Vegetable and fruit garden crops can be an open invitation to hungry animals of all kinds, especially during harsh environmental conditions such as drought or cold weather. Animals hone in on seedlings, tender young foliage, leaf crops and vegetable plants harvested for their fruits. Other home garden crops such as berries and stone fruits also attract wildlife. Preventing animals' access to garden plants is the only certain method to control damage from most kinds of wildlife.
Mice, Rats and Other Rodents
Animals with a pair of sharp upper and lower gnawing teeth can lay waste to garden crops. Those animals include mice, rats, voles, woodchucks, squirrels and pocket gophers. Squirrels harvest nuts, seeds and fruits right from the plants. Squirrels can climb fences, but electric fencing can exclude them. Gophers sever plants' roots, killing the plants' top parts, and gophers can even pull whole plants down into their burrows. Mice, rats, voles and woodchucks work at night, leaving chewed plants and burrows as evidence of their activities. Be observant for damage before animal population levels build. Live trapping can control small numbers of rodents ensure trapping is legal in your location before you use that method. Exclude pocket gophers by laying galvanized, 1/4-inch-mesh hardware cloth underneath plant roots, bringing it above the soil to a height of 6 inches around the garden area. An option is to raise crop plants in containers into which pocket gophers can't climb or burrow.
Cottontails and Jackrabbits
Related to rodents, rabbits live throughout the United States. The cottontail rabbit is the most widespread variety, and jackrabbits inhabit the western United States. Rabbits are most likely to invade gardens when an area's naturally growing vegetation is scarce. They'll feed on most garden plants. Fencing is the only way to prevent rabbit damage. Encircle individual plants with 2-foot-high cylinders of 1-inch-mesh chicken wire, placing it about 1 foot from from each plant's outer branches. Alternatively, enclose entire garden beds with 2-foot-high, 1-inch-mesh chicken wire for cottontails or 3-foot-high chicken wire for jackrabbits. Burying an additional 4 to 12 inches of the chicken wire's lower portion under the soil will help prevent rabbits from burrowing under the fence.
Not all birds harm garden crops. Birds that damage garden crops include blackbirds, starlings, crows, thrashers, mockingbirds, sparrows, jays, robins and magpies. They often feed on young seedlings, including newly germinated seedlings. Protect seedlings with row covers or bird netting held away from the plants by wooden or pipe supports. Tuck the row covers' or netting's edges under the soil so birds can't work their way under the material. Keep birds from damaging fruit crops by enveloping those small trees, bushes or garden plants in bird netting. Gathering the bottom of the netting and either fastening it to the ground or weighting it on the ground all around the plants helps prevent birds from going under the material.
Animals such as deer and raccoons eat a lot more than smaller animals and can quickly consume or trample garden crops. Keep out raccoons by installing 5- to 6-foot-high wire fences or a two-wire electric fence around your garden. Excluding deer requires using a wire mesh fence that is up to 8 feet tall or a three- to five-wire electric fence. In the U.S. Southwest, the javelina, also called collared peccary, can be a problem for gardeners in rural areas, and substantial, 4-foot-high, galvanized mesh fencing is needed to keep the animal away from garden crops such as leafy vegetables.
- Missouri Department of Conservation: Squirrel Control
- University of California Integrated Pest Management Online: Pests in Gardens and Landscapes -- Pocket Gophers
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, NebGuide: Prevention and Control of Rabbit Damage
- Alabama Cooperative Extension System: Control of Mammals and Birds in the Vegetable Garden
- University of California Integrated Pest Management Online: Birds on Tree Fruits and Vines
- National Gardening Association: How to Control Birds in the Berry Patch
- University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Backyard Gardener: Javelina
- eXtension: How Much Can a Jackrabbit Eat in a Day?
- Photo Credit James Phelps/iStock/Getty Images