How to Protect Your Vegetables Against Animal Garden Pests
Have problems with animals eating your vegetables and damaging plants? Learn how you can keep animal garden pests out and keep your vegetables for yourself.
I’ve written about weather in my article How To Prepare Your Garden For Extreme Weather Conditions and plan to write articles on common disease and common insect pests.
However some of my readers have struggled with animals wreaking havoc in their gardens! So I’ll address those concerns here.
While animals can harm any plant, including ornamental trees and flowers, I’ll mainly focus on damage to food crops.
As with any garden problem, there are solutions. Let’s look first at what you may be dealing with.
Type Of Animals That Can Damage Your Garden
When we think of damage, probably what comes to mind is what we probably grew up seeing on cartoons: the rabbit (or “wascally wabbit” as Elmer Fudd puts it) that pulls out carrots and munches on them and is constantly being chased by the farmer.
However there are other animal pests, not just the cute bunny decimating a carrot patch.
Ungulates and other large animals
The most common ungulates or hoofed animals in an urban or suburban area are deer. We’ve pushed into their habitats by cutting down forests and building housing.
And then we plant delicious plants that they see as free food, often at just the right height for a convenient snack!
In more rural areas you may also have bears or other ungulates such as elk or moose. Large wild cats such as cougars may also visit your garden but generally don’t eat plants but could cause damage if chasing other smaller animals for dinner!
If you’ve seen the movie “Caddyshack” you might remember the crazy things the main character tried to get rid of gophers on a golf course.
Now imagine a gopher or one of the many other burrowing mammals such as rabbits, groundhogs, prairie dogs, ground squirrels, moles, voles, rats, mice and several other lesser known ones. If you all of a sudden see plants literally disappear with just a sunken hole left, likely one of these critters burrowed underneath your garden and came up to snatch away one of your prized veggie plants!
These are probably the hardest to keep out of your garden and away from your plants. Animals such as racoons, possums, squirrels, chipmunks and wild cats can climb which means if you have fruit, you might lose some of it to them.
Every year I lose some plums to the racoons. They make a big mess. If I’m lucky I have enough plums on the tree that the few pounds they damage doesn’t make a huge dent in the overall harvest.
The animals that don’t conveniently fall into the above categories but that could cause damage includes skunks, beavers, porcupines and non-mammals such as reptiles and birds.
Types Of Animal Damage In Your Garden
So what kinds of damage do these animals generally cause in your veggie or fruit garden? It’s important to know what the signs of animal damage are and what animal may have caused it, so you can take the steps mentioned later to protect your garden.
As mentioned above, climbing animals and birds can get into your fruit trees and damage your fruit. Often they will bite or peck the fruit or knock it off the tree. You’ll see their claw or bite marks in the fruit that is laying on the ground.
Racoons are especially great climbers and love fruit! They especially love my yellow plums and every year eat or damage at least several pounds, mostly by knocking them off when they are not yet ripe.
Squirrels can also nibble on fruit, especially cherries. I once had a squirrel knocking down cherries while I was doing other work below!
Deer will eat the young tree shoots. Before I had fenced off my entire backyard well enough, I had deer come in and decimate one of my apple trees, leaving behind branches stripped bare.The tree thankfully recovered but it was a lesson for me to do a better job keeping deer out (more on that below). They also can damage the trunks of larger fruit trees when they rub their antlers on them.
Burrowing animals as mentioned will literally pull entire plants out from the bottom, leaving just a depression where the plant once was. And they also just dig up plants, leaving them to perish in the hot sun.
And any animal will nibble on lettuce, greens and other veggies and fruit. I had several kohlrabi half eaten by something just before I was about to pick it!
WARNING: avoid consuming any vegetables or fruit that has been partially eaten by an animal. The animal could have a disease and even washing and cutting out the damaged part might not get rid of all traces. This is especially important if you have children.
Keeping Animals Out Of Your Garden By Exclusion
The best way to keep animals out of your garden is by exclusion. If they can’t get at your plants, they can’t cause any damage.
How you exclude them depends on the animal but also what you’re trying to protect and where you’re growing the plants.
