10 ways to keep critters out of your fruits and vegetables

By A.J. Heinsz-Bailey

The first vine-ripened tomato of the season is always the best. You have faithfully watered it, delicately weeded around the plant, and carefully inspected it every day. Tomorrow it will be ready for harvesting. The next morning, you enter the garden and gaze in horror at the beak marks defacing your tomato, or even worse, the luscious orb is missing – gone without a trace. The annual battle of gardener versus critters has begun. 

A raccoon uprooted this pot of Petunia at night. If it had happened during the day, squirrels would have been the likely culprits. Properly identifying the pest is important. Photos by A.J. Heinsz-Bailey.

Most gardeners welcome wildlife into their yards by providing habitat, water, and food. We love all creatures great and small …  until they eat our fruits and vegetables. Following are 10 ways to humanely defend your vegetable garden:

1. The most important step is correctly identifying the culprit. Note what plant parts have been damaged: leaves, flowers, fruits, stems, and roots should all be inspected. Note the time of day the damage occurred and which vegetable or fruits were damaged. Take photographs to show to your local cooperative extension agent if you can’t determine the identity of the mysterious munchers. Some of Louisiana’s major vegetable pests include rabbits, cats, dogs, skunks, moles, voles, deer, squirrels, birds, armadillos, wood rats, opossums, and raccoons. Deer may leave tracks in the area and make clean cuts on herbaceous plants. Rabbits make sharp cuts on greens and may leave pellet droppings. Birds peck holes in fruit. Correct identification will save time and avoid costly solutions that do not work. Using the correct product is essential.

2. Netting is an inexpensive, versatile method of protecting strawberries, blueberries, and vegetables from birds, deer, rabbits, and squirrels. One person can apply the net without too much difficulty. They come in several different sizes. The downside is that birds and snakes occasionally get stuck in the netting. The netting also provides easy access for the gardener to harvest the fruit. Netting is also reusable and stores easily when not in use. 

3. Traps can be used for persistent offenders. There are humane, effective metal traps. Before trapping, check local regulations. These are great for cats, squirrels, armadillos, mice, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, and voles. Traps are also reusable.

Stubborn pests may require a combination of methods to deter them. Be prepared to experiment.

4. Good fences make good neighbors. Enclosing your entire garden with a critter-proof fence can be expensive and time consuming, but it is a very (if not the most) effective method of keeping out most critters (birds and squirrels being the exceptions). Electric fences are an affordable and effective way to keep out cats, dogs, rabbits, deer, raccoons, and skunks. DIY kits are available with everything necessary to create a small garden barrier. Electric fencing is easy to install and it can be easily moved if need by. Be careful with this method if you have children and/or pets.

Easy to install and relatively inexpensive, electric fencing works for deer, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, and squirrels. Photo by Bob Westerfield.

5. Motion-activated deterrents work when you are not around. Motion-activated sprinklers are great for keeping cats out of the vegetable garden; a fast, harmless shot of water usually does the trick. These sprinklers work for dogs, deer, rabbits, squirrels, and birds. Motion-activated flashing lights with changing patterns are another option.

6. Scarecrows, streamers, aluminum pie pans, or bird tape may keep birds away, but you’ll have to move these daily. As pests become accustomed to a deterrent, it loses its effectiveness. Another option is hanging strips of foil. Attach the strips to fence posts, trees, or shrubs to scare animals away. As the strips blow in the wind, they catch sunlight, producing ever-changing patterns. It also makes a metallic rattling sound, which is an extra deterrent. 

Scarecrows are fun for the whole family and can trick some critters into thinking the gardener is out and about. Photo by Cindy Shapton.

7. Predator decoys will scare away most small critters, but again, you can’t allow them to become accustomed to these. For long-term effectiveness, the figure must involve movement. One option is a large orange sphere that has holograms on front and back. It seems to move when viewed from different angles. In addition to “moving” eyes, these are mounted on a spring that makes the entire “predator” sway and bounce in the wind. 

Birds of prey decoys are effective for critters that don’t care to be lunch. Photo by Cindy Shapton.

8. Row covers are efficient, portable, and reusable. They keep out birds, squirrels, raccoons, armadillos, and deer. Even ravenous rabbits that eat your salad greens down to the roots can’t eat what they can’t see. You may already be using row covers for spring frost protection; hiding your plants is a bonus. They keep out insects too!

9. Tree wrap protects newly planted fruit trees. Use this to keep deer, voles, and rabbits from chewing the tender bark and killing young trees. 

10. Deer have a keen sense of smell and foul odors often successfully keep them out of the garden. Some deer repellents combine an unpleasant odor with an unpleasant taste. That way, if a deer ignores the smell, it will still get a mouthful of something distasteful. Some repellent products incorporate several disgusting ingredients, such as dried blood, wintergreen oil, fishmeal, and rotten eggs. You just might be repelled too! These repellents come in different formulations. Granular and sprays are the most common. Sprays need frequent reapplication and always after a heavy rain. To determine approximately how long your chosen method will last, read the entire label before purchasing the product. Some repellents make the intruder feel sick when they ingest the treated plant. Yet another popular (organic!) repellent – especially for deer and rabbits – is predator urine. Powdered formulations are preferable than liquid because they don’t evaporate as quickly or wash away as easily. Homemade repellents include spreading citrus peels and garlic around the garden. Red pepper spray is popular for discouraging deer, squirrels, and rabbits from eating your greens. Products containing castor oil are recommended for moles. Sprays made from natural ingredients, including pepper, cinnamon oil, thyme oil, peppermint oil, or vinegar are easy to make, but they do not last very long. Human hair, bars of soap, and garlic generally don’t work. But don’t give up: You just may create a new solution that does work.

Aluminum pie plates hanging in the garden clang and bang in the wind and spin and glimmer in the sun. Photo by Cindy Shapton.

Now you have an arsenal and are prepared to do battle. Stubborn pests may require a combination of methods to deter them. Be prepared to experiment. Unfortunately, critters will probably always part of the gardening experience. Every season will bring new encounters.

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