The Buck Stops Here! Strategies for Keeping Deer, Rabbits, and Other Pests Out of the Garden
Every gardener has had one or two unwanted garden visitors wreak a little (or a lot) of havoc at some point. It may have been leaf-and-crop-munchers such as deer, rabbits, raccoons, groundhogs (woodchucks), or squirrels.
Or perhaps, tunneling pests such as chipmunks, gophers, or voles. Your garden may have seen destruction from digging animals like chipmunks or dogs. Even neighborhood cats think nothing of using it as their personal litter box.
I feel comfortable speaking for my gardener colleagues when I say that most of us are pretty laid back about sharing. A lettuce leaf here; a missing corn ear there doesn’t ruffle our feathers. After all, everybody has a belly to
fill, right? In spring or early summer, our senses are filled with the beauty of all wildlife. Deer are graceful and majestic; rabbits gentle and precious.
It’s right about the middle of summer there is a major shift as wildlife’s natural cuisine begins to dry up. Beautiful deer and adorable bunnies show up in your garden with a mate and a menu. Eventually, they invite ten of their
closest friends. Now you begin to feel a quiet war coming on and no one needs remind you that you are out-numbered.
Animals That Threaten Your Garden
Deer: Deer eat almost everything, especially your favorite plants.
Rabbits: Love to nibble on almost any tender spring shoots, buds, and stems. Vegetables and flowers are equally delicious.
Raccoons: Fruit, berries, melons, corn, and peas are some raccoon favorites.
Chipmunks: Cause damage to flowers, trees, walls, and other foundations while burrowing underground.
Squirrels: Cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, berries, and fruit are all fair game for squirrels.
Groundhogs (woodchucks): eat a wide variety of vegetable, fruit, and flower plants. They also gnaw on trees and their burrows cause underground damage.
Gophers: Tunnel around underground, eating root crops, bulbs, and often pulling entire plants underground with them.
Voles: Damage the roots of shrubs, trees, and root crops.
Try Deer-Resistant Plants
You will put yourself miles ahead of the game if you consider planting as many animal-resistant plants as possible. Not all these plants work in every area, and keep in mind that there are no deer-proof plants;
just deer-resistant ones. If an animal is hungry enough, all bets are off.
Brush up on your local native plant species (plants that grow naturally in your area), as many of these species are avoided by wildlife, as well. There are any number of reasons that herbivores would rather skip them.
Some plant aromas are too strong, or the flavor too bitter for their tastes. Often the fuzzy leaves aren’t palatable.
If you’re strictly a vegetable gardener, this strategy isn’t going to work well, if at all. However, many herbs seem to hold their own against garden marauders including sage, rosemary, oregano, mint, thyme, chives, and lavender.
Other deer- and rabbit-resistant plants include:
- Bellflower (Campanula)
- Cosmos (Cosmos)
- Foxglove (Digitalis)
- Heliotrope/Cherry Pie Flower (Heliotropium arboescens)
- Lupine (Lupinus)
- Marigolds (Tagates spp.)
- Snapdragon (Antirrhinum)
- Spider flower (Cleome spp.)
- Summer snapdragon (Angelonia)
- Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis)
- Bluebeard (Caryopteris)
- Bluebell (Hyacinthoide hispanica)
- Columbine (Aquilegia)
- Coneflowers (Echinacea)
- Crocus (Crocus spp.)
- Daffodil (Narcissus spp.)
- Fritillaria (Fritillaria imperialis)
- Hyssop (Hyssopus officianalis)
- Lavender (Lavandula)
- Monkshood (Aconitum)
- Mullein (Verbascum)
- Andromeda (Pieris japonica)
- Aralia (Araliaceae)
- Barberry (Berberis spp.)
- Boxwood (Buxus)
- Butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.)
- Bush cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticose)
- Glossy Abelia (Abelia grandiflower)
- Oleander (Nerium)
- Russian olive (Elaeagnus augustifolia)
Animal Deterrent Techniques
Repellents refer to anything that makes the garden undesirable to approach. Commercial repellents are available in premixed liquid sprays or granules. As an organic gardener, I suggest using natural repellent products that
are free of harmful chemicals. These repellents might taste or smell terrible, or perhaps scare an animal in order to deter them from the garden. None of these things should cause any physical harm to the animals.
