Oh dear: Dealing with deer, woodchucks and other garden pests

  • Daphne, the author's corgi, not only appreciates the flowers but she keeps critters at bay. If you don’t have a dog, other options include below from left, a humane trap, fencing and garlic chips.

  • A woodchuck is captured in a live animal trap.

  • There are plenty of options to keep pest like deer out of your garden. Henry Homeyer photographs

For the Valley News
Published: 5/3/2020 8:47:09 PM

I’ve never had much trouble with deer eating my vegetables or flowers. I know gardeners who have wept when they saw that their lovely tulips had been munched by deer just when they were achieving perfection. But I’ve always had dogs, and dogs leave scents that are scary to deer. My little corgi, Daphne, leaves messages saying to the deer, “I am actually a wolf.” And they believe her.

So what do you do if you don’t have a resident wolf?

Some gardeners use deer repellents. In general, they work for a while and then the deer get used to them and come for lunch. Irish Spring brand soap, little containers with cotton balls soaked in coyote urine, rotten-egg based repellents. Yes, the work, but if you have a lot of deer and they want to come in, they will.

The best repellent I’ve found are called garlic clips that I get from Gardeners Supply. These are little devices that hold garlic oil and clip onto branches. You must first puncture a seal with a little tool that comes with it. They’ve worked all winter for me on tasty shrubs.

But the only truly sure-fire solution is to put up an 8-foot-tall fence. In recent years manufacturers have come up with good sturdy plastic fine-mesh fencing that weighs little and is affordable. But you still have to put up the fence posts — which can be hard work and a considerable expense.

You can buy 8-foot steel posts that can be pushed and pounded into the ground. You can buy cedar posts and use a posthole digger. Ten-foot pressure-treated 4-by-4 posts last forever but may leach chemicals into the ground.

I saw an alternative method once. The gardener bought lengths of plastic pipe — the kind used by plumbers. He cut it into 12-to-24-inch sections and buried them in the ground every 10 feet. He used either a crow bar or an auger to make holes big enough for the pipe.

Then he cut saplings of an appropriate size, say an inch and a half across at the base, and 10-feet tall or more. He just slipped the sticks into the pieces of pipe. They were a little loose inside the pipe, and wobbled a little, but the fence worked — and he didn’t have to buy fence posts.

The slick part of the whole operation was the “door.” He just put two extra pieces of pipe in the ground along the fence line, one at the end of the run of fencing, the other 10 feet back. He lifted the final pole (with the attached fencing), and walked it back to an empty pipe 10 feet away and dropped it in. The netting was attached to the fence using plastic zip ties.

I saw another alternative method at a public garden at Fort Ticonderoga, N.Y. They used electric fencing enhanced by little pieces of aluminum foil that were attached to the fence with clothes pins. Each piece of foil got a dollop of peanut butter, which attracted the deer.

When a deer licked the peanut butter it got a non-lethal but very unpleasant jolt. The power to the fence was turned off each day when visitors were present, and the fence was rolled up, along with the fiberglass rods that supported it. This system has an initial start-up expense of the fence charger, wire and 4-foot posts, but it worked perfectly. The deer did not forget the jolt, even if they were hungry, and they certainly could jump the fence.

A less serious, but very aggravating problem is with your neighbor’s cat, who, at this time of the year uses your freshly prepared and seeded carrot or lettuce bed as its personal kitty box.

An easy fix?

Prune your roses or raspberries and place the thorny branches over them. Felix the cat will stay away, and before long your plants will make it look less inviting.

Then there are the rodents: woodchucks, chipmunks, squirrels, possums and raccoons. Again, there are repellents and fencing, with fencing working better. Every 10 or 15 years, I am inundated with squirrels. The only method I have found to salvage my garden is to trap them in Havahart and deport them 5 miles away (that may be overkill) on a lonely road, far from a house.

Trap size is important: a woodchuck or large animal needs a trap with a 12-inch square opening that is about 36 inches long. Squirrels do fine in something with a 6-inch square door that is 18 inches long.

In order to catch a rodent, it is best to use a trap that only has one door, or to wire one door shut if the trap has two. Put the bait food past the trigger, so the animal will have to step on the trigger to get to the food. Woodchucks like watermelon, apples or beans. Squirrels and chipmunks love sunflower seeds and peanut butter on a cracker. Chunky or smooth? They don’t seem to care.

Trapping is not a solution I like. Why? A released rodent has only a small chance of survival, I am told. Also, in some towns, there are laws against transporting wild animals. Vermont does not allow it, I’ve been told. Maybe we should all just learn to share our bounty with the critters.

Henry Homeyer is a long-time UNH Master Gardener and the author of 4 gardening books. Write him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or PO Box 364 Cornish Flat, NH 03746.

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