As most bulb gardeners eventually learn: it's their world, we just plant in it. And the extent to which squirrel, deer, rabbits, voles, moles and other nuisances devour your garden has a lot to do with your level of preparedness. Pest problems can happen in any season although fall and spring are peak periods for plunder.
Fall is a great time to marshal your defenses, starting with a good garden clean up. After planting, remove debris left behind by your bulbs and the bags they came in. You can literally throw critters off the scent by removing anything that whiffs of a delicious bulb feast. Also, consider applying mulch after the ground has cooled, not before. Mulch helps retain soil moisture and keeps soil temperature consistently cool. Applied too early in fall, it will keep the earth warm and invite small creatures to camp out for the winter.
Know Thy Enemy
Who or what, exactly, is nibbling the nasturtiums and devouring the daisies? If you live in North America, the culprits are probably deer. After a long winter with little to eat, they're particularly ravenous for anything green, young and edible. Rabbits, while pickier eaters, are also happy to taste-test anything tender. In the fall, squirrels and chipmunks are particularly pesky at planting time and only too happy to devour tulip, lily or crocus bulbs (but not daffodils which have a terrible taste). Bulb-scented debris will lead them straight to buried treasure, so be sure to clean up your bulb bags and the papery skins after planting.
Underground, there are even more culprits: moles, voles and mice love the roots of trees, shrubs, succulent plants and flower bulbs. Not to mention the groundhog (aka woodchuck), a tunnel master who finds any number of garden plants appealing whether they are above the ground or below.
What to Do About Pesky Pests
If only there were a single magic solution to solve the animal pest problem once and for all. Since that's impossible, the best strategy may be to find the deterrent that works best for your situation. Pest control options are grouped into five major categories:
- Sensory deterrents
- Vegetative deterrents
- Animal deterrents
- If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Barriers are the most straightforward and, many say, the most effective deterrents. The strategy is simple: what they can't touch, they can't eat. Barriers include fences, chicken wire and screening.
For deer, a fence at least seven and a half feet high with an additional overhang of chicken wire will serve well. Even better: two fences (one high, one moderately high) spaced about three feet apart. Deer can either jump something very high or something very wide, but can't do both at once. Don't worry, they'll be too afraid of getting caught between the two to even attempt it. You may decide that plastic fencing and netting from a garden center or other retailer is more appropriate for your area, or if you live far from neighbors and don't have small children, you can even consider installing an electric anti-deer fence.
For groundhogs, fences don't need to be high, just deep. About three feet deep should do the trick.
Chicken wire can be an effective barrier. Use it to form a cage over young plants or as an underground cage in which to protect bulbs from burrowers. Some people take a casual (but very effective) approach to protecting bulbs from squirrels: they just throw on an old window screen after planting and take it up once the ground has settled or frozen.
Sensory deterrents work either by offending the pest's sense of smell or taste, or by exciting his sense of fear and caution.
Cayenne pepper sprinkled protectively on the ground is one method some people attest to. Others point out that this method is exceedingly cruel. Squirrels, for example, can easily get the pepper in their eyes. While trying to rid themselves of the noxious stuff, they can unwittingly scratch out their own eyes.
Since the goal is to rid ourselves of pests, not force them to suffer inhumanely, other sensory deterrents suitable for squirrels, rodents and deer include:
- Human hair clippings, scattered around (though in urban settings this may be associated by squirrels with handouts by humans).
- Predator smells, such as lion's dung or urine from the zoo, commercially available predator scents or even human urine.
- Egg mixtures, either commercially available or of the homemade variety, which smell like, well, rotten eggs.
- Irish Spring soap hung in mesh bags around the garden perimeter. Some people swear it works!
All have their champions and detractors. What works in one garden doesn't work in another. The key is to experiment and find out what works for you. They're at least worth a try.
The idea behind vegetative deterrents is to surround the plants pests are attracted to with ones they aren't. Deer, for example, don't like thorny things. They also don't eat anemones, astilbes, junipers, foxgloves, daffodils, ferns, and grasses, to name a few. So you could effectively cordon off your garden by planting some of these suggestions or, if your own nose can stand it, fritillaria imperialis. Its skunky scent repels deer and many other creatures. Squirrels and other small creatures won't eat daffodils and other narcissi bulbs, so make good all-around choices.
You can also plant canis lupis familiaris in your yard. That's Latin for "big dog." And by that we mean just a big, frisky fellow with a loud bark, not an attack dog. You'll find plenty of eager candidates at your local animal shelter, who in return for your love and care will happily bark their heads off in defense of your plantings. If you go this route, do the right thing and keep Fido fenced in a back yard, or leashed on a line run. Domestic dogs that roam free have been known to revert to their primal instincts and to attack and kill lame deer and fawns.
If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em
In a little reverse psychology, it's been suggested that one way to keep animals from feeding on your plantings is to feed the animals. The idea being to make it so easy for them to eat that ravaging your garden seems like too much effort. It's up to you whether you subscribe to this approach — some swear by it, others believe it only encourages more pests — but one thing's for sure: in the end, the most appropriate pest control measure is whatever works best for you.
Animal-Resistent Bulb Species (by blooming time)
Click here to see a full listing of animal-resistent bulb species.