Gardening: Coexisting with critters takes ingenuity to make plant buffet less appetizing

·4 min read
Chipmunks can damage tomatoes and melons in the vegetable garden.
Chipmunks can damage tomatoes and melons in the vegetable garden.

Most gardeners like to see wildlife frolicking in the yard, and will tolerate some low-level infrequent damage to certain garden plants in an effort to coexist with Bambi and Thumper. Nevertheless, when your favorite plants disappear one by one each night, you may find yourself looking for ways to minimize the damage caused by the critters that also call your landscape home.

As development shrinks the size of the natural habitat for many different species of wildlife in Greater Columbus, the number and frequency of interactions which gardeners have with wildlife continues to increase. And as gardeners and homeowners plant the flowers, shrubs, trees, vegetables and other plants that wildlife prefer to feed on, conflicts with wildlife will only increase.

Let’s look at some approaches to coexisting with wildlife in the garden and home landscape.

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Identify the culprit

The first step when attempting to minimize wildlife damage in the garden or home landscape is to correctly identify the offending creature and learn about the habits of the animal. This information is essential to evaluating the effectiveness of potential solutions to the problem.

Many times the specific type of damage experienced will help to identify which animal is the culprit. With their sharp upper and lower incisors, rabbits cause damage to plant stems that appear as sharp, clean cuts at a 45-degree angle. Deer, however, only have lower incisors and the damage they cause to plant stems and leaves tends to be jagged, uneven and torn.

Deer damage plants by chewing and tearing foliage as well as the bark of small trees.
Deer damage plants by chewing and tearing foliage as well as the bark of small trees.

The location on the plant where damage occurs can also provide clues, as damage by rabbits is typically confined to the lower 18- to 24-inches of the plant, while damage higher up on plants is typically caused by deer.

The specific plants damaged can also provide clues as certain plants are preferred by specific animals. Hostas are like candy to deer, who will seek out these plants and repeatedly graze them down to ground level.

In the vegetable garden, rabbits prefer carrots, peas, beans and beets but rarely feed on corn, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes or peppers. Half-eaten tomatoes and melons still attached to the plant are usually the work of chipmunks, while groundhogs love the tender young foliage of squash, tomato, pepper, potato and even corn.

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Mike Hogan
Mike Hogan

Modify habitat

The first step to minimizing damage from wildlife is to modify the garden or yard to make it less attractive to wildlife. Eliminate hiding and nesting areas such as brush piles and unmowed areas with tall grass. Eliminate potential food sources such as spilled birdseed, which attracts squirrels and rodents; pet food and uncovered compost piles,  which attract raccoons; and even grubs in the lawn, which attract skunks and moles.

Be sure that trash cans are covered and rodent- and raccoon-proof. Seal off access under porches and decks, as these areas attract raccoons, skunks and groundhogs.

Fencing can be an effective tool to exclude wildlife from a vegetable garden.
Fencing can be an effective tool to exclude wildlife from a vegetable garden.

Use resistant plants

Another method for modifying the habitat of wildlife is to select plants that are not highly preferred by wildlife. Deer prefer annual flowers such as begonia, coleus, dahlia, geranium and impatiens, but rarely damage annuals such as ageratum, snapdragon, vinca, larkspur, poppy and forget-me-not. While deer will chow down on tulips, they avoid daffodils like the plague.

If rabbits routinely snip your coneflowers before they have a chance to flower, consider planting black-eyed Susan instead. Rabbits will typically avoid dependable flowering herbaceous perennials such as foxglove, lupine, bleeding heart, columbine, coral-bells and daisies. In the vegetable garden, rabbits typically avoid onion, potato, tomato, squash, asparagus and rhubarb.

For an extensive list of all types of plants, which are resistant to deer and rabbits, visit

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Control tactics

When habitat modification fails to discourage wildlife from taking up residence in your yard or garden, consider the following control tactics:

• Fencing: Fences can be extremely effective long-term tools to exclude wildlife from garden areas. For deer, a 6- to 8-foot-tall fence will be required.  A 3-foot fence will deter rabbits and groundhogs, but the fence should be buried a few inches underground to prevent burrowing beneath the fence by rabbits and groundhogs. To prevent groundhogs from climbing the fence, bend the top of the fence out from the garden.

• Repellants: Repellants containing garlic, hot pepper, castor oil or predator urine can provide temporary control, especially when the damage is light and confined to a small area. Repellants must be reapplied after each rain, which can be costly.

• Scare tactics: Various scare tactics such as motion-activated sprinklers or lights, noise-makers, strips of Mylar or reflective tape, ultrasonic repellants, and fake predators such as plastic owls and snakes can all be effective for a short period of time. The effectiveness of various scare tactics decreases over time as wildlife become familiar with them.

Live trapping can be effective for some wildlife but problematic, as state law prohibits off-site release of wildlife. The use of poison baits can be dangerous to pets and non-target wildlife.

Mike Hogan is an associate professor at Ohio State University and an educator at the OSU Extension.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Learn how to keep animals from damaging your flowers, vegetables