Mickey Rathbun: Chasing critters from the garden

  • Pretty cute chipmunk having dinner. Photography in Kent, OH, USA. Laser1987—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Published: 6/30/2016 2:09:09 PM

Over the past couple of weeks, I have heard several tales of woe from friends whose vegetable gardens have been marauded by critters. One has a small fenced vegetable patch that a ground hog has tunneled into. Another found that a rabbit had harvested his choice heads of lettuce. Chipmunks have been laying waste to my neighbor’s zucchini plants. What’s to be done?

A casual browse of the Internet turned up dozens of proposed solutions for the critter problem that don’t involve outright killing or caging. But for every creative solution that someone swears by, there’s a naysayer who says it doesn’t work.

Here’s a collection of tips I’ve gathered over the years. Some cost virtually nothing; others can get pricey. Maybe there’s something here you’ll find useful, worth a try, or at least amusing.

One popular approach to the critter problem is repellants. These include human hair cuttings and dog hair removed from grooming brushes.

There is commercially sold predator urine, from coyotes and wolves, but I’ve read that these are inhumanely extracted — ugh — as well as expensive.

Humans are predators, too, right? I’ve found many advocates for sprinkling human urine around the edges of the vegetable garden. You might want to give this a try. Be discreet!

Some people have good luck with spreading ground hot pepper around their plants. A sprinkling of castor oil is another approach. It certainly repels humans.

Some people recommend using mothballs, but these are toxic and even perhaps carcinogenic. I’d steer clear of those.

There are also repellants in the form of smelly plants that rabbits, chipmunks and their nibbling friends don’t like. These include garlic, onions, chives and marigolds. Interplanting these with your vegetables is said to deter unwanted visitors.

Coffee grounds are said to repel critters. But how much coffee can one household consume? If you want to get serious about this approach, check with local cafés that might be willing to give you their spent grounds.

The most inventive repellants out there are home-brewed teas of various sorts. These include mixtures of hot pepper, eggs, garlic and other household staples. I’ve included a recipe from This Old House magazine below.

You can also try surrounding your garden with shiny, noisy things like strings of aluminum cans and pie plates that will flutter in the breeze. On the pricier side, there are motion-activated sprinklers as well as solar-powered motion lights for unwanted nighttime visitors.

If you use repellants, remember that they must be reapplied once every two weeks or so, and after a rainfall. Noisemakers and motion-sensors should be moved frequently so that critters don’t get accustomed to them and lose their fear.

Fencing is another approach. The best fencing is made of something solid, like reeds, fabric or wood, that animals can’t see through. Apparently, critters (just like us) are far less likely to hunger for vegetables they can’t see.

Alternatively, chicken wire and other small-mesh wire fencing, 2 feet or taller, can be used. The mesh needs to be fine enough to keep out critters, but remember that chipmunks and even small rabbits can squeeze through just about anything.

To be effective against diggers, the fencing material should be bent at a 90-degree angle at ground level to create an apron of one or two feet outside the garden perimeter. And, the end of the mesh should be bent again and buried in the ground to 6 inches or so. That means buying fencing that’s at least 4 feet tall. Remember to create a point of access for yourself!

An electric fence is another powerful deterrent. To give critters a “taste” of this, spread the wire with peanut butter.

Gardeners who are lucky enough to have cats and dogs have a live-in control system. Even though your dog may dig and your cat may use the garden as a litter box, their presence is likely to discourage Peter Rabbit and his accomplices.

This Old House home brew:

1 bar of Fels Naptha soap

2 bunches of scallions, roughly chopped

2 heads of garlic


4 eggs

Chili powder

1. Fill ½ of a 5-gallon bucket with hot water.

2. Shave soap into bucket to dissolve.

3. Place scallions, garlic, eggs and chili powder in a large piece of doubled cheesecloth. Tie up ends of cloth tightly; use a wooden spoon to crack the eggs. Place pouch in bucket.

4. Fill the bucket with more water; cover tightly with lid. Place in shaded area. Let sit for one week.

5. Transfer in batches to a pump sprayer. Apply after each rainfall or every two weeks.

Teatime in Hadley

Hadley’s Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum will be reviving the tradition of afternoon tea on Saturday afternoons in July and August at 2:30 and 3:30 p.m.

Earl Grey tea will be served on the verandah. Local grocery stores, restaurants, musicians and volunteers provide the tea, pastries, flowers, music and service for these events.

The house was built in 1752 and occupied continuously by a single extended family until the 1940s, when a family member turned it into a museum. The house and its collection provide an exciting view into the history of this area through the experience of one family. It is located at 130 River Drive in Hadley. Admission is $12 per person. No reservations necessary. For more information, call 584-4699.

Parks are everywhere

Summer is a great time to get out and enjoy nature. There are dozens of state and local parks to visit. Check out http://www.mass.gov/eea/ag-encies/dcr/massparks/places-to-go/ and http://www.mohawktrail.com/parks.html for lists of places to go.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.

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