Repel Rabbits with Plants

Another nice thing about marigolds is they stay blooming well into the fall.
Another nice thing about marigolds is they stay blooming well into the fall.

I’ve had a mess of garden troubles with critters, most of which are of the burrowing variety. But over the past couple of years, my number one garden enemy has been the rabbit. Or rather, rabbits, since I seem to have an endless supply of them eating vegetables, pulling up bean plants and doing lots of unauthorized shrub pruning.

Last year, I put a low fence around my main vegetable area and that certainly slowed them down. But my goal this year is to make peace with the bunnies even more, and a couple of recent garden talks I’ve attended have given me some new ideas. This past weekend, I combined a trip to the Chicago Flower and Garden with a visit to my daughter who lives in the city. Shawna Coronado, noted blogger, author and urban gardener, gave a talk on planting sustainable containers, but also offered a bunch of tips on front yard garden design, composting and growing vegetables in shade.

According to Shawna, you can repel rabbits with plants by growing spicy globe basil combined with marigolds. She particularly recommends ‘Taishon’ marigolds. Both plants have a strong scent and make lists of “rabbit resistant” plants. Will the two together provide extra protection? Generally bunnies don’t care for stinky stuff, so it makes sense that combining two smells might be extra effective.  I’m not sure, but I plan to try the combination this summer.

I already plant parsley for caterpillars/butterflies, so why not a few more plants for the bunnies.
I already plant parsley for caterpillars/butterflies, so why not a few more plants for the bunnies.

Earlier this winter, I reviewed The Wildlife Friendly Vegetable Gardener, a helpful book by Tammi Hartung, who is a big advocate of “decoy plants.” These are plants pests like that you plant somewhere you don’t care about. For bunnies, that means ample parsley planted away from the vegetable garden.

For more ideas on making peace with rabbits, check out the article by Samantha Johnson from the latest issue of Northern Gardener.

Book Review: The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener

wildlife friendlyI will never develop the equanimity that Tammi Hartung has towards rodents, rabbits and raccoons, but I admire her dedication to working with nature, respecting natural cycles and accommodating creatures that will pretty much take what they want anyway. And, her new book on vegetable and wildlife gardening has me thinking about new strategies for keeping the critters — and the gardener — happy. If you enjoy wildlife and you enjoy the fruits of your vegetable garden, it’s well worth reading.

The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Food in Harmony with Nature (Storey Publishing, 2014) offers gardeners a philosophy toward wildlife and a variety of methods for giving creatures what they want while still growing enough food for yourself. Hartung, a medical herbalist and organic grower from Colorado, encourages gardeners to begin with careful observation of wildlife and their interaction with your garden. Sit with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine some day and watch what’s happening in your yard. That squirrel you see running about may be burying an acorn, not attacking your green beans, she says. Knowing which creatures frequent your yard, how they interact with each other and what their needs are will help gardeners determine whether action is really needed to curtail their activities.

She gives the example of the tomato hornworm — a creature I’m very familiar with. Large, green and spiky, they look nasty. And, tomato hornworms can indeed defoliate a tomato plant in short order, Hartung says. But their lifecycle is short — 20 days for the caterpillar stage — and the sphinx moths that they morph into are masterful pollinators, as well as stunning garden visitors. Tomato hornworms also are food for parasitic wasps, which may handle hornworm removal for you. So, your better approach might be to tolerate and appreciate rather than destroy. Or, do as one gardener does and plant one tomato just for the hornworms. When hornworms are present, move them over to the designated plant and they will leave the rest of your plants alone, she says.

Hartung’s suggestions of decoy plants to keep critters at bay are particularly useful. Rabbits are my main garden “helpers.” Last year, I added fencing around a vegetable area to get them to back off, but this year I will supplement that with ample plantings of parsley outside of the fence (which they sometimes managed to get into) as well as calendulas to lure aphids from plants I enjoy. Sunflowers will be added to my wild area to bring even more birds into the garden.

If you want to attract wildlife to your garden, this book offers plenty of concrete suggestions, including ways to create habitat for birds, frogs and other creatures, add water features, use hedgerows to provide nesting sites and perennial food sources. Some of her suggestions will be familiar to those already practicing wildlife-friendly gardening, but Hartung fleshes out many suggestions with details on plants and placement. The book also includes plant lists and garden designs for bee-friendly landscapes among others.

One of the highlights of the book are the illustrations by Holly Ward Bimba, which are whimsical and as friendly as the gardens Hartung advocates.



Tomato Hornworm Visits the Garden

tomato hornworm face
When I lifted the branch to take this photo, the hornworm reared up, as if to say, “Back off, Lady, this is my tomato.”

Well, look who showed up in my garden last week. This lovely fellow is the tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata), a caterpillar that can quickly defoliate tomato plants. He’s about 4 inches long and as fat as your finger, having just munched his way through a big branch on my tomatoes.

The hornworms — they get the name because of a cool-looking, stingerlike horn protruding from their back end — feed only on members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family. Tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and eggplants are the most notable vegetable members of the nightshade family, which also includes petunias, tobacco, tomatillos and Datura, among others.

hornworm body
Hornworms are about the size of your pinky, maybe bigger, with a hornlike tail at the end.

After ripping through the vegetable garden, these worms will drop into the soil and pupate for two weeks. They emerge as large moths, known as hawk or sphinx moths. This group will then deposit eggs on other nightshade plants. Those eggs will hatch, feed, drop into the soil and pupate over the winter. So each year, there are two generations of hornworms/sphinx moths.

This is the first time I have found a hornworm on my plants, though I have seen the moths before. The worms’ size makes them fairly easy to spot, but the coloration helps them blend into the tomato stalks. The best control method is picking them off the plants and dropping them into soapy water to kill them. If you’d like more information, the folks at University of Minnesota Extension have an informative fact sheet on tomato hornworms.


