Critter control, part 1

More and more, readers' questions focus on what to do about troublemaking wildlife: chipmunks, birds, deer, unknown marauders that destroy plants and disappear ... the list goes on. What on earth can we do to protect our plants?

I'm sorry to report this, but you may already have suspected it: There's no magic bullet. These critters are determined, and often you may have to try several different methods of control. You'll definitely need to be persistent.

And you may need some ingenuity.

I'm currently in a running battle with some brown wrens that want to tear up every plant in my patio garden. And I've had to try to analyze how they're doing what they're doing (without seeing them, since I'm at work all day). And figure out ways to keep them from it.

First comes identifying the source of the problem. This involves watching your yard and asking neighbors if they've had problems. (The woman next door is also screaming about wren-ruined plants.)

If you still don't have an answer, check with your local Cooperative Extension Service office. Describe the damage, when it occurred, and what types of plants were affected, and these experts will probably have the answer.

Once you've identified the culprit, you're ready to get to work to protect your plants. I've done lots of this over the years, as we've lived and gardened in various parts of the country.

Although you'll hear of many different ways that are supposed to help control various types of wildlife, they fall into three broad categories:

Barriers to keep the wildlife from the plant or garden.

Commercial products or homemade methods that keep animals from eating the plants or from coming near the garden.

Trapping and relocating the animals far from your garden.

All these techniques have advantages and disadvantages – and vary in degrees of long-term effectiveness.

Today, let's look at the pluses and minuses of the general methods. Then tomorrow, I'll get more specific about recommendations for deterring specific creatures – from chipmunks to deer.

For barriers, think "fence." It can be made of chicken wire, bird netting, old screening, covers that protect individual plants or rows of them (can be anything from an old milk jug with the bottom cut off to row covers designed to protect plants from frost) -- whatever keeps animals from getting near the plants they want to eat or tear apart.

But some animals will burrow under a fence and others will hop over, so it may need to be fairly high (at least 8 feet for deer) and the bottom may need to be buried several inches in the soil.

And while you might not mind a wire fence in the vegetable garden, it's not going to look so great among the flower beds in the front yard.

Repellents range from playing loud rock 'n' roll music to hanging bars of deodorant soap around an area visited by problem wildlife. Gardeners have tried fake snakes or owls, balloons, tapes of dogs barking, plastic streamers, and aluminum pie pans waving in the breeze.

Most work for a time. The main problem is that animals get used to all these methods and ignore them. For short-term control, though, they're worth a try.

Bad-tasting or -smelling sprays can deter some wildlife. Homemade sprays include those that contain ground-up hot peppers and hot sauce. Commercial repellents such as predator urine and such products as Hinder can be expensive, but tend to last longer (homemade sprays must be reapplied after each rain or at least weekly). And, in some tests at least, the commercial sprays have been more effective.

Dogs and cats can be of some help by chasing problem wildlife. But many pets don't bother. And squirrels seem to thik outwitting a dog is great sport. (I gotta admit, it's fun to watch.)

Removing the destructive animals from the garden is possible in some cases. You need a humane trap, one that doesn't harm the animal. (Havahart traps are the best known in the US. They have different names in other parts of the world.) In many localities, there are also companies that do this for you, for a fee.

There are several drawbacks: Small wildlife is very intelligent and wily and often isn't easily caught in a trap. You also have to consider where and how you transport the trapped animal so it doesn't return to your garden.

And in many areas – California, for instance – it's illegal to move wildlife without permission.

More tomorrow.

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