Critter Detective: Pests in the Garden | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Which Animals Are Eating Your Garden (And How to Keep Them Out!)

deer in garden

Be a Critter Detective!

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Be a critter detective! Here’s how to identify which animals are eating your garden plants, and as well as which repellents for deer and rabbits have proven most effective.

I live in the country where deer, fox, coyotes, raccoons, squirrels and rabbits thrive. Even in winter, deer will scar fruit tree trunks, scratching their itchy antlers against them, and wild turkeys rut the soil seeking insects. 

Last year during the drought, things nearly went nuclear.  Some gangsters took to gnawing holes in the garden hoses, seeking water.  After replacing two hoses, my husband strung one of them in the crabapple tree near the vegetable garden to get if off the ground.  Didn’t work. 

Holes started appearing in the hose up in the tree.  Husband taped the hose to seal it, and I sprayed it with a critter repellent.  That worked.  But, I never could figure out who was doing the damage. That’s until Joan Casanova of Green Earth Media Group sent me her critter detective guide.

Bunnies may look cuddly and innocent, but they do major damage to vegetable and flower beds. Credit: Green Earth Media Group

How to Identify Animals Which Are Eating Your Plants!

Here are Joan’s clues on how to determine and deter which unwanted animal is the assailant in your garden.  She said, “How are you supposed to fight ‘crime’ in your decimated garden if you can’t identify the suspect who’s been devouring your daylilies?”

Deer - Ragged bites, typically a foot or more above the ground indicate deer damage. Deer are notorious for devouring flowers and ornamental plants.  Tall, electrified fences work, but they are expensive and make a garden look like a prison yard.

Rabbits - If plant damage is low to the ground, a few inches above the soil, and includes stems clipped cleanly at an angle, the culprits are rabbits. These foragers will eat just about any kind of vegetation, including vegetables, flowers, bushes and other woody plants. If you don’t want bunnies nesting and raising families near your garden, remove debris that could provide them with shelter.  Also, wire mesh fencing around vegetable gardens deters them, too.

Rabbit fencing around my veggie garden keeps the damage away, but I can’t fence flower beds.

Voles - When flower bulbs disappear from the ground or plant roots go missing, chances are you have voles - mouse-like creatures that burrow underground. Exit holes are further indications that voles are tunneling under your garden. Teeth marks around the base of trees, droppings or trails in the grass can also indicate the presence of voles.

Groundhogs - Mounds of dirt beside burrow entrances are a sure sign of groundhogs, a garden villain that eats just about every type of green plant. They live in burrows underground.

Chipmunks - Damage to flower bulbs, plant shoots and leaves, uprooted plants and dug-up roots are all signs you have chipmunks. Their underground burrows may be a challenge to spot since the entrances are usually only about 2 inches in diameter and not surrounded by noticeable dirt mounds. You can foil their activity by removing yard debris where chipmunks hide.

Squirrels - While you might think of them as mostly the enemy of anyone with a bird feeder, squirrels also damage gardens. They live in colonies, digging underground tunnels and mounds in grassy areas and around trees that can lay waste to gardens and landscapes.

Best Repellents for Animal Critters

Once you’ve identified the guilty parties, you’ll need to figure out how to keep them out of the garden!

The first line of defense might be traditional pest-control measures including netting, predator urine, or even human hair strewn around the yard. (With predator urine, I advise readers to check the collection method of the brand that they are considering to make sure that the material is collected humanely.)

Fences do the job, but they’re expensive and you may live in a community that restricts the type and height of fences you can erect.  If you have a bad case of critters and these measures do not work, consider stronger spray repellents and other tactics.

  • The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station tested a number of repellents and found that Bobbex-R worked 100% at repelling rabbits.  It worked well as a bulb dip, too, to deter voles, chipmunks and squirrels.  You can also spray it at the mouth of burrows to drive critters away.  The spray works through smell and taste aversion; it’s made from organic ingredients, too.

Deer a major felons when it comes to critter damage.  They can destroy flower beds in an instant, it seems!  Photo courtesy of Green Earth Media Group.

  • Deer repellents were also tested. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station found a putrid egg-based deer repellent spray works best. Bobbex Deer, an all-natural repellent made from rotten eggs, garlic, fish, clove oil and vinegar, worked 93% of the time. Nine other commercial repellents (including coyote urine) were tested by the AG Station. Bobbex was second only to a fence at 100 percent, in preventing deer damage.
  • Another product that readers brought to our attention is the Predator Preventor.  It’s a 24-hour defense system of light and found that keeps wild animals (deer, raccoons, coyotes, and more) away from not just your garden.

If you have any effective tips or tools, we welcome your posts.  We’re always looking for new ways to live with our critters—but also reap more of what we sow!

About The Author

Doreen G. Howard

Doreen Howard, an award-winning author, is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day. She has gardened in every climate zone from California to Texas to Oklahoma to the Midwest. She’s especially fond of unusual houseplants and heirloom edibles. Read More from Doreen G. Howard

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