Creative Critter Control

Wire cover to keep rabbits off hostas

I toured more than a dozen gardens this weekend and saw lots of creative ideas, from antiques in the garden to exciting plant combinations. Two of my favorite ideas were ways to protect plants from marauding critters.

Upside down tomato cage to deter deer
Deer don't like rubbing their noses in pointy tomato cages.

This contraption is a deer deterrent in a large rural garden near Hudson, Wis. No doubt deer are a constant problem in this area, but the home owner has out-smarted them with these home-crafted cages. The cages are made from regular tomato cages, turned upside down, with the pointy ends twisted outward.  Apparently, deer stub their noses on the cages when they come to browse the hostas and so they move on to less difficult territory.

Wire cover to keep rabbits off hostas
An antique water dish cover used for chickens protects hostas from rabbits.

These covers for hosta plants were intended to cover a chicken’s water dish, according to the South St. Paul gardener who found them at an estate sale. The chickens could get their beaks through to get water but could not fowl the water in anyway. The gardener uses them to keep rabbits from munching on her hostas.

Have you heard of other creative ideas for keeping critters at bay?


What Gardeners Are Talking About: Deer

A deer buffet

The Spring at the Inn event, held last Thursday at the Lake Elmo Inn, drew a packed crowd of enthusiastic gardeners, who oohed and aahed over a dozen or more new perennials and shrubs that will be available in nurseries this year. With one plant after another, the same question came up: “Do deer like it?”

With few predators, plenty of gardens to munch their way through and this year,  a very mild winter, deer are one of the biggest (both in number and size) pests that gardeners face. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources doesn’t keep track of the number of deer in urban areas, but nationally the estimates run between 15 and 25 million. While a hungry deer will eat just about anything, deer do have their food preferences.

Deer like vegetable gardens, fruit trees and hosta, hosta, hosta. Other plants they like include tulips, pansies, daylilies, dogwoods, garden lilies, hydrangeas and impatiens. Generally, they stay away from plants that are toxic (foxglove, for example) or highly scented (Russian sage). There are few fool-proof methods for controlling deer, though a high fence (5-feet or taller, because they can jump) and a lively dog inside the fence would be a good deterrent.

Another option is to plant things deer don’t like that much and there are several lists of plants available, including this useful post from Terry Yockey’s site. I’ve not had many problems with deer and, looking over Terry’s plant list, I can see why. My garden has lots of plants deer don’t particularly like, such as nepeta, lamium, coneflowers, coreopsis, heuchera, Russian sage and peonies. I didn’t plant it with deer in mind, but having seen deer more in the past year or two, I’m inclined to continue this approach.

If deer are a persistent problem in your garden, check out Neil Soderstrom’s book Deer Resistant Landscaping, which also has great tips on dealing with other critters or Vincent Drzewucki’s slim, but enlightening book, Gardening in Deer Country.

Deer Resistant Landscaping

A Gardener’s Reading, 23 of 30

Like many northern gardeners, I’ve battled critters pretty much as long as I’ve gardened. At my old house, the issue was raccoons, who had a cozy home in the storm sewer under our street. At my current house, we’ve dealt with mice, pocket gophers, and most recently moles and beavers. Unlike many northern gardeners, deer have not been a problem where I live–at least not yet. In the past year, we have had many more encounters with deer than in the previous 11, so I’m just waiting….

If deer are a problem where you live,  however, run out right now and get Neil Soderstrom’s new book, Deer Resistant Landscaping: Proven Advice and Strategies for Outwitting Deer and 20 Other Pesky Mammals. Soderstrom offers a sane approach to dealing with unwanted garden visitors. Readers learn why these creatures are in our landscapes, what their role in the environment is, and what you can do to discourage their presence or live peacefully with them. The book focuses first and foremost on deer, including in-depth profiles of nearly 200 plants deer don’t like.

While that is extremely helpful information, it’s Soderstrom’s discussion of animal behavior that is most interesting. For instance, expectant deer mothers become very territorial. They spend most of the year traveling with other female relatives, but when they are close to delivery, they head out on their own.  Opossums, which seem more prevalent here the last couple of years, move their dens every few nights, and while they can be a terror if they get in your garage, opossums are helpful in that they feed heavily on snails and keep the populations of mice and voles down. Mice enjoy making nests in the spare tire well of cars and while voles breed pretty much constantly, moles breed only once a year.

If you have a critter problem, but aren’t sure what it is, Deer Resistant Landscaping has photos to help you identify it, including shots of animal tracks, tunneling and burrowing systems, mug shots of the various suspects, and critter doo-doo pictures. What I really liked about the book is that Soderstrom helps homeowners consider their options carefully.  For instance, the mole who has been bugging me since last summer is actually eating a lot of bugs in my yard and there’s likely only one mole, so maybe doing nothing — and adjusting how I mow the lawn to camouflage  his tunnels – – is the best bet. Soderstrom offers practical advice on how to dispatch animals in the least inhumane way possible and he’s quick to point to the situations that really demand a professional. (Transporting a skunk: No, thank you!)

For sound and responsible advice on dealing with critters, you can’t do much better than this book.

Here’s What Mole Damage Looks Like

It's not pretty....

If you are wondering whether moles are the source of damage in your yard, take a look at this picture of my backyard. See all the raised patches and the occasional small mounds of dirt? That is the work of a mole. I’ve been stomping down the tunnels, but that just seems to encourage more digging.

It’s a little disheartening, and my trapping efforts have failed completely so far. I’m considering switching trap types or calling in some pros. Sigh. I’d like to get rid of them before the cold sets in — all suggestions are most welcome.