Gardening 101: Beginner’s Guide to Protecting Your Garden from Critters

Jennifer Coloma, July 15, 2016

Now that you have a few of the basics down with our Intro to Gardening: Beginner’s Guidelines, you may be wondering: how do you protect your garden from dogs, cats, birds, raccoons, and all the wildlife that lives in your neighborhood? If you own pets, you may even be wondering how to protect your garden from them while still keeping them engaged in the yard. At Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, we’ve done the research and compiled this handy guideline so you can spend less time guessing and conducting trial-and-error processes and more time enjoying your critter-free garden!

Pets

Dogs may be “man’s best friend,” but they can also be a “garden’s worst enemy.” Similarly, while cats are wonderful creatures and great hunters, they can also be a bit overly friendly with the plants – sometimes eating, trampling, or rubbing against them too affectionately. Here are some ways to keep your pets happy and your garden safe:

  1. Spicy & Bitter Plant-Based Repellents: Both dogs and cats, along with many other animals, dislike bitter and spicy plants. Use this natural repellent to protect your garden by either sprinkling it into the dirt or turning it into a liquid solution and spraying it on your plants. There are a variety of different combinations, from crushed dried peppers mixed with powdered mustard to coffee grounds with bitter orange or straight up chili pepper with water. Keep in mind that when taste-based repellents are sprayed on plants, they have to be reapplied after rain, and that they will affect the taste of food. So if you’re growing a vegetable garden and are allergic to peppers, avoid this tactic. Additionally, be careful when creating pepper-based sprays as pepper products are known to irritate eyes, skin, and your nose. Protip: coffee grounds not only repel dogs, but are also a great fertilizer!
  2. Pungent Plants: Some plants smell so terrible to animals that they don’t want to go anywhere near them. Plectranthus caninus (also called Coleus canina) is a mint-based herb that many call the “Scaredy Cat Plant” due to its ability to deter cats. No scientific research exists to back up the claim though, and a side-effect of the plant is that cats will often avoid the plant and go straight to more pleasant areas in your yard – such as your garden. Tall-growing varieties of lavender are reportedly more effective than the Scaredy Cat Plant and additionally have the benefit of smelling wonderful. If you’re aiming to experiment with different plants for one that repels cats or dogs, keep in mind that some plants are actually quite toxic and dangerous to your pet’s health. For some plants to avoid, check out this Houzz.com article featuring 22 different plants that you should keep away from your pets.
  3. Built-in Paths: Instinctually, dogs perform periodic patrols around the edges of their territory, trampling through your unfenced vegetable garden or gallivanting across the flowerbed, to ensure that their territory is safe and well protected. Instead of scolding them for trying to protect you, build a designated path around the perimeter of your yard that they can use for patrolling. If you’re using mulch as part of the path, take into consideration your dog’s fur coat, as finer mulch will cling to long-haired dogs and end up in your house or on your furniture. Protip: cedar chips are great ground cover to protect your dogs and cats from fleas!
  4. Catnip: For the overtly affection cat rubbing against all your plants, or the cat digging up your seedlings, provide them with catnip in an area away from your garden. The overpowering scent will attract them to this plant, as opposed to your garden, and they’ll spend their energies there. If you want to be sure your cat spreads their scent around your garden so wild animals won’t be enticed by the defenseless plants, then build a short fence around your garden and place the catnip outside of that fence.
  5. Digging Deterrents: Dogs dig. When addressing digging, first try to determine your dog’s end game: is it trying to cool off, to escape, to bury a toy, or to be distracted? As with building a path around your yard, you can be proactive and provide your dog with a designated digging spot to bury items and frolic, similar to a sandbox. Encourage your dog to use the sandbox by putting toys in there and praising them when they use it. For cooling off, provide a shady place to hide or a miniature pool to climb into. For escape artists, adding boards or chicken wire at or below the soil line is another good deterrent. Some people recommend planting periodic wooden stakes throughout your garden to make digging unpleasant; just be sure these are visible so they don’t harm your dog. For cats, placing obstacles such as bricks underneath the dirt and around your garden is an option.
  6. Designated Bathrooms: Some dogs just need a place to relieve themselves, or an item to mark as their own. Providing dogs with a specific part of the yard to call their own is a good way to keep your grass green and your plants from dying off. If you don’t want to deal with keeping the grass green in this designated spot, use gravel instead. It’s not only easy to wash off, but dogs also tend to prefer gravel to grass!

Wild Animals

The easiest way to get rid of many animals is to own cats or dogs and let them roam your yard freely. This isn’t always possible or the most animal-friendly option though, so here are some other methods of protecting your garden from wild animals:

  1. Egg Shells: Many animals, such as squirrels, raccoons, and rabbits, will dig up and eat plant seeds or eat the plants when they’re still small seedlings. At this stage, sprinkling broken egg shells on top of your garden and mixing them into the dirt is not only extremely effective at making digging an unpleasant activity but also a great fertilizer for those little seedlings.
  2. Fencing: Although not always attractive, often one of the best and most-effective ways of keeping all animals, including deer and birds, out of your garden is to build a tall fence around the entirety of it and to cover your plants with bird netting or chicken-wire cages. Raccoons are capable of digging but also dislike having anything stick to their paws, so draping bird netting on the ground is an effective countermeasure. Building the fence out of a material that animals cannot see through and attaching noise-makers to the fencing also work well.
  3. Removing Habitats: One of the simplest solutions is to make your yard unappealing to the average animal by removing the groundcover in which they would naturally hide or nest. For rabbits, this means removing low-growing shrubs, tall grass, and rock and brush piles from the immediate area around your garden. For groundhogs, be sure to block the area beneath any deck, porch, or shed. Otherwise, they’ll make themselves a cozy home.
  4. Predator Urine: If you don’t own a cat or dog and natural predators aren’t abundant in your area, then predator urine, such as coyote urine, is a good way to frighten off animals invading your yard. The predator urine will make them think it’s unsafe to inhabit your yard as a predator already lives there. Unfortunately, predator urine needs to be re-applied weekly and especially after rain. With large yards, pouring the liquid urine can get expensive. An alternative is hanging liquid urine dispensers; these only need monthly refills.
  5. Predator Decoys: In place of predator urine, another tactic is to place predator decoys around your garden. Owl statues frighten off raccoons and predator lights scare most other animals, from bunnies to dogs. The Solar-Powered Nite Guard, which costs $24 on Amazon, is waterproof and charged by sunlight. It automatically turns on at night and begins to emit a periodic flash of red light that frightens off many animals. For engineers, an alternative is to build and program your own solar-powered, motion-activated predator light with red LED lights and a Raspberry Pi. Just be sure to make your equipment water-proof in the event of rain.
  6. Electronic Repellents: Other electronic repellents, such as motion-activated sprinklers and timer-based vibrators, are great at targeting skittish groundhogs, moles, and chipmunks.
  7. Designating An Animal Garden: If you’re growing a vegetable or fruit garden, try blocking off your garden with a fence or caging and then creating a smaller, open and accessible garden in another area of the yard that is specifically for animals. Having this second garden will make attempting to get into your actual garden especially unappealing, as there is an easy food source in the same vicinity.

If all else fails, there’s always the option of moving all the plants indoors or hosting your own greenhouse vegetable garden! Having potted plants throughout the house has been known to drastically decrease stress and enliven the indoor environment. Just keep in mind that if your food garden has been moved inside, some plants need to be pollinated by wind or bees to produce vegetables or fruit, and so will need to be hand-pollinated.

If you have tips or techniques on keeping wild animals or pets out of your garden, we’d love to hear about them in the comment section below!

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