumed that deer had jumped the fence and trampled it, but I was wrong. Through further research, I discovered my corn was suffering from a condition called lodging. This could have been caused by disease, imbalanced soil nutrition, or incorrect planting depth/spacing. So it’s important to identify what is causing your problem before immediately blaming pests.
Bacterial, viral and fungal diseases can cause discoloration, lesions, spots, wilt, rust, mold, powdery mildew, stunted growth, curled/crinkled leaves, and blemished/misshapen fruit. If your plants are showing specific symptoms such as these, consult a list of plant diseases and symptoms to diagnose the disease and determine an appropriate treatment.
Critter Control Strategies
Keep it Clean
Proper garden management can greatly reduce the number of animals that visit. Rotting fruit or plant material that has fallen off the plant is a huge attraction for pests. Be sure to clean up garden beds regularly. When pruning or weeding, deposit the waste into a bucket or wheelbarrow and add it to your compost pile.
If you have pets or livestock, make sure their food and water is protected from unwanted visitors. Bird feeders can also attract insects, squirrels and raccoons. Many animals look for a place to hide near the garden, so brush piles, overgrown weeds or grass, and structures with access to a crawl spaces can make them feel right at home. Clean up and remove any debris near your garden so the critters will be forced to expose themselves in the open, making them less likely to take the risk.
Works for: Foxes, Insects, Rabbits, Raccoons, Rodents, Snakes.
Companion planting can be an effective way to camouflage scents from animals as well as attract predatory insects. Planting members of the onion family or aromatic herbs such as lavender, sage, mint, thyme, rosemary, dill, marigolds, or oregano will both mask the scent of delicious veggies and smell repulsive to most mammals. You can also surround your garden with cottage garden flowers that are poisonous to wildlife such as daffodils, foxglove, and poppies (which are also beautiful, bonus!). Utilize thorny or prickly bushes and vines around more savory plants so hungry animals have to deal with a lot of hassle to get a snack.
Works for: Deer, Insects, Rabbits, Raccoons, Rodents, Squirrels.
Make it Spicy
Sprinkle hot or strong smelling spices such as cayenne pepper, garlic spray, epsom salts, vinegar or peppermint oil around your plants. Pest animals and insects will be disgusted by both the odor and flavor associated with your garden space and steer clear in the future.
Works for: Deer, Insects, Rabbits, Raccoons, Rodents, Squirrels.
Bring in the Predators
If insect pests are a problem in your garden, bringing in predatory insects such as beneficial nematodes, praying mantis or ladybugs can drastically help control pest populations.
The same strategy can work for prey animals, but instead of bringing in live predators, you just need to simulate the threat. An owl statue can be enough to frighten off small rodents or other birds. Coyote urine or even the presence of pet dogs will let small animals know that this territory is not safe.
Works for: Birds, Insects, Rabbits, Rodents.
Create a Physical Barrier
Fencing is a classic choice for keeping animals out of your garden. You may decide on different fencing options based on what type of animals are in your area. For burrowing animals, the fence will need to be trenched (buried underground at least 12”) and have very small holes. For deer, you will need a fence height of at least 8 feet. Bird netting can be used to cover individual raised beds as well as large sections of garden space.
If fencing doesn’t work for your property or budget, a raised bed garden design can make it more difficult for rabbits to reach your produce. I have fashioned cages out of extra pieces of metal fencing that can be placed over top of some of my raised beds that contain veggies rabbits love. Of course, rabbits can squeeze through very small holes in fencing, but it is risky for them and they prefer to avoid danger.
Using row covers, individual mesh plant covers, cloches, cold frames or a greenhouse can keep larger animals out of your plants, but insects may still find their way in. Ensure your greenhouse is cleaned regularly and has proper ventilation and air circulation to prevent diseases and mold which can attract insects. Remove infested or infected plants immediately and always check for pests before bringing new plants into a greenhouse. Use the strategies described in The Gardener’s Guide to Pest Insects to keep your greenhouse bug free.
Works for: Deer, Insects, Rabbits, Squirrels, Turkeys.
Create physical vibrations in the ground with an ultrasonic sound repellent to deter any burrowing type of animal without bothering pets or livestock. Granular snake repellant is another great product that can be sprinkled around the vegetable garden to give you piece of mind that no poisonous snakes will take up residence in your plants. There are also deer repellent granules and rodent repellant granules that are easy to use and reapply as needed.
Works for: Snakes, Moles, Voles, Gophers, Groundhogs, Rodent, Deer.
For nuisance animals that just won’t give up, it may be best to trap them and relocate them to a more desirable habitat. When baiting and handling live traps, use gloves to avoid transferring your scent to the items. Place bait tailored to the animal’s tastes into the trap and when they enter, the trap will close behind them, keeping them safely contained.
Works for: Raccoons, Foxes, Groundhogs.
Who doesn’t love a good old fashioned scarecrow? Most animals that visit your garden are prey animals and won’t risk putting themselves in danger. Scare critters away with pinwheels, reflective streamers, noise makers, small mirrors, motion activated lights or water sprayers.
Works for: Birds, Deer, Rabbits, Raccoons, Squirrels, Turkeys.
Give the Critters Their Own Garden!
Utilizing permaculture principles, you can create a forest garden with minimal labor input. Choose plants that rabbits and deer love that will naturalize somewhere else on your property such as carrots, ramps, radishes, turnips, strawberries, etc. Toss a few seeds along the edges of woods, create a wild flower area with wild vegetables or create a wildlife food plot.
Animals won’t risk exposing themselves in the open areas of your yard if food is available elsewhere. Check out this list of perennial and reseeding vegetables for more ideas on what you could plant. If all else fails, you can also over-plant your garden veggies. Plant more than you need, knowing that some will go to the animals.
Any other ideas?
Have you tried any other strategies to rid yourself of pesky animals or insects? Share your ideas in the comments below!
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