Gardeners usually try to embrace nature as much as possible. They live with the soil under their fingernails, welcome the rain as much as sun, and invite birds and bees into their yard. Yet they also try to avoid, as vehemently as possible, some of nature’s not so-savory aspects. Because the good, like rose blooms and apple blossoms, always comes with the bad, like aphids and rodents.
Often we turn to extreme measures to get rid of our four-legged and two-winged “friends.” A friend of mine recently told me that her mom bought a BB gun to use on the squirrels eating her apricots. While I’m not totally convinced she’s up for the task of blowing a squirrel’s brains out (they are kinda cute), I did remember how close I was to reaching for my grandma’s air pistol when I saw a big rat in my blackberry bush. Guarding the fruits of one’s labor can make even a pacifist turn quite violent.
Yet the poison and death route can get more than a little messy, and can sometimes even be toxic for the animals we do want, like Fido or Kitty. So what to do? Are there more natural or safer ways to get rid of the critters that plague our landscapes?
Pocket gophers leave a telltale sign of activity—mounds of fresh dirt in garden beds or on lawns. (Remember Caddyshack?) As they tunnel beneath the surface, they can disrupt patches of lawn, pull down small plants into their burrows, and eat the roots of vegetables and ornamentals.
The best way to stop pocket gophers from eating your greens and bulbs is to line the bed or planting area with chicken wire. Dig down one or two feet and line the entire area—making sure there are no holes—with chicken wire. Stabilize sides with wooden posts and then fill in the hole with the soil you’re using.
You’re up against more of a battle with the gophers in already planted areas, like a big lawn. Traps are the most effective way to catch the critters, but you do have to deal with body disposal. There are many animals that prey on gophers—cats, dogs, raccoons, coyotes, hawks, and owls among them. Setting up a barn owl box can encourage these predators to visit your yard. Note that if you do use poison, like strychnine, you can also poison the predator that eats the gopher.
Deer aren’t a problem for most urban dwellers, but in the country, they’re a serious menace. Even when I lived in Berkeley, California, a fairly developed area, deer could be seen chomping their way through the yards of hillside homes. The best way to prevent deer devastation—and they are hungry and fast eaters—is to plant things that they don’t like. Deer have preferences, and some plants they’ll generally avoid, at least until they get really hungry. You’re often in the clear with plants that are native to your area. Some of my favorite plants that deer consider the Brussels sprout of the plant world are the sages (salvias), California lilac, and yarrow.
But what about edibles? If you want to eat them, so do the deer. The obvious prevention tactic here is a fence, but if you have a large yard, you also have to have a large fenced-in area, not to mention a high one—deer can jump as high as eight feet. Digging a trench around the outside of the fence can also help deter jumping does.
There are also many over-the-counter products, which vary in efficacy. Some release an unpleasant odor and others make plants taste bad. DeerStopper is an organic solution made of eggs, mint, and rosemary that’s supposed to work; you could also try making your own noxious concoction with things like eggs, chilies, mint, and biodegradable soap. Reapply as necessary.
In the house I grew up in, we had two beautiful cherry trees in the backyard and there was always a race to the finished product with the birds, who perched in the trees and ate the bounty. Although some, like the cute hummingbird, are usually welcomed in a yard, many birds are a nuisance. With fruit trees and easily pluckable things like blackberries and raspberries, they can be downright pests.
Physical controls are the best way to stave off birds, and nets are the most reliable form of protection. They can work with small trees, but can be cumbersome to take on and off, and may be out of the question for big, tall trees. You can usually find nets at garden and hardware stores.
Another option is to hang something metallic—like old CDs or pie tins—in the tree. They catch the reflection of the sun and disorient the birds. In the wine country, you’ll often see vineyards covered with metallic streamers designed to prevent birds from destroying the crops. Although they do work for a while, it seems that sometimes birds get hip to the glare and learn to adapt and eat around them.
Another option is fake owls or snakes, which are predators that may scare some birds off. You could also get a bunch of real predators—like cats. They don’t necessarily have to kill all the birds, but even a prowling predator is a deterrent.
Perhaps the best option is sharing with the birds—letting them have the highest fruit in the tree while you get the lowest.
Squirrels, like birds, are more than happy to thin a prolific fruit tree for you. They also will chew off tree bark to use as nesting material in the winter and will go after bulbs and flowers, as well as tear up patches of dirt to store winter food.
Nets can work for squirrels just as they do for birds. Some gardeners use the time-intensive yet reliable method of wrapping each piece of fruit in paper or plastic bags. While this could be feasible for small fruit trees, attempting to bag each fruit on a large persimmon tree, for instance, seems insane!
Protecting the bark of trees is a little easier. You can wrap sheet metal or some other thick protective coating around the trunks of vulnerable trees, mostly during fall and winter and you can remove it in spring.
Despite movies like Ratatouille that glorify the rat, I find them intolerable. Though I’m sure there are the people out there who will contest everything I write, for me, a rat’s negative attributes—carrying disease, eating fruit in the yard, chewing through wires, living in the attic, and generally causing fear and terror wherever they go—are too overwhelming to ignore. Getting rid of them generally requires traps or poisonous bait, but there are some poison-free prevention methods to make your outdoor space less inviting.
Cleaning up is important, as large wood piles, garden debris left for a long time, pet food that’s left outdoors, and loosely fitting trash lids can attract rats. Identifying and removing their food source is a good way to try to make them leave, though with fruit and nut trees, this isn’t always possible. Climbing rats like ivy, jasmine, other vines, and dense vegetation. Thinning out thick brush and keeping a clean, well-sealed garage can make the yard a less hospitable place for rats.
Snap traps are useful against rats; if you’re averse to killing them you can use a live trap (though then you’re faced with having to do something with the live rat). According to UC Davis Integrated Pest Management, you can try to flood Norway rats out of their burrow with a strong hose stream; once they’re out, you seal up the entrances with dirt. (This seems like it would only work if you had an intimate knowledge of entrances and exits—usually I’m too freaked to follow a rat home.) Owls and cats prey on rats and mice, but if you’re faced with a rodent invasion, they may not be able to keep up.
In short, there are many ways of dealing with pesky critters that don’t require toxins. Many of them rely on a mechanical barrier, a pet, or just cleaning up a bit around the yard. But sometimes things just have to get bloody. Though I might have a hard time using force against a deer or even a squirrel, I’m more than happy to use a snap trap on a rat.