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

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.

Oh, Deer!

Looking me directly in the eye and through the handles of the wheelbarrow.

While I’ve battled with a variety of four-legged marauders over the years, including voles, moles, pocket gophers, beavers and rabbits, I’ve always counted myself lucky that we did not have deer nearby. Until now.

We live near drainage ponds near a natural area that leads (eventually) to the Carleton College Arboretum. In the 11 years we have been here, we’ve never seen deer except at a long distance. Earlier this spring, I spotted an injured deer on the walking path near our house. The poor thing had a bad leg, and it was clear it had wandered out of its normal range to die.

The other night, my husband and I were taking the dog out for her last walk of the evening. Suddenly, Lola got was straining at the leash, as a deer rounded the corner near our house and headed off toward the more rural area nearby. The deer was walking on a pretty major thoroughfare through town. Then on Sunday, we saw the deer pictured above, meandering around my vegetable area, checking out what I had planted. Shoot.

Deer are notorious for ruining hosta plantings (of which I have a few), but they also eat tulips, pansies, daylilies, dogwood, garden lilies, hydrangea and impatiens among many other things. At least I don’t have impatiens. Battling deer often involves tall fencing (not practical in my location), repellents, and choosing plants deer don’t like — mostly things with big ol’ thorns. I’m still hoping this is an aberration, but I’ll be watching.

Those Rascally Rabbits…

You can tell how high the snow was in my backyard this winter by the height of the dogwood and hyrdrangea bushes that the rabbits chomped on. These branches are about 30 inches high, and considerably lower than they should be! You can tell it is a rabbit — rather than a deer –that did this because of the clean cut. Deer leave a more ragged cut.

At the library program on new plants for 2011 a couple of weeks ago, John Daniels of Bachman’s showed an amazing photo of rabbit damage from this winter. I don’t have a copy, but basically the bunnies de-barked most of a tree trunk, effectively killing the tree. My dogwoods and hydrangea should recover, and our little dog, Lola, will be hanging out in the garden with me a lot this summer. We’re hoping she will deter at least a few rabbits.

Critter Control, Part 2: Moles and Compost

Today I completed a really unpleasant, but totally necessary job. I disassembled and moved my compost pile in an attempt to get rid of habitat that I suspect has been attracting undesirables to our yard.

For several months, bunnies have been running rampant in my garden, nibbling beans down to the nub and leaving their calling cards around for my dog, Lily, to munch on. (Yuck.) I knew we had another animal in the yard, too, but the signs were less clear. Walking across the grass, I would sometimes feel the ground give under my foot. Then, I started to notice tunnel-like patterns, with raised areas, which sometimes (not always) were raised again the day after I would push them down. My neighbor’s cat, Leo, started hanging out in the yard. But, unlike the pocket gophers who tormented me two summers ago, these critters did not leave huge mounds of dirt in the yard that seemed to scream, “Ha, ha, let’s pretend you’re Bill Murray in Caddyshack!”

walkway with mole tunnels
Signs of mole tunneling on either side of the stone walkway.

Recently, a neighbor, who grew up on a farm and knows all about critters, confirmed that we likely have a mole.  I’ve also noticed chew marks on one of my smaller trees, which might indicated voles, too. One of the standard ways to deal with critters is to remove potential habitat, such as a messy compost pile. Oh-oh. My bad.

My compost pile, which grew to two piles over the past couple of years, is not one of those neat, enclosed affairs turning out black gold every six weeks. The first pile was enclosed in a wire cage, about 4 feet across and 4 feet high. The height of the cage made it hard for me to turn it, and consequently, I did not, and it seemed nothing ever rotted in there. It became a pile of dry weeds and sticks. So, I started a second pile next to it. At first, this was just a pile of sod removed from the yard to which I’d add spent perennials, weedings, and  vegetable kitchen scraps. This baby rotted like crazy, which I think was mostly due to  the dirt clinging to the sod that was the foundation of the pile and the fact that I could flip it around without climbing on a ladder.

Well, it took a couple of afternoons of work, but both piles have been flattened. I did not find any critters or obvious critter nests, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there. Here’s the good news: Both piles yielded a remarkable amount of compost. After I took apart the cage and pulled all the dry stuff off the top of the first pile, I pulled out four wheel-barrows full of gorgeous compost that had sunk to the bottom. The second pile yielded three smaller wheel-barrows of compost. I spread most of this on my raspberry and vegetable beds. I took a big load of the dry stuff to the Northfield compost heap, which is open through Nov. 16, and I also started a smaller, open compost pile closer to the vegetable garden.

What to do next year? I’m not sure. While doing research for this post, I came across this video on how to make a raised compost bin that you can rotate, mostly using things from around the house. It’s a good idea, and the couple in the video are kind of cute.

Final note: The cherry tree with the bite marks on it now has a nice collar of hardware cloth to prevent future chewing, I hope.