9 ways to keep critters out of your vegetable garden

Story and Photos by Cindy Shapton

If you are a gardener, then you are already aware that your garden is a popular place not only for you, but also the many critters that like to help themselves to your hard work. It’s a constant battle and if you would like more victories then you need to up your game. Once you have identified the perpetrators, it’s time to take appropriate measures.

1. Fences are something to consider from the very start if you already know you will be battling wily rabbits, hungry deer, tomato-robbing groundhogs, and dastardly digging armadillos and skunks.  

Wooden privacy fences not only delineate property lines and provide privacy, but they also make deer think twice about entering. If the deer can’t see your scrumptious plants and fruit trees they are more likely to leave them alone. Even if they can smell dinner on the other side of the fence, they are cautious because they can’t determine if danger also lurks on the other side.

Wooden fences won’t keep out digging and/or burrowing critters unless you bury steel mesh, bent to a 90-degree angle, 10-12 inches into the ground.

Other fences work as well: My mom has an 8-foot woven wire fence around her kitchen garden and so far, no deer have attempted to jump it (8 feet is about as high as a deer will jump). If you don’t have a tall fence, you can get the same effect by placing taller posts around the perimeter and running fencing wire on the added posts to make a lower fence seem much taller. 

Heavy monofilament fishing line can also be used to keep the deer out. Posts strung with fishing line can be set a couple of feet out from a shorter fence. The deer won’t be able to see the clear line and when they walk into it, they will usually head elsewhere for dinner.

2. Scarecrows are an old garden art form that can be fun for the whole family. It’s simple to construct a basic T or cross with scrap lumber and PVC pipe that can be easily dressed. The key is to make them mobile, so they can be moved around the garden so birds and other critters don’t have a chance to get used to them. It’s also a good idea to change their clothes from time to time for the same reason.

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

3. Scent-based deterrents can be effective for animals that use their nose to find dinner. Strongly scented soap or rags sprayed with cheap perfume hanging near gardens or attached to fences will repel the varmints for a while. However, you have to frequently alternate scents because eventually they become accustomed to a particular scent, rendering it completely ineffective. Some folks swear that hair clippings (easy to collect from barber shops or salons) spread around the perimeter of your garden will deter furry invaders. Others have told me they send the man of the house out to “mark his territory,” which confuses deer and makes them wary. My friends at Delvin Farms in College Grove, who grow organic produce, spray fish emulsion on their crops. Not only does it keep the deer away, but also it fertilizes at the same time: a win-win. The only downside is that it must be reapplied quickly after a rain or the deer will get the upper hand.

4. Motion-activated lights near the garden often spook unsuspecting nighttime intruders. Motion-activated scarecrows are not as cute as the old-fashioned ones, but they pack a punch with a blast of water that usually makes critters leave and not come back … for a while at least. 

5. Fake birds of prey and snakes will make rabbits, squirrels, and birds think twice. Plastic eagles, owls, hawks, and snakes hanging in trees near your garden will frighten off many critters. These fake protectors have to be moved often so that they do not become familiar. I hang fake snakes in my elderberry bushes and often scare myself when I come upon one.

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

6. Objects that reflect light, such as CDs and prisms from light fixtures hung with fishing line will spin and flash and have saved many a tomato from pecking birds. Reflective tape tied to fences glimmer in the sun and can be seen from quite a distance, deterring would-be winged robbers. Mirrors in the garden reflect not only beautiful botanical scenery, but also scare groundhogs that are afraid of their own reflection. Birds have a love hate relationship with mirrors and often will spend their time admiring and fighting with themselves rather than eating fruit.

Aluminum pie plates hanging in the garden clang and bang in the wind and spin and glimmer in the sun.

7. Movement and noise in the garden create doubt and deter critters who become unsure and move along to safer gardens. Colorful pinwheels and whirligigs are great fun for children, and when placed in the garden impart a fun feel, but worry wary pests. Pinwheels are inexpensive and can be placed on posts in several locations. Stuck in the ground, pinwheels create vibrations that make underground rodents nervous and hopefully will leave in search of more stable ground.

Pinwheels are fun and don’t cost anything to run.

Chimes make noise with the slightest breeze and, let’s face it, some of those high-pitched notes (from cheap chimes) are painful, so why not put them in the garden where they can do some good? You can also record barking dogs and play it on a timer or use a radio tuned to a news or “talk” station. 

Groups of aluminum pie plates hung around the garden clang loudly to shoo away birds and they spin and glint in the sunshine. 

Ribbons and reflective tape give winged and furry critters pause.

8. Pets, especially barking dogs, can be huge assets in the fight against unwelcome critters. Rosie, my canine helper, gives chase to rascally rabbits, groundhogs, other critters and barks loud enough to tell every unwanted plant eater within hearing range that she’s the boss. 

9. Herbs can play a part in the battle of man versus beast for the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Garlic seems to repel critters because of its strong aroma. Garlic chives and onion chives have a similar effect. “Hot” herbs are never popular with critters. Try sprinkling powdered hot peppers (I prefer cayenne) on garden plants early in the morning while the dew is still on and around the garden perimeter to make snacking rabbits and cats who like to dig and litter in your raised beds light up and run for water.

Mature stinging nettle plants inflict pain – and critters will keep their distance.

Plants with sharp leaves or thorns that bite – such as various cacti, holly (Ilex spp., cvs.), roses (Rosa spp., cvs.), and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) – can create a barrier that will keep out all but the bravest – or hungriest – varmints.

Native cactus is a prickly guard and will defend the garden when planted in the right spot.

There is no one surefire, guaranteed way to keep hungry critters out of your garden all of the time, but by using several different deterrents and regularly rotating and changing things out, you just might gain the upper hand – or at least have the last laugh.

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