Keep unwanted visitors out of your garden

Is the local wildlife enjoying your garden more than you are? We've got tips to help keep pests away from your plants.

What’s a gardener to do when the local bunny population sees your garden and thinks: “Salad bar!” Then there’s your carefully groomed flower beds — also known as the neighbourhood cat’s new litter box and your pup’s favourite place to play. If you’re lucky, you won’t have other destructive visitors like squirrels, skunks, coyotes and deer — or face “raccoon rage”.

While no single solution is fool-proof, we’ve rounded up some top tips to deter unwanted pests.

Create a barrier. Good fences make good neighbours — and good deterrents. Most experts agree that fences are the most effective and least harmful ways to keep your plants safe. (After all, a visitor can’t eat them or trample them if they can’t reach them.)

How tall your fence needs to be and what material you use will depend on the pests you’re trying to block. For example, if you’re dealing with burrowing animals (such as rabbits or moles), experts recommend burying the bottom of a chicken wire fence at least one foot into the ground. Unfortunately, fences won’t stop pests who can climb them, or jump or fly over them. Sometimes covering your vulnerable young plants with netting or chicken wire is needed — especially at night.

Cut back. It may be time for a good trim if overhanging branches are providing easy access to your garden. Areas of thick brush and weeds are also an ideal home for small rodents, and can attract their natural predators too — like coyotes.  A squirrel baffle, piece of stove pipe or tubing around the base of bird feeders and trees can also help.

Keep your yard clear. You can cover your vegetables, but have you considered other food sources like windfall fruit, pet dishes and bird feeders? Experts say to keep your yard clear of these items, especially at night when nocturnal noshers arrive.

Try a homemade spray. Small animals and insects love your leaves, but not with a dressing of garlic and hot pepper. There are a variety of recipes available online and most involve steeping garlic and/or pepper in hot water for several hours before applying. When is the best time to spray? Experts say cloudy days, early morning or evening are better because the plants won’t be in direct sun. Also, keep in mind that a good rain will often wash away all your efforts. Be prepared to reapply your spray on a regular basis.

You can also try a mixture of diluted dish soap (one tablespoon of dish soap in 1/2 gallon of water) to deter pests, but don’t walk away and forget about it. In this case, experts say you may want to rinse off the solution after a few hours to prevent any leave damage.

Sprinkle some pepper. Here’s a spicy solution to keep animals away from planters and garden plots: sprinkle cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes around the area and in potted plants. (You can mix in some black pepper too.)

A word of caution: it may be a common solution, but it’s also a controversial one. Some sources warn that cayenne pepper can cause pain, make animals sick and even cause blindness.

Let things get a little hairy. Small animals and slugs aren’t so fond of hair clippings, say some experts. (It could be the smell or the texture.) Bringing home your clippings from the hair dresser and spreading them in the garden may help put off some pests — though it may put off your friends and family too.

Some sources say pet hair works too — and if you’ve got a shedding pet, you’ve got a plentiful supply.

Say ‘so long’ to smooth soil. No one likes to walk on — or dig in — thorny or prickly gardens, even with padded feet. From sticking bamboo skewers in the ground to spreading thorny twigs and brush, there are non-chemical ways to make your garden less appealing to prowlers.

Another option: products like CatScat — a mat of flexible, plastic spikes that deter cats and birds. (Don’t worry – the spikes are soft enough to prevent any harm to animals or humans.)

Use the power of scents. Some commercial products like PredatorPee use the urine of various predators to scare aware pets. (Like fox urine to deter squirrels and rabbits.)  Specially-designed dispensers placed around your yard release the odour over time. (You’ll need to refill every month or so.)  You can also get urine granules to sprinkle around your yard, like ShakeAway.

While safe for animals and pets, these products aren’t without a bit a controversy. Some sources advise looking into how the urine is collected — and if the animals are treated humanely — before buying.

Scare them off with sound. If cats are your nemesis, try a CatStop®. The device has a heat sensor which detects a cat nearby and then emits an ultrasonic sound to scare cats away. You won’t hear it — the frequency is pitched for cat ears only — and you can adjust the range.

Surprise unwanted visitors with a splash. Consider it the automated version of chasing predators from your yard with a super soaker water gun. A motion activated sprinkler system (like this one from Lee Valley) senses movement and shoots out a blast of water to ward off any visitors. The device doesn’t use much water — only two to three cups per event — and you can adjust the distance on the sensor.

Provide distraction. Take this advice with a grain of salt: some experts recommend designating a part of your yard or garden for animal use in the hopes of directing visitors to one area and not another. For example, planting a patch of carrots to attract bunnies away from your lettuce or planting a garden for cats.

However, other experts warn that we should avoid providing yet another easy-to-access food source that may attract unwanted visitors.

One distraction tactic that does have a higher chance of success: some toys, exercise and attention for your pooch. Dogs can get destructive when they’re bored, but some play time and supervision can stop them from digging in the garden.

Plant natural repellents. Depending on whom you ask, you could end up with a long list of plants reported to repel certain animals — including marigolds, mint, rosemary, thyme, garlic, onions, daffodils and lavender. If you enjoy these plants, they may be worth a try. There’s a list for just about any animal, including this list of Rabbit and Deer resistant plants from Mark Cullen.

Before you go altering your garden plans, keep in mind that no single plant will repel all visitors — in fact, expert warns that an animal will eat almost anything if they get hungry enough.

Unfortunately, no method is 100 per cent guaranteed to work… And garden pests have a sneaky way of getting around the toughest obstacles. (Ever seen a cat develop a taste for pepper, or Bambi take a liking to deer-resistant plants?) Be prepared for a little trial and error, and be forewarned that experts often advise using a varied approach for smart critters like birds and squirrels.

ON THE WEB
For more information on keeping unwanted visitors at bay, visit the National Gardening Association Pest Library.

Additional sources: About.com, eHow Home, MSNBC.com, The Garden Show on AM740 Zoomer Radio, The Toronto Star, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Vermont Extension

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Stephen Muskie

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