How To Keep Groundhogs And Other Critters From Destroying Your Garden

Take action against the critters wreaking havoc on your plot.

April 12, 2016
woodchuck
1/11 zixian/shutterstock

Four-footed creatures can cause much more damage than the Top 10 Garden Insect Pests in many suburban and rural gardens. They may ruin your garden or landscape overnight, eating anything from apples to zinnias. Most animal pests feed at night, making it tricky to figure out who the culprits are, however, we have a few tips to make it easier. Click through the slideshow to learn how to tackle common garden pests.

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deer in the garden
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Deer

Deer have a taste for a wide range of garden and landscape plants. A few deer are a gentle nuisance; in areas with high deer pressure, they can be the worst garden pest you’ll ever encounter. Deer are nocturnal but may be active at any time. In areas where they’ve acclimated to humans, you may spot them browsing in your garden even in the middle of the afternoon.

Barriers: If deer are damaging a few select trees or shrubs, encircle the plants with 4 foot high cages made from galvanized hardware cloth and positioned several feet away from the plants.

Fences: Building A Deer-Proof Fence is the most reliable way to keep deer out of a large garden or an entire home landscape, but some types are quite costly, especially if you have it installed by a professional. However, there are several options to choose from when deciding on a deer fence. Conventional wire-mesh fences should be 8 feet high for best protection. A second, inner fence about 3 feet high will increase effectiveness because double obstacles confuse deer. Slanted fences constructed with electrified wire are an excellent deer barrier. Installing this type of fence is a job for a professional. Deer are not likely to jump a high, solid fence, such as one made of stone or wood. Polypropylene (plastic) mesh deer fencing is costly, but easier to install on your own than an electric fence. For small gardens, up to 40 feet by 60 feet, a shorter enclosure made of snow fencing or woven-wire fencing may be effective, because deer don’t like to jump into a confined space.

Related: Natural Solutions To 5 Springtime Pests

Repellents: For minor deer-damage problems, repellents will be effective for awhile, but eventually the deer will probably grow accustomed to the repellent and begin browsing again. Under the pressure of a scarce food supply, deer may even learn to use the odor of repellents as guides to choice food sources. Periodically changing from one type of repellent to another can increase your chances for success. You can buy a commercial repellent at a garden center—be sure to ask if a product contains only organic ingredients—or make your own like hanging bars of highly fragrant soap from strings in trees and shrubs or nail each bar to a 4 foot stake and drive the stakes at 15 foot intervals along the perimeter of the area. You can also try using human hair. Ask your hairdresser to save hair for you to collect each week. Put a handful of hair in a net or mesh bag—you can use squares of cheesecloth to make bags—and hang bags 3 feet above the ground and 3 feet apart. Farmers and foresters repel deer by spraying trees or crops with an egg-water mixture. Mix 5 eggs with 5 quarts of water for enough solution to treat ¼ acre. Spray plants thoroughly. You may need to repeat this application after a rain. Experiment with homemade repellents by mixing blood meal, bonemeal, exotic animal manure, hot sauce or garlic oil with water. Recipes for concocting these repellents differ and results may vary. Saturate rags or string with the mixtures and place them around areas that need protection. Some gardeners who own male dogs that regularly patrol their yards report that they have few deer problems even though they don’t have a fence or use repellents. It seems that the scent of the dogs is enough to discourage deer from spending much time in the area.

Deer-Proof Plants: If fencing your yard is beyond your budget and repellents aren’t doing the trick, you could try revamping your landscape with plants that deer don’t like to eat. Over time remove the plants that deer have damaged so badly that they’ve lost their attractiveness or never flower. Replace them with shrubs, vines, and perennials with a reputation for being deer-proof. There’s no hard-and-fast list and it’s possible that the deer in one region may dislike plants that are quite palatable to deer in another. 

 

ground squirrel
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Ground Squirrels + Chipmunks

Ground squirrels and chipmunks are burrowing rodents that eat seeds, nuts, fruits, roots, bulbs, and other foods. They are similar to each other and both are closely related to squirrels. They tunnel in soil and uproot newly planted bulbs, plants, and seeds. Ground squirrel burrows run horizontally; chipmunk burrows run almost vertically.

Traps: Bait live traps with peanut butter, oats, or nut meats. Check traps daily.

Habitat Modification: Ground squirrels and chipmunks prefer to scout for enemies from the protection of their burrow entrance. Try establishing a tall groundcover to block the view at ground level. You can also place a screen or hardware cloth over plants or insert it in the soil around bulbs and seeds. Try spraying repellents on bulbs and seeds.

mouse in the garden
4/11 Eduard Kyslynskyy/shutterstock
Mice + Voles

Mice and voles look alike and cause similar damage but they are only distantly related. They are active at all times of day, year-round. They eat almost any green vegetation, including tubers and bulbs. When unable to find other foods, mice and voles will eat the bark and roots of fruit trees. They can also do severe damage to these 8 Fruit Trees For Your Balcony.

Barriers: Sink cylinders of hardware cloth, heavy plastic, or sheet metal several inches into the soil around the bases of trees. You may be able to protect bulbs and vegetable beds by mixing a product containing slate particles into the soil.

Traps + Baits: Some orchardists place snap traps baited with peanut butter, nut meats, or rolled oats along mouse runways to catch and kill them. A bait of vitamin D is available. It causes a calcium imbalance in the animals and they will die several days after eating the bait. Repellents such as those described for deer may control mice and voles damage. You can also modify the habitat to discourage these critters by removing vegetative cover around tree and shrub trunks.

mole
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Moles

In some ways moles are a gardener’s allies. They aerate soil and eat insects, including many plant pests. However, they also eat earthworms and their tunnels can be an annoyance in gardens and under your lawn. Mice and other small animals also may use the tunnels and eat the plants that moles have left behind.

Traps: Harpoon traps placed along main runs will kill the moles as they travel through their tunnels.

Barriers: To prevent moles from invading an area, dig a trench about 6 inches wide and 2 feet deep. Fill it with stones or dried, compact material such as crushed shells. Cover the material with a thin layer of soil.

Related: This DIY Insect Spray Covers Most Pests 

Habitat Modification: In lawns, insects such as soil-dwelling Japanese beetle grubs may be the moles’ main food source. If you’re patient, you can solve your mole and your grub problem by applying milky disease spores—a biological control agent—to your lawn. This is more effective in the South than in the North, because the disease may not overwinter well in cold conditions. However, if you have a healthy organic soil, the moles may still feed on earthworms once the grubs are gone. You can flood mole tunnels and kill the moles with a shovel as they come to the surface to escape the water. Repellents such as those used to control deer may be effective. Unfortunately, repellents often merely divert the moles to an area that is unprotected by repellents.

 

pocket gopher
6/11 Radoslaw Lecyk/shutterstock
Pocket Gophers

These thick-bodied rodents tunnel through soil, eating bulbs, tubers, roots, seeds, and woody plants. Fan- or crescent-shaped mounds of soil at tunnel entrances are signs of pocket gopher activity.

Fences + Barriers: Exclude gophers from your yard with an underground fence. Bury a strip of hardware cloth so that it extends 2 feet below and 2 feet above the soil surface around your garden or around individual trees. A border of oleander plants may repel gophers.

Flooding: You can kill pocket gophers as you would moles by flooding them out of their tunnels.

rabbit in the garden
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Rabbits

Rabbits can damage vegetables, flowers, and trees at any time of year in any setting. They also eat the 8 Tulips We Love, tree bark, buds and stems of woody plants.

While we may wish that solving animal pest problems were as easy as posting a “Look, Don’t Touch” sign, we should heed the warning ourselves when dealing with animal pests. Wild animals are unpredictable so keep your distance. They may bite or scratch and in doing so, can transmit serious diseases such as rabies. Any warm-blooded animal can carry rabies—a virus that affects the nervous system. Among common garden animal pests, raccoons and skunks are most likely to be infected with the disease. It’s best never to try to move close to or touch wild animals in your garden. And if you’re planning to catch animal pests in live traps, be sure you’ve planned a safe way to transport and release the animals before you set out the baited traps.

Fences + Barriers: The best way to keep rabbits out of a garden is to erect a chicken-wire fence. Be sure the mesh is 1 inch or smaller so that young rabbits can’t get through. Erect cylinders made of ¼ inch hardware cloth around young trees or valuable plants. The cages should be 1½ to 2 feet high, or higher if you live in an area with deep snowfall, and should be sunk 2 to 3 inches below the soil surface. Position them 1 to 2 inches away from the tree trunks. Commercial tree guards are also available.

raccoon in the garden
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Raccoons

Raccoons prefer a meal of fresh crayfish but will settle for a nighttime feast in your sweet corn patch. Signs that they have dined include broken stalks, shredded husks, scattered kernels, and gnawed cob ends.

Related: Ending Your Corn Earworm Woes

Fences + Habitat Modification: A fence made of electrified netting attached to fiberglass posts will keep out raccoons, rabbits, and woodchucks. Or if you have a conventional fence, add a single strand of electric wire or polytape around the outside to prevent raccoons from climbing the fence. Try lighting the garden at night or planting squash among the corn—the prickly foliage may be enough to deter the raccoons.

Barriers: Protect small plantings by wrapping ears at top and bottom with strong tape. Loop the tape around the tip, then around the stalk, then around the base of each ear. This prevents raccoons from pulling the ears off the plants. Or try covering each ear with a paper bag secured with a rubber band.

 

woodchuck
9/11 zixian/shutterstock
Groundhogs

Groundhogs, or woodchucks, are found in the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic, parts of the Midwest, and most of southern Canada. You are most likely to see groundhogs in the early morning or late afternoon munching on a variety of green vegetation. Due to the fact that groundhogs hibernate during winter, they’re most likely to be a pest in early spring, eating young plants in your garden.

Fences + Barriers: A sturdy chicken-wire fence with a chicken-wire-lined trench will keep out woodchucks. Some gardeners protect their young plants from groundhogs by covering them with plastic or floating row covers.

bird eating fruit
10/11 Paco Toscano/shutterstock
Birds

To the gardener, birds are both friends and foes. While they eat insect pests, many birds also consume entire fruits or vegetables or will pick at your produce, leaving damage that invites disease and spoils your harvest.

Some of the birds likely to raid your Vegetable Patch Worth Looking At are blue jays and blackbirds such as crows, starlings, and grackles. If you grow berries or tree fruit, you may find yourself playing host to beautiful but hungry songbirds such as cedar waxwings and orioles. You’ll have to decide which you enjoy more—eating the fruit or birdwatching!

Aside from the two tried-and-true methods of making a scarecrow and keeping a domestic dog on your property, there are several other options, both commercial and homemade, that many gardeners have reported as being successful in keeping birds away from the garden.

Fake Enemies: You can scare birds by fooling them into thinking their enemies are present. Try placing inflatable, solid, or silhouetted likenesses of snakes, hawks, or owls strategically around your garden to discourage both birds and small mammals. They’ll be most effective if you occasionally reposition them so that they appear to move about the garden. Hang “scare-eye” and hawklike balloons and kites that mimic bird predators in large plantings. Use 4 to 8 balloons per acre in orchards or small fruit or sweet corn plantings.

Weird Noises: Unusual noises can also frighten birds. A humming line works well in a strawberry patch or vegetable garden. The line, made of very thin nylon, vibrates in even the slightest breeze. The movement creates humming noises inaudible to us, but readily heard and avoided by birds. Leaving a radio on at night in the garden can scare away some pests. A word to the wise: commercially available ultrasonic devices that purport to scare animal and bird pests are unreliable.

Flashes Of Light: Try fastening aluminum pie plates or unwanted CDs to stakes with strings in and around your garden. Blinking lights may work, too.

Sticky Surfaces: Another tactic that may annoy or scare birds is to coat surfaces near the garden where they might roost with Bird Tanglefoot.

In general, birds feed most heavily in the morning and again in late afternoon. Schedule your control tactics to coincide with feeding times. Many birds have a decided preference for certain crops. Damage may be seasonal, depending on harvest time of their favorite foods.

You can control bird damage through habitat management, by blocking their access, or by scaring them away from your garden. For any method, it is important to identify the bird. A control effective for one species may not work for another. Also, you don’t want to mistakenly scare or repel beneficial birds.

The most effective steps to changing the garden environment to discourage pesky birds is to first eliminate standing water. Birds need a source of drinking water and a source near your garden makes it more attractive. Then plant alternate food sources to distract birds from your crop. In orchards, prune to open the canopy, since birds prefer sheltered areas as well as allow a cover crop to grow about 9 inches tall. The growth will be too high for birds who watch for enemies on the ground while foraging. Finally, remove garden trash and cover possible perches to discourage smaller flocking birds like sparrows and finches that often post a guard. You can also take steps to prevent birds from reaching your crops. The most effective way is to cover bushes and trees with lightweight plastic netting and to cover crop rows with floating row covers.

skunk
11/11 bildagentur zoonar gmbh/shutterstock
Other Animal Pests

Not all pests are as persistent or damaging as deer, moles, rabbits, and the like, but can still wreak havoc in certain areas of the country. For example, armadillos spend most of the day in burrows, coming out at dusk to begin the night’s work of digging for food and building burrows. Their diet includes insects, worms, slugs, crayfish, carrion, and eggs. They will sometimes root for food in gardens or lawns. Armadillos cannot tolerate cold weather, which limits their range to the southern U.S. A garden fence is the best protection against armadillos. Prairie dogs can be garden pests in the western U.S. and they will eat most green plants. If they are a problem in your landscape, control them with the same tactics described for ground squirrels and pocket gophers. Skunks eat a wide range of foods. They will dig holes in your lawn while foraging and may eat garden plants. Skunks can be a real problem when challenged by pets or unwary gardeners. Keep skunks out of the garden by putting a fence around it. You can try treating your lawn with milky disease spores to kill grubs. Squirrels eat forest seeds, berries, bark, buds, flowers, and fungi. Around homes, they may feed on grain, especially field corn. Damage is usually not serious enough to cause concern. Try using repellents such as those suggested for deer control to protect small areas.

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