May 30, 2018

Keep Critters From Ruining Your Garden

There's nothing quite like picking and biting into a juicy, homegrown peach or tomato, but nothing ruins it faster than realizing something else has taken the first bite.

Unfortunately there isn't a magic spray that keeps all creatures away from your garden harvest, but there are a few things you can do to minimize the damage and ensure you'll enjoy most of your fruits and veggies without bites in them.

In today's blog we'll cover how to prevent birds from pecking your peaches and how to stop squirrels from stealing your tomatoes, as well as tips for keeping a common garden pest, caterpillars, from eating your garden goodies from the inside out. 

Netting for fruit trees

Bird netting is one of the easiest ways to protect most of your harvest from birds and squirrels, and it works on deer, too.
If you're using it on a fruit tree, you can drape a large piece over the top of the tree and loosely secure it at the base of the branches using these clips, or you can buy a roll of it and wrap it around the canopy. 

De-Bird garden netting is stronger than most bird netting,
and its polypropylene is UV treated to be long lasting.
Inexpensive Ram-Pro clips can be used to secure netting to plants or structures.

Netting for gardens

Drape netting over garden plants to protect your tomatoes or other veggies, or build a structure like the ones pictured below to also keep out squirrels, rabbits, and deer.  The added benefit of structures like these is that they can be used with insect netting to protect against beetles and moths (caterpillars and "borers") or with row cover fabric to protect plants during cool weather.  You can even integrate micro-irrigation.  You can easily secure the netting or irrigation to any structure using these handy dandy clips.

This style of structure can be used with bird or insect netting, or with
row cover fabric to protect garden plants during cool weather.
Photo from Grit Rural American Know-How

This style of structure can easily incorporate microirrigation.
Photo from The Scattered Sewist

Easily incorporate micro-irrigation into a PVC garden structure.
This micro-irrigation kit is easy enough for a beginner to set up,
and you can expand it with items found at Lowe's/Home Depot.


When it comes to scaring birds and squirrels away, you'll find there are many products with mixed reviews.  Because owls are predators, they are effective in scaring most birds and squirrels, however, if you're going to use an owl decoy, it will be most effective if it has a moving head, like this solar powered owl decoy, and if you relocate the decoy frequently. 

The Gardeneer Natural Enemy SOL-R Action Owl
features a solar-powered moving head, which looks more
realistic to prey animals, like small birds and squirrels.

"Bird blinders"

Reflective "bird blinders" utilize wind movement and the sun's bright reflection to scare away birds.  Some styles, like these owl-shaped reflectors double as a decoration, but you can find similar inexpensive fishing lures or Christmas ornaments that will also do the trick.  For this method to be most effective, be sure to place reflectors in the sun, and hang them so they can move freely with the wind.

These owl-shaped "bird blinders" use the sun's reflection to
scare away birds, and they double as a garden decoration.
These bird repelling reflective ornaments are also decorative.

Motion activated sprinklers

These are a great option in more open areas, like in an area around fruit trees.  They're especially effective on deer, but they also work on smaller critters, like birds and squirrels.  The Hoont Cobra motion activated sprinkler shoots a jet of water up to 30 feet to scare away animals, and they only stay on for a few seconds, so they're highly efficient on water.

The Hoont Cobra motion activated sprinkler is a great value
and it has better customer ratings than many pricier models.

Sprays for deer and rabbits

As I mentioned earlier, there is no magic spray to keep all critters away from your garden goodies, but there are a few sprays that can help with specific pests. 

Liquid Fