How to Animal-Proof Your Garden

Eco-friendly tips for stopping deer, raccoons, and squirrels from munching on your plants.

Back in the day, a few clever nomadic hunter-gatherers noticed that if they planted grain seeds, the little kernels might sprout, multiplying so dramatically that everyone could eat through the winter. The only catch was that people had to stick around in one place long enough to watch the grain grow. This lifestyle choice is now blamed for everything from smaller skulls to rampant disease and wide butts. Abandoning our rolling-stone existence also had a massive impact upon the beings with whom we share the earth — namely those animals intent upon feasting on what we grow.

In the past couple decades, we’ve seen many products advertised to protect your garden from hungry critters: trees festooned with dangling bars of Irish Spring soap; bottles of bleach strewn across lawns; blooming shrubs draped with plastic wrap or bird netting.

People who did not want their garden to resemble a junkyard tried spraying with faux perfumes: mountain lion or coyote pee, eau de rotten eggs mixed with cayenne and garlic. This works for a bit but has the disadvantage of making your hands and environs smell like a New Orleans gutter in summertime.

A better course is strategic: Identify the culprits, employ a multipronged campaign to dissuade them, and, most importantly, plant things they don’t like in the first place. Your top enemies are, in order of tearing your hair out, deer, raccoons, and squirrels. (I won’t forget the neighbor’s cat, which uses the petunia bed as a litter box— more on that later.)

Deer eat only certain plants. Unfortunately, because they are browsers, they taste-test pretty much everything. You’ve no doubt had this experience: After consulting your local nursery (try Richmond’s Annie’s Annuals, with its great selection of deer-resistant plants), you purchase and plant a four-inch start that is guaranteed deer-proof, only to find a nubbin of a stem the next day. Likely that big doe tried it and didn’t like it. You’ll probably find its pathetic chewed-up remains spat out somewhere nearby. It’s best to spend your money on something large enough for sampling.

Use scent to your advantage. Deer will not eat lavender, rosemary, scented geraniums, mint, oregano, onion-related plants, and most salvias. They also don’t like furry leaves, so try phlomis, cistus, and echium. If you can bear them, put in a few euphorbia, a South African plant filled with a noxious, sticky white fluid. Beware: It seeds very freely. Never plant a rose, unless it’s yellow Rosa banksiae (the white version is a delicacy). No matter how draconian your armor, Bambi bats last.

Other options include thorned plants, such as bougainvillea, and poisonous bulbs like daffodils. Deer also don’t like ferns, calla lilies, or any of the iris family. You can create a lovely garden of scant interest to deer by combining the yellow bursts over gray foliage of santolina, the roses and whites of cistus, seasonal giant spikes of blue echium, and lavenders and purples of rosemary, bearded iris, and salvia.

Deer will not eat grass or grass-related plants such as corn. But raccoons hover in the wings. They wait until corn or sunflowers are as tall as an elephant’s eye and then, in a riotous visit to their local fair, climb up and ride the stalks to the ground to reveal the cotton-candy treats up top. Since raccoons run in posses, the corn patch you’ve been watching with pride most of the summer now looks like mini-Hurricane Sandy struck during the night. FEMA won’t help.

Raccoons, digging for salamanders and other small burrowing animals, also tear apart your yard. Remember that dogs and raccoons do not mix. If you set Patsy on the intruding ‘coon, it will either rip her to shreds or run up a tree lickety-split. The sight of a big male rac, standing on his hind legs, pounding his chest like Tarzan, is unforgettable. The best way to foil them is not to attract them in the first place. Avoid standing water, pet food left outside, unsecured garbage cans, hiding places behind plants on decks, or cute cat doors that admit raccoon babies the instant your back is turned. (We have seen raccoons trying to turn screws with their ever-so-clever opposable thumbs.)

Squirrels are the least annoying, but they can be destructive in small doses. They love to snap off the blooms on those tulips you refrigerated for five weeks and then planted carefully in pots to keep them away from the deer. Squirrels bury acorns in your potted plants, in the process tossing out that inconvenient vegetation. All you can do here is have a dog or a cat on patrol. Some people cover their potted plants with a mulch of stones or a bed of wire (nails, anyone?), but to my mind, this careens too close to the penitentiary model of gardening, where every plant is serving a life sentence.

On the subject of squirrels, in this season of babies, locate a spot that squirrels cannot reach and put up a birdhouse. This is harder than you’d think, since the perky little rodents can walk upside down on absurdly thin branches. The underside of eaves is a good location. Visualize them dropping on their heads as they go after the eggs. Very few songbirds can survive the constant depredation of these four-footed interlopers.

A method that works very well on deer and your neighbor’s cat, less so on raccoons, is a motion-detector sprayer. Mounted on a tripod and connected to a garden hose, the sprayer blasts out a fire-hose burst of water at the offender when it detects motion within a certain radius. Unfortunately, most absent-minded people wind up soaking themselves, the UPS man, and the family dog far more often than they deter deer. Some people turn it off during the day, but my deer chow down day and night. On the smell front, Repels-All works best and is not harmful to wildlife or pets. Give new leaves a quick spritz.

During October, if you hear what sounds like a dozen kids fencing with chopsticks, dash outside to watch dueling bucks going head-to-head. It’s better than the NFL and comes minus the commercials. If they’re trampling your rhododendrons, move toward them slowly, and like opposing magnets, they will drift away a few feet while continuing the battle royale.

When you find the magnificent jade plant Grandma gave you reduced to unsightly stumps, blame those ancestors who left their rambling ways for the easy life. Just think: You could be pursuing deer over the hills in your leather-tough bare feet, waving a spear, rather than admiring them from behind plate glass.

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