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10 ways to keep critters out of your fruit and vegetable gardens

Story by Karen Ott Mayer

Nothing is more frustrating than planting a garden only to watch healthy, vibrant plants succumb to the munchings of any number of critters – from squirrels to deer. Sometimes getting creative or experimenting can change the gardening score … in favor of the gardener.

1. Location, location, location 
We all want to grow a favorite plant or new vegetable despite some obvious realities we ignore. Foliage, woods, and shrubbery are ideal cover for all types of critters. When installing a new vegetable bed, be sure to take the surrounding landscape into consideration. Is it near a dense stand of trees or thickets? Keep the critters in mind when considering potential locations.

2. Deciding what to grow
Some animals prefer certain plants over others. If rabbits are a problem in your yard, planting low greens and lettuces out in the open will be a continual challenge unless they are somehow protected from nibbling critters.

Beating critters at their own game is only successful when you outthink them far in advance.

3. Try natural repellents 
We aren’t always sure how effective, if at all, natural repellents are, but they’re worth trying when all else fails. Gardeners mix up sprays using everything from powdered cayenne pepper, garlic, and onions to essential oils, castille soap, dishwashing liquid, castor oil, and on and on. If you decide to try the DIY approach, please thoroughly research any “ingredients” you plan to use to make sure you won’t inadvertently harm beneficial insects, pollinators, wildlife, pets, or other garden plants.

4. Install floating row covers 
Berries and vines are particularly vulnerable to birds, especially when the fruit is nealy ripe. For muscadines and grapes, net covering is an easy, effective way to protect fruit. Not only passive and chemical-free, nets can be reused for several years before they break down. The downside is simply the positioning and the removal. Commercial growers have worked for years to simplify the tedious and laborious task of untangling the nets from tendrils, storing, and determining a weight that won’t damage vines. In home gardens with just a few rows of grapes, the task won’t be as difficult, but know which birds are the potential scavengers so you can use appropriately sized netting.

5. Plant in raised beds 
If planned with critters in mind, growing vegetable plants in raised beds can solve many problems. When constructing a raised bed, lay wire mesh at the bottom to keep diggers out. Raised beds are also easier to cover with some type of protective structure. Chicken wire or small mesh wire over hoops is one option.

6. Keep gardens close 
A garden farther away from people and activity is more likely to attract wildlife. Even 100 yards can make a difference in a rural setting. If the garden is located away from the house, consider relocating it or at least growing favorite plants closer to the house.

7. Create instant cover 
Cloches can be made of wire, glass, and even baskets and actually look very nice in a garden. Not only do they add a touch of charm, they provide instant protection without a lot of labor. While not practical for a large area, cloches are perfect for smaller gardens. And if you happen to have wandering chickens, cloches will prevent them from damaging your plants.

8. Invest in permanent fencing 
Sometimes it takes a serious investment to deal with an ongoing issue. If you’re determined to keep the deer out of the garden, fencing is the most reliable option. Choose welded wire or plastic mesh at least 8 feet high. As an added bonus, if you bury the fence 2-3 feet deep, you’ll also deny access to digging critters, such as moles.

This is a very pretty fence for a garden, isn’t it? Why didn’t I suggest this in my list? Well, this particular fence worked well in keeping a groundhog IN once it had eaten my beans! I had to remove a fence panel to let him out.

9. Make more noise 
Old timers believe in distraction. Whether it’s pie tins hanging from tree branches or a commercial ultrasonic device, the idea is simply to scare with noise. The beauty of this technique is the high pitches and lights frighten only the animals – not the neighbors. Designed primarily to deter deer, the devices also claim to scare away smaller intruders, such as raccoons.

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

10. Dogs
Pets are natural deterrents by their mere presence. Just as they’ve been used for centures to guard flocks, they can also guard gardens. If Fido isn’t a digger, keep him enclosed near the garden and the plants will be safe. Cats can help with mole problems, but they also kill songbirds and tend to use the garden as their personal litter box.

If you have areas near your gardens and orchards where your dogs can roam or walk with you on a regular basis, their scent will deter many pesky critters.

Beating critters at their own game is only successful when you outthink them far in advance. These problems are much more frustrating and difficult when the garden is in full production; doing a little prep work will make things much easier – and less stressful. As any seasoned gardener knows, gardening requires creativity and ingenuity every day to stay ahead of Mother Nature. But in the end, a ripe tomato fresh off the vine or harvesting pristine, untouched beans are without a doubt worth it.

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