By Jill Henderson – - Show Me Oz
We humans are not alone in our affection for the garden. Whether we like it or not, there are many creatures that enjoy our bounty as well as we do and keeping the critters at bay is about as much work for the gardener as the growing of the garden itself. With so much time and effort put into growing a garden, it is incredibly hard not to fly into a tizzy when evidence of foul play is found. Over the years we have had our share of wild things enjoying our garden produce and understand the feelings of loss and frustration that come from seeing something you have worked so hard for, trampled to the ground, half eaten or just plain disappeared. In that moment of horror it is hard to be understanding, much less compassionate. Yet, through our many years of growing organically, we have found many ways to make room for everyone.
I must admit that I have had some very upsetting moments with wild things. Armadillos are my very favorite creature to despise and I’ve been forced to kill a mole or two (or five). I also admit to taking well-misplaced pot shots at a pair of young squirrels who were making off with our ripe strawberries and peaches. But these tactics were for hardcore cases of garden abuse and for creatures that just didn’t get the previous warning notices in the mail. Obviously, it is possible to kill or trap nuisance wildlife, but before you do either, check the hunting and trapping regulations.
If you like easy – build a fence around your garden. Make it tall, strong and impenetrable. That being said, fencing any size garden is neither easy nor cheap, but it is effective, long-lasting and relatively stress free. Dogs are another option. You get a buddy and a gatekeeper all in one. However, dogs are also not maintenance free. They require food, shelter, medicine and love – not in that order. Also, not all dogs are natural watchdogs. Selecting the right breed or training may be necessary. Although it may come to it, as a rule, we try as many non-lethal ways to keep critters out of our garden as we possibly can.
Our anti-forage and pest control plant starts with planting early. Doing so, not only give the plants a jump on insect pests, but often coincides with an abundance of new growth in native plants, which the wild things prefer to eat. While there is always the possibility of a hard frost or freeze, we try to be prepared for that and keep plenty of sheets and mulch on hand to cover the plants with. Of course, no one thing alone will do the trick and planting early doesn’t solve every problem. When a critter does find our garden tempting, we first utilize smell and taste as deterrents.
One of the easiest and most effective methods for keeping nibblers like deer and rabbits out of the garden is by marking our territory. It was our dogs who taught us this and it is extremely effective, especially if we make a point to lay down our scent frequently enough to keep it fresh (my husband usually takes care of this chore without much difficulty). Animals have extremely keen senses of smell and can tell exactly when a predator was in the garden last. If we can convince them that we are potentially dangerous predators, they quickly learn to respect their boundaries.
Normally, we don’t have to go to the extreme of proving this to most animals – it is already in their nature. However, should a sassy critter need a more convincing show than being chased across the yard by a screaming gardener wielding a hoe or shovel, stinging them with a direct hit from a paintball gun or shooting a real gun in the air (the sound being plenty enough to frighten them) will go a long way to convince them that we are indeed quite dangerous. Once this idea is firmly stamped in their minds, most animals will respect scent boundaries.
Another way we use smell and taste is through the use of herbs and plants that are unappetizing to both insects and animals. Several plants that have unpleasant effects on nibblers includes wormwood, common garden sage, tansy and yarrow. We simply cut an armful of fresh stems and strew them on and around whichever plant is being picked on. We have found that most herbivores want nothing to do with them and usually move on permanently before the fragrance has faded. We also have found that a tea made of the leaves of any of these herbs, plus garlic and chili peppers, can be mixed with a drop or two of dish soap and sprayed on any plant in the garden without fear of injury to tender leaves. This often takes care of browsers, but also deters cabbage moths and kills aphids, too.
I have only recently begun using a pre-made organic insecticide known as neem. Actually, it’s neem oil and natural pyrethrum blended together. The pyrethrum is a very short-lived, but fast acting, insecticide that kills many soft-bodied insects on contact. The neem oil coats and suffocates soft-bodied insects and eggs and disrupts the feeding behavior of insects that eat treated leaves. Neem oil also has a very strong and distinctive smell that seems to act as a deterrent to browsers, such as deer.
One nibble of these types of concoctions will turn any critter off, yet they are not lethal to the good bugs and helpful predators like lizards and frogs. The only animals I’ve not yet found a repellant for are the armadillos and the raccoons, which are exceptionally clever and daring. If a raccoon finds even one ripe ear of corn in the patch, it will return every single night from that point on; knocking down the stalks and tearing open every husk looking for a single ripe ear. We generally win that battle by picking the ears the moment they are ripe and not a day later. In fact, we lose more corn to violent summer storms than to raccoons.
Another part of our solution to unwanted browsing is to offer our wild friends something that they like as much, or better than the plants in our gardens. This is why we now grow clover both in and around the garden. Rabbits and deer love clover, especially the tender winter and spring growth and will eschew all other plants in our garden in favor of it. Now the bunnies and deer spend most of their time trimming the clover instead of harassing the cabbage. Besides, clover is nice. It grows all season long, is pretty to look at, benefits the soil by fixing nitrogen and attracts beneficial insects, bees, and butterflies to the garden.
All of these non-lethal, non-toxic methods work to repel pests, but we have also found that we can tolerate a certain amount of loss or damage in the garden – the reality being that we can’t possibly eat it all ourselves, anyway. So why worry so much about losing a tomato here or a melon there? Of course, when things get out of hand, one must do what one must do. No matter how you decide to handle it, try not to panic and do something rash when something clever will work better and longer.
Remember: not every trick works for every gardener in every situation, so get creative and feel free to share your tips and tricks on how you keep pests out of the garden. Next week we’ll talk more about controlling nuisance browsers by creating habitat.
Until then, happy gardening!
Of course, if you’re interested in the nature, gardening, homesteading or wildcrafting, or if you’re just a fan of the Ozarks, allow me to recommend my book, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozark High Country, from which this article originated. You can find this book, available in print and eBook in the Show Me Oz bookstore. All eBooks from Smashwords are 25% off for the month of July!