Saturday, November 13, 2010

Animals in the garden

Animals in this garden, ranked from most to least troublesome are groundhogs, squirrels, rabbits, voles and chipmunks, crows.

Originally, groundhogs presented the worst danger.  Their holes and mounds in the wild-ish parts of the yard were a dangerous trap: catching a foot in their holes could easily have snapped a bone.  Their depredations in the vegetable garden were astounding--entire rows of peas and beans fell to their distinctive nipping. Large and fearless, they had undermined the toolshed, and when that was replaced with a woodshed, they started in on it.

It took a lot of ingenuity to close their holes.  The most obvious things all failed miserably.  Nothing put down their holes, from gooey tars to cat litter, deterred them--the worst substances just made them dig a second entrance right next to the first, making the hole problem even worse.

Fifteen or so years ago, experimentation finally revealed a workable method: a box of mothballs down the hole, followed by a plug of chicken wire wound into a sort of ball, topped off with posthole cement.  I'm guessing that the slowly dissipating mothballs made that part of the tunnel unpleasant enough for long enough to discourage second-entrance digging. By the time the mothballs dissipated, they had reconfigured their tunnels to exit elsewhere.

This solved the hole problem, but did not eliminate the groundhogs.  Their burrows are extensive and I see them sitting on my neighbors' woodpile to this day. Further, this did nothing to solve their vegetable-raiding habits.

Like groundhogs, squirrels, too, are major pests of a vegetable garden. Their specialty was spoiling entire lines of beets, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers--some sampled with a bite or two, others torn off without even that excuse.

I say "was" because the squirrels and groundhogs have now been excluded from the vegetable garden by a wood-framed fence.  This is clad in metal poultry netting dug several inches into the ground and topped with electrified wire. Yet, this exclusion was not cheap: the cost equaled a decade's supply of vegetables.

Excluding squirrels from the vegetable garden has not eliminated them as a pest, however. Their depredations among any flower bulbs are horrible, and made worse in that they dig out the bulbs, then sit on a low branch noisily eating them while I seethe.

Much worse is their habit to dig and dig and dig, until the ground is quite uneven.  Mindless walking of the kind you might do on a flat sidewalk becomes an invitation to a twisted ankle when performed on what looks like a flat stretch of lawn.  This problem is increasingly acute since a broken ankle last spring (not squirrel related) has badly affected my balance.

dig, dig, dig

Rabbits are of a different order of pest-ishness. They content themselves with the merest dip in the ground for a nest and so create no bodily danger--no holes or uneven ground. However, although benign to people, they are a menace to plants.  From the top of the snowpack to as high as they can reach on hind legs, they chew bark.   Some winters, they kill young trees and bramble fruit canes outright, other winters, they merely damage them badly.  An entire line of young espaliered trees fell to the rabbits 20 years ago, a most discouraging situation.

Voles and chipmunks generally cause only minor annoyance on the order of a chewed bulb or two. Sometimes, however, conditions conspire to make their presence truly worrisome. Multiplying wildly after several mild winters, these small rodents will scuttle out in surprising numbers when digging in a garden bed.  Surprise is not the only problem: increased numbers means increased droppings--sometimes so thick on the ground as to be positively disgusting.  These, as with all rodents, can carry hantavirus, a disease fatal to half those who contact it. (Rabbits also carry disease in their droppings, but there have never been enough rabbits to create concentrated droppings, as voles and chipmunks do.)

Crows present no health hazard of which I am aware (and if you know, don't tell me, please!) but can develop faddish tastes which doom certain plants. Most recently, an entire tribe of crows has been picking out each and every sprouted grass from a recently re-seeded lawn area, while past taste-fads have doomed an entire season's squash seedlings, pepper starts, cucumber vines.

I want to take back my garden.  I want to walk without tripping, plant bulbs without seething, try my hand at espalier again.  Of course, it would be hubris to imagine I can actually reduce the animal numbers around here to zero, but I am becoming determined to subtantially reduce the populations. 

This is particularly true of the squirrels, whose destructiveness is multiplied by their sheer numbers. (Looking up from a project in the garage last summer, I saw 18 squirrels crossing the driveway, nose to tail to nose: a squirrel convoy.)  These numbers, completely unsustainable in a more natural environment, arise because various of my neighbors feed them, either purposely (peanuts and shell corn) or unwittingly (bird feeders and cat food).

Exclusion worked so well in the vegetable garden, that I am now replicating this strategy on a larger scale.  Several people have been working for several months to put up a metal framed wooden fence, which is to have an impervious board dug in below it to several inches, and a stand of electrified wire on top.  The expense in labor and materials in enormous, especially when the expense of tree-trimming for overhanging branches (squirrel highways) is added.

The fence should keep out the groundhogs and rabbits--I know they can dig under the fence, but I plan to patrol and fill any diggings with my old friend, posthole cement. (This cement powder need only be poured into a hole, then water added afterwards--no need to mix it up in a wheelbarrow.  A  few cupfuls will do to seal most animal holes, especially if the diggings are new and not well established.) I hope the electrified wire on top will discourage squirrels, as it has in the vegetable garden, but I do know that they will still be able get in over the roof of the house--up one side and down the other, thus avoiding the fence.

After all this enormous expense, there will probably be some squirrels coming into the yard. That poses the ethical dilemma which I have sought to avoid:  should the squirrels be trapped?  If their numbers are relatively low and their depredations minor, the answer would be "no."  However, if the fence does not work to substantially reduce their numbers, I can't think of another alternative to trapping.  Any thoughts?


  1. Oh how I sympathise. We either have to fork out a major amount of dosh for fences that may only be partially effective, or we watch our food and flowers disappear into the maws of the charming but shameless wildlife. The main culprits in this part of the world (Tasmania) are pademelons, wallabies, possums, cockatoos and other birds – same problem, different names. The main looter we seem to have in common is the rabbit. I fence my small vegetable patch and put pots of herbs up on painters’ ladders where the marauding marsupials can’t reach them. I plan to fence in an orchard area one day but early efforts were money down the drain. Good luck and happy gardening.

  2. Hi Valerie: What exotic-sounding wildlife you have. What a great idea of using painter's ladders--it must look very pretty. I would think that a bird pest (cockatoo) would be almost impossible to defend against. Our crows have faddish tastes, but are really a minor pest overall, but cockatoos have a fierce reputation. My sympathies to you, too!