Repellent manufacturers create blends using a variety of ingredients such as dried blood, egg solids, garlic oil, capsaicin (hot pepper), black pepper, oil, as well as herbs like cinnamon, cloves, rosemary, and peppermint.
Some deter deer (and other animals) by strong odors, some by taste, and others incorporate both. They can be very effective. Two drawbacks are they have to be reapplied regularly, which can become costly. The second thing is
that your nose can’t escape the smell, either.
Coyote (or other predator urine) can be sprayed around the garden’s perimeter to warn off prey animals. I have heard of some success with urine, but there are a few drawbacks. First, it’s expensive. Second, if it rains or is
heavily watered, it’ll have to be applied again immediately to remain effective. There are also some ethical questions about how predator urines are obtained.
Scare tactic are another way to repel unwanted visitors from the garden. Try a few versions of this technique to see what works for you. Motion-activated sprinklers are excellent. That said, I have noticed some critters
take them seriously and some just wash their hands in them (I’m looking at you, raccoons). Deer often respect a quick blast of water, but it can become ineffective over time as they get used to it. Motion-activated spot lights
work the same way.
Reflective tape, Mylar balloons, and old CDs hung around the garden or in trees mimic the eye shine of a predator. These are most useful for fruit-marauding birds. Life-like plastic owls and rubber snakes are handy for
repelling rabbits and squirrels.
A barking dog is handy for keeping the critters at bay. But a word of caution: Deer and raccoons have the potential to become aggressive when they are cornered, especially if they have young with them. Always take the time
to check out the situation should your dog be barking unusually.
Chipmunks, gophers, or voles are garden pests due to their incessant tunneling. They destroy plant roots including root crops in vegetable gardens. It bears mentioning that moles are often unfairly blamed for garden damage.
Moles do tunnel; however, they are quite shallow and the most harm done is that plant roots dry out a bit. It’s a simple task to tamp the soil back down with your shoe.
Your first line of defense is to use repellents specially formulated for moles. Vibration or ultrasonic devices that produce intermittent pulses under the soil are supposed to irritate them to the point where they set up
camp anywhere else. Although, depending your soil type, you may need more vibration devices to keep the pulsing vibration strong.
If you need to get serious with tunneling pests, nothing works better than a physical barrier. Flower gardeners with vole issues often make wire “cages” which are buried into the ground with planted bulbs inside.
Tree trunks (especially young trees) can be protected from voles by securing hardware cloth around the trunks to 18”-20” high. Leave enough room for some growth or remove the guards in the spring. Lining the entire garden bed
with hardware cloth can work well. However, don’t be surprised if the voles abandon the underground and come in right over the top of the garden.
Fence Them Out
When it comes to deterring deer, nothing compares to tall fencing. When I say tall, I mean taller than 6’ feet. We use 6’ tall field fencing with a strand of wire or two placed about 1’ foot above the fence. Electric
fencing works well for any animal that doesn’t jump 6’ in one bound (like deer).
An alternative fencing technique is to enclose the garden with 5’-6’ high fencing. Then place another 4’-5’ tall fence around the first one. Deer have terrible depth perception and fear getting into a spot that they can’t jump
back out of. Seeing two fences so close together is confusing for them.
If you have a pest bothering a single garden bed, say, a rabbit munching leaves in the lettuce bed. A simple solution might be a row cover or small hoop house placed over the top.
What About Feeding Them?
Some gardeners plant the rabbits’ favorite flowers or hook corn cobs to a stand as a delicious decoy. It feels like a good idea and it might even work. But there are a couple of potential pitfalls in this tactic. When food is
set out as a distraction for one species, it’s entirely possible that you will attract an entirely different species that wasn’t around in the first place. Of course, even if a second pest is attracted, your distraction station
just might serve to distract everybody from your garden. On the other hand, it might not.