Fencing, natural products combine to keep critters away from garden plants

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published July 6, 2016

 Rabbits, like this one seen in Madison Heights, like young plants and will eat them until there is nothing left.

Rabbits, like this one seen in Madison Heights, like young plants and will eat them until there is nothing left.

Photo by David Wallace

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METRO DETROIT — This year’s dry, early summer is having an unwanted side effect for gardeners: an influx of thirsty mammals. 

“Squirrels are a big problem this year. They’re looking for moisture,” said Cindy Roback, whose family owns and operates Young’s Garden Mart & Christmas Fantasy on Ryan Road, north of 11 Mile Road, in Warren. “People are watering their gardens, so the plants have moisture.”

Squirrels like to dig for plants and bulbs and can be quite a nuisance if left unchecked. Rabbits like young plants and will eat them down to nothing if you let them near your growing greens. Rodents damage ripening fruit and vegetables, and even one hungry deer can decimate a bed of flowers, perennial plants or produce. 

For some thirsty or hungry critters, choosing the right physical barrier is enough to keep them out. Tall, serious fencing is the only choice to keep deer at bay on property where that is a problem, while a shorter, smaller-gauge fence with small holes is all that is needed to curtail bothersome bunnies.

Squirrels and rodents, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about fences. Practical remedies range from fragrant soaps to human hair, fox urine or blood meal, which also adds natural fertilizer. 

“Blood meal also provides nitrogen,” Roback said. “A lot of people like Plantskydd. It is organic, so it’s safe to put around vegetables and everything.”

Mary Gerstenberger, a horticultural educator with the Michigan State University Extension office in Macomb County, said natural products, including egg-based or urine-based repellents, require ongoing applications, which unfortunately come with the associated costs.

Some repellents are more effective than others.

“Purchasers should be careful to read all the information on the label and to accurately follow the application directions,” Gerstenberger said. “I’ve often heard of people using mothballs in the garden to deter pests. This is not an acceptable practice, as mothballs are a registered pesticide and, as such, cannot be used in a manner inconsistent with the labeling on the package.”

Using resistant plants that are off-putting for deer or rabbits is another option, but Gerstenberger cautioned that even that could have a limited effect.

“People need to remember that a plant labeled ‘resistant’ doesn’t mean it will never be eaten,” Gerstenberger said. “An animal hungry enough will still eat what is available, resistant or not.”

She said squirrels might be the most difficult mammal to control in the garden.

“It might be easier to simply cage a particular plant so the squirrels can’t get to it,” Gerstenberger said. “To stop them from digging up bulbs, a wire netting like chicken wire can be placed over the area (where) they are planted. The spacing usually allows the plant to grow through the open holes but makes it difficult for the squirrel to dig them up. Some pepper-based repellants are considered good for deterring squirrels.”

While some people consider live trapping to be a humane and effective way to control a nuisance animal for release elsewhere, that actually is not the case.

“The Humane Society does not recommend doing that for the sake of the trapped animal,” Gerstenberger said. 

A vast amount of information is available online by doing a search for a specific area of concern (for example, “deer garden damage”) and adding the extension “.edu” to the search field.

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