For large walking animals that can’t climb such as deer, high fences are usually the best option.
However you need to ensure that any fencing you install meets all of your local city bylaws, your homeowner’s association (HOA) or strata’s rules. You don’t want to put up a fence only to be asked to take it down, reduce the height or get fined.
Deer can jump very high, so fencing needs to be tall enough. Eight feet is probably enough. However at this height you most likely will run into problems if you’re living in the city or a suburban neighbourhood. Most bylaws cap fence height at 6 feet or even lower. You might be able to extend a solid fence with “invisible” deer fencing to make up for the two feet or more to bring your fencing to 8 feet. But make sure to mark the deer fencing with ribbons or other visual clues otherwise it could become a trap for animals not seeing it.
Keep in mind that tall solid fencing will cast quite a bit of shade if your planting areas are located close to the fence, especially in early spring and late fall/winter when the sun is lower in the horizon.
A more effective method to very tall fencing is to block the “runway” and landing area that deer have to jump a lower fence. Deer can jump high or long but not both. Planting shrubs or bushes that they can’t easily jump over in addition to your fence can help. Or if you have a solid fence they can’t peer over, most deer won’t jump it as they don’t know what the landing area is on the other side.
Fencing won’t work for most climbing animals. A solid fence without any handholds may work in some cases but most climbing animals have sharp claws that let them dig into wood or other porous materials to climb.
Some gardeners have had luck installing some floppy netting at the top of a fence so that even if an animal climbs the fence, they won’t be able to get past the netting. But the heavier and stronger animals will likely tear it down.
And burrowing animals such as rabbits and the other ones mentioned above will simply tunnel under any fencing. You can dig a deep trench and line it with hardware cloth or mesh as a deterrent.
Fencing is expensive, especially if you’re fencing in a large backyard. An alternative is to just fence in your garden beds but then you do need to watch out for the shade cast by the fence if it’s a solid fence. You’ll need a gate to access the garden to take care of your plants and harvest veggies and fruit.
In order to block access to your growing areas by climbing animals such as racoons or squirrels, you’ll have to completely exclude them not only from the sides but also the top.
This involves building a cage that is tall enough for your tallest plants but also for you when working in the garden. The best height is 6 feet, but if you’re taller than that you may consider 7 feet to avoid having to stoop. Additional height translates into more cost of course.
The most cost effective and best building method for casting the least amount of shade is a cage built from wood (often using 4×4 posts and 2×2 bracing) and appropriate-sized hardware cloth or mesh that is small enough to block the smallest animal you want to keep away from your garden. You will need to cover both the sides and the top.
Of course remember to build a gate that you can securely lock to access the garden. Racoons are very smart animals and can figure out simple locks, so don’t underestimate their abilities and put in a lock they’ll find hard to open!
If you don’t want to do your entire growing space, you can build multiple smaller cages that you can simply put over top of susceptible plants. Keep in mind though that larger animals will be able to remove the cages, unless you can secure them down in some way.
These cages can also be used as season extenders if you apply greenhouse plastic over top of the mesh. Just be sure to remove the plastic on hot days to avoid frying your plants.
The other full enclosures to consider are poly tunnels and greenhouses. These are much more expensive to erect but give the added benefit of protecting your plants from weather extremes.
As these enclosures need to be vented on hot days, ensure you have screens of durable materials over all vents and doors that you may leave open otherwise you’ll have something climbing in.
And don’t be surprised if racoons and other clawed animals rip a hole in your greenhouse plastic to get a your crops!
All of these fences and full enclosures don’t protect your garden from burrowing animals. Some can burrow quite deep and will laugh at your expensive fencing or your poly tunnels and greenhouses!
The only way to block their access is from below. This is most easily done with either containers or a raised garden bed. It’s very difficult to do with in-ground beds, which is one reason I recommend raised beds if you live in an area with lots of burrowing animals.
This is easiest to do when building a raised bed, before you fill it with soil. However if you already have raised beds in place, you’ll have to empty them first of soil and plants (do this in wintertime when your beds are empty).
Then staple a fine enough hardware cloth or mesh on the inside at the bottom. Or as you’re building the bed, attach the mesh to the bottom of the sides of the bed.
You need to do a really good job of securing it well to the inside of the sides of the raised bed as shown in the photo below. If you leave any small gap between the sides and the mesh, an animal will find it’s way in!
For containers you should be okay so long as they have a solid bottom. However you’ll have to protect the top from access, again using some sort of fencing or portable cover.
Another alternative is to setup your raised beds or containers on a solid surface such as concrete or stone. You have to make a few modifications to the raised beds to ensure they can drain properly as shown here with the red circles where you need to drill some drainage holes.
The final option if the expense of the above solutions is simply not in your budget is to make the environment around your garden unfavourable for animal pests.
Most gardeners I talk to that have dogs that stay in their backyard have few problems with animals. The dogs are good at barking and chasing away everything from squirrels, rabbits to raccoons and even deer.
Now a few caveats about this solution: you obviously need to like dogs to have one as a pet! That’s unfortunately not an option for us, as no one in our family is fond of dogs and we don’t want the additional responsibility of caring for a pet.
Also you want to be cognizant of your dog’s overall health and safety. If you want your dog to be outside to “guard” your backyard, make sure your dog can seek shelter from the weather, either in a doghouse or bring them inside. During inclement weather, other animals are likely also seeking shelter away from your garden so your dog doesn’t need to be “on guard” during those times.
Some animals such as racoons can be very vicious and may attack your dog, especially if it’s a smaller breed. And racoons can carry disease, especially rabies so make sure your dog is vaccinated.
And a dog barking during the day and especially at night may annoy your neighbours. Many cities have bylaws regarding dogs barking for an extended period of time, so you could be fined. Sometimes just the smell of your dog having been in your backyard during the day may keep some animals away at night.
An alternative to have a live guard animal is to spray predator urine around your garden. The most common kind is coyote urine. The effectiveness of these products which you can buy at any well-stocked nursery or garden centre is questionable.
If you do decide to use them, keep the following in mind.
These sprays need to be applied regularly. Over time their strength dissipates, especially after a rain or if you water your garden with a sprinkler. Forget to respray and the animals will return, thinking the “predator” is gone. Some animals may also get used to the smell and realize it’s not a real predator.
There are also some visual deterrents. Fake plastic owls that move their heads in the breeze, CDs or scare tape to hang in your fruit trees to scare away birds and the traditional scarecrow that’s supposed to scare away animals, especially birds, that will think there is a human in the garden.
Animals can get used to this too and may ignore it unless you can move the deterrent frequently enough around your backyard.
Then there are auditory deterrents such as ultra-sonic generators that produce a frequency that only animals can hear and supposedly will keep them away as the sound is annoying to them. Or some gardeners will play a radio loudly outdoors, usually tuned into a late night talk show or similar. Another way to annoy your neighbours if you’re in an urban neighbourhood and likely not to keep away animals for very long once they get used to it.
And finally there is the classic scare sprinkler. These spray water on the unsuspecting animal when they enter your garden (and that animal could be you if you forget to turn off the water before going into the garden!) Unfortunately many animals will get used to the sprinkler. And I’m sure the racoons will play in the sprinkler and have a good time!
I’ll end with one more sometimes controversial solution. And that is to trap and relocate the animals.
Trapping can be very dangerous as the animals can become quite vicious. And there is also a chance the animal could die in the trap before you have time to relocate it.
The other problem will be where to relocate it to. If it’s too close by the animal will likely return to where it knows it can get easy food. Further away is better but it needs to be done with the animal’s health in mind. If there are lots of predators in the area or not enough food, the animal will die.
And you do have to check and see if it’s even legal to trap and relocate wild animals. It might not be, unless you can prove the animal is aggressive and could injure someone, not just steal your veggies and fruit.
So as you can see it’s not easy to deal with animal pests! It’s best to experiment to see what works for you.
And sometimes you do have to put up with some crop damage otherwise you’ll be fighting the animals all the time.