Keeping pests out of your veggie garden

Story by Bob Westerfield

I’ll never forget the year I planted 10 long rows of sweet corn and was anxiously awaiting the delicious harvest. I knew from experience that I was only days away from enjoying the fresh delight of my beloved sweet corn. On the much-anticipated day, I went out to harvest my golden treasure, and to my horror, almost every ear on the stalk was vandalized. Just as I was anticipating my delicious meal, it seems that a few critters must have been eyeballing it as well. With the tracks still present in the damp soil, it did not take long to figure out what had happened – a posse of deer and raccoons had invaded the corn the very night before my harvest. All of my time and efforts were for naught. 

Not wanting to repeat the horrific scene from the previous year, I took measures to protect the next crop. I live out in the country, but even in the city and subdivisions, it’s amazing how much wildlife lives close by and many of the critters have an appetite for vegetables just like we do. It seems like we are always having to deal with insects, disease, and weeds in our garden, but you just may have to protect those veggies from vertebrate vandals as well. 

There are several ways to prevent your precious vegetables from becoming a critter’s next meal. The best control method for you depends on your situation and the type of animals you’re trying to keep out. We will cover the most effective ways to control the majority of animals that may try and visit your garden. 

In my opinion, exclusion is the number one way to keep critters from getting their claws and teeth into your garden. In my neck of the woods, we have just about every type of wildlife imaginable, but my biggest pests are probably deer and rabbits. The deer we have here, as I mentioned earlier, can literally wipe out your garden in one evening if you don’t keep them out. I have fooled around with all types of fencing materials, but settled on an 8-foot-high hard wire fence. This livestock-type fence material is made of heavy gauge woven wire with 4-inch openings. It is usually to find at farm-type stores. Holding the fence up are strong metal T-posts along with round wooden corner posts. We have a very large garden – on occasion, we even market some vegetables. This setup has worked for me the best. You can buy the plastic deer fencing, but I would advise against buying the cheap stuff available at the “big-box” stores. I can tell you from experience that it will not hold up and it is more of a pain than it is worth. There are plenty of suppliers online that sell quality plastic deer fencing. It will still need some type of post to anchor it to. 

Electric fencing is good for keeping deer out. Photo by Bob Westerfield.

For my particular setup, I also ran about 2 feet of chicken wire from the base of the fence all the way around the perimeter. This serves keeps the bunnies from entering through the fence holes. 

Electric fencing is also an option. If you don’t have a power source close to your garden, they do make battery-operated versions. By putting a few strands of electric fence around your garden, you may be able to keep out deer and other large varmints. In the very beginning, smear some peanut butter on sections of the fence so that the deer and other critters will be attracted to it. They will attempt to lick the fence and get a shocking result. The harmless shock is often enough to keep them away.

This garden is surrounded by an 8-foot metal fence and also an owl decoy to deter birds from getting seeds. Photo by Bob Westerfield.

Just like fencing materials, I have had a lot of experience playing around with repellents. I have tried everything from hanging fragrant soap bars around my plants to using commercially made foul-smelling products. A quick internet search would find a hundred different home remedies to keep away every form of mammal you would ever encounter. My general thought on this is that they may work to some extent, but it is only temporary. Animals quickly learn that repellents, while they smell offensive, don’t actually hurt them. Eventually they breach the barrier and get to your vegetables. If you decide to use repellents, my advice would be to rotate different types every few months to avoid complacency.

Scare Tactics
Who hasn’t driven thought the country and seen at least one scarecrow standing out in a garden? Scarecrows, rubber snakes, plastic owls, and cardboard coyotes are just a few examples of decoy-type products available to keep damaging critters out of the garden. The question is, do they work? I have tried many of these and you may be surprised to hear me say this, but you can have some degree of success with these imposters. I think they work a little bit like the repellents. If you leave a fake stationary decoy out too long, eventually the bad guys figure it out. I have seen people hanging streamers and metal pie plates spinning in the wind and I’m sure they help keep a few birds out for a while. There’s even an ingenious motion-triggered water sprinkler that comes on and shoots an animal when they walk past. I could have had a lot of fun with that as a child and the sidewalk near my house.

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

If your garden is in a fenced yard or if there are no leash laws where you live, yard dogs can make excellent deterrents. We used to have a Labrador that lived outside and would bark at anything that came near our garden. At that time, we had no problem with critters. 

As a child, I was always fascinated with trapping animals in live traps and then letting them go to catch another day. Trapping could possibly be one of the more effective ways to control some of the critters in your garden. Live-trapping rabbits, raccoons, or even squirrels is not tremendously difficult, but you will have to decide what to do with the animal. Depending on local ordinances and state game laws, you may be able to relocate trapped animals to a park or a wooded area. Depending on the season, you may also be able to humanely euthanize the animals, but that may require a permit. Live traps are available online or you can find them at farm-type stores such as Tractor Supply. 

While animal lovers may not like this last suggestion, it can sometimes be a last resort after all other methods have failed. Some animals, such as mice, rats, and starlings, are considered nuisance wildlife and can be dispatched any time of the year. Other potential garden burglars, such as deer, crows, rabbits, and raccoons, are game animals that can only be harvested during certain times of year. In some cases, in rural areas, you can actually get permits from the DNR to dispatch these animals out of season if they are causing significant crop damage. Even if you are squeamish about shooting an animal, the sound of the gun alone may scare animals off for a time.  

Now let me add a word of caution: Before you go discharging a weapon out in the garden, safety is the number on priority and you also need to know all pertinent state and local ordinances. It may not be legal to discharge a firearm in your area. It may be permissible, however, to use air-powered pellet rifles to take care of smaller mammals. Even paintball guns could be used as a method of scaring the critters away. 

A lot of work goes into a home garden, but the payoff is worth it in the form of fresh, delicious vegetables. While it is important for wildlife to eat, there are plenty of things in the woods for them to munch on. Hopefully these suggestions will help you keep the critters out of your garden and allow you to enjoy your vegetables.

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