On The Pest Patrol

THE REAL DIRT

April 09, 1995|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

They're out there, waiting, in the woods beyond my garden. All of my furry, feathered favorites from childhood have come to savor spring. There's Bambi and Bugs. Heckle and Jeckle. Rascal and Mrs. Tiggy-winkle.

Benign wildlife all, except at this time of year, when they act like they've been coached by Stephen King. Drop some pea seeds in the soil and you'll see what I mean.

Songbirds descend like vultures on the garden, gobbling up what seeds they find. The remaining peas produce tender green shoots that poke through the ground just in time to have their heads munched off by hungry rabbits, raccoons, deer or groundhogs.

It's Disney gone amok. It's a Beatrix Potter nightmare. It's a gardener's dilemma, and it happens every spring.

I've been trying to outwit these pests for 20 years, with moderate success. I've tried to thwart, scare, discourage and even trap the wildlife that invades my garden for a breakfast buffet or a late-night snack. Some of my schemes do work; others are, um, harebrained. For instance, hanging bars of deodorant soap from the garden fence will keep deer at bay; they detest the smell. (Irish Spring stops Bambi best.) But playing loud music outside at dusk doesn't faze Bugs and his pals. In fact, they've requested more songs by Eddie Rabbitt.

Bunnies are my biggest worry. No animal has caused me more grief in the garden. Rabbits nibble everything from lettuce to strawberries to tulip leaves. And carrots, of course. Rabbits love carrots.

What they don't like is a chicken-wire fence, 2-feet high, stretched tightly around the garden. (Sink the fence 6 inches below ground to keep Bugs from burrowing into the vegetable bed.)

Dusting plants with black pepper repels rabbits; likewise blood meal, garlic powder and ground hot pepper. Gardeners have had some success sprinkling talcum powder and cat litter around plants. One man I know surrounds his plot with stinky old leather shoes to keep the hares away.

Birds can also vex gardeners, especially in early spring when bugs are scarce. A flock of crows once wiped out my entire pea crop five minutes after germination. Now I drape floating row covers over the plants, to the birds' chagrin.

(They'll also eat crocus blooms, particularly yellow ones. Growing darker colors may stop the carnage.)

Fruit growers cover their trees and shrubs with plastic netting, or use any of a number of anti-bird devices, from noise-making aluminum pie pans strung from posts to inflatable owls and snakes. I've fooled birds for a while with flapping windsocks, kites and plastic garbage bags tacked to garden posts on windy days. But birds are smart, so remember to move these objects around the yard every few days to keep them guessing.

Curtail strawberry damage by placing several fake berries -- large nuts painted red -- in the patch just before the crop ripens. Birds tire of pecking at the nuts, give up and move on to a neighbor's berry bed just as your harvest begins.

If deer are a problem, encircle the garden with either an electric fence or an 8-foot woven wire fence. (A second, shorter fence, made of chicken wire and placed several feet inside the first fence, creates a double barrier and really confuses deer.) Some gardeners have stopped deer in their tracks by simply laying a wire fence on the ground around the garden. Bambi refuses to step through the mesh.

Other deer repellents: clumps of human hair placed in old pantyhose, lion manure from the local zoo, and a plant spray made from one dozen eggs mixed with five gallons of water.

An electric fence will also stop groundhogs and raccoons, those wily bandits who can smell ripening corn. Planting pumpkins in the corn patch also stops raccoons, who balk at brushing against the prickly pumpkin foliage to reach those ears of Silver Queen.

One last tip: Know your enemy before taking action. If you're not sure which critter is munching your crops, sift some flour around the edges of the garden at dusk, and check for footprints at dawn.

This is Mike Klingaman's last "Real Dirt" column for Sun Magazine.

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