10 ways to safeguard fruit and vegetable gardens

Story by Nan K. Chase

Deer, possums, raccoons, groundhogs, squirrels, birds, bears, and more deer. Not to mention Japanese beetles, cabbage moths, and other destructive insects. With endless garden pests, it’s a wonder anything at all grows to a harvestable size. And the better the vegetable garden and home orchard look, it seems the more they attract all those critters.

So what’s a gardener to do? Here are 10 suggestions for minimizing damage from unwanted visitors:

1. Crop Selection 
Be realistic about the crops you like, but that pests are sure to damage, and consider letting farmers raise those while you concentrate on hardier choices. Among the “Don’t Bother” selections are beans, corn, melons, squash, and cucumbers, as well as cherries and blueberries. Instead, look to plants with less appeal to birds and animals: herbs, rhubarb, and Allium such as garlic, onions, shallots, chives, and leeks.

Plant selection is important. A garden full of tender greens, beans, and other vegetables makes a tempting target, while plants in the onion family repel many pests. Photo courtesy of Nan K. Chase.

2. Plants that are hard to eat 
Make critters work harder when they raid your garden by choosing plants that have branches or leaves with their own line of defense. These include bramble fruits with thorns or fuzzy stems (blackberries and such) and root crops that hide underground, such as radishes, beets, and potatoes. Consider growing more plants in containers close to the house.

If all else fails, plant prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.). Animals can’t reach the succulent fruit or the paddles, which are popular in some cuisines. Photo courtesy of Nan K. Chase.

3. The Birdbath
It’s true that birds can eat a lot of ripening berries and fruit, but overall, a varied bird population in the garden has benefits. However, don’t provide a birdfeeder. Instead, install a birdbath and keep it watered all year. Birds will come to drink and bathe, and then eat insect pests on their own. Birds also aerate the soil as they hunt for grubs and they groom vegetation as they gather nesting materials. 

4. Cages 
If deer or other large mammals are causing problems, a series of sturdy, permanent cage-like structures over garden beds may be the only solution. These should be covered with chicken wire from the ground up to 6 feet or more. Make sure enclosures are large enough to allow door openings and space to turn around inside, so weeding and harvesting are easier.

5. Netting 
Growing berries, nuts, and orchard fruits is so rewarding. And the birds will thank you, unless you take measures to protect ripening crops. Netting must placed as soon as fruit sets, before it begins to develop any color; if you snooze, you lose. Lightweight fruit netting can be difficult to handle, so use medium-weight instead. It’s easy to construct netting structures using PVC piping and clips. Weight the bottom edges or birds will wriggle in.

6. Repellent Sprays 
Many gardeners have such persistent problems with animals that they resort to repellent boundary sprays. Whether the active ingredient is animal urine, human urine, garlic or volatile oils, hot peppers, or other scents they can all help, but require a lot of work to keep areas covered. These must be re-applied frequently, and after every rainfall. The sprays can become expensive when applied over large areas, so experiment with spot applications.

7. Traps 
Sometimes mammals make such a mess of gardens and structures that they may need to be removed. Humane traps are available in several sizes, their cost is moderate, and they’re usually easy to set. Check local ordinances beforehand for disposal of live animals. 

8. Protective bagging 
As crops such as grapes, figs, and persimmons ripen, they prove irresistible to birds and animals. Creating visual or physical barriers works well. Use paper lunch bags or mesh laundry bags with drawstrings. Place the bags over clumps of grapes or over individual fruits before they ripen, and close paper bags with string.

Mesh laundry bags work very well at keeping critters away until the figs inside can mature. Without the bags, these branches would be stripped of fruit. Photo courtesy of Nan K. Chase.

9. Dogs and Cats 
Although bird lovers may disapprove, there are situations when a dog or a cat can provide relief. In the case of deer, dogs running in an enclosed yard at night can keep deer and other animals at bay. If the problem is an infestation of small ground mammals munching on your greens – rabbits, chipmunks, moles – a cat makes them go away. Make sure to keep the cat indoors for part of each day so birds can safely use the birdbath.

This deer-proof enclosed garden is lush with produce much of the year. In summer, it provides a cool retreat for the owners. Photo courtesy of Nina Koltnow and Lewis Schlitt.

10. Earth Additives 
A compound called milky spore interrupts the reproductive cycle of Japanese beetles by infecting the grubs in the ground. This is a multi-year process, but it has long-term effects. Diatomaceous earth, a special powdered rock, can be used alone or with other safe materials to control slugs and snails; it can kill all sorts of crawling insects by causing dehydration.




The peskiest pests in my garden are squirrels. They can take a single bite out of each apple in a ripening tree, consume rose hips and grapes and figs, steal pears, and strip nearly ripe ears of corn.

I found relief by “up-netting” young fruit trees – wrapping medium-weight fruit netting around the trunk and bringing it upward, making it more difficult for squirrels to climb the trees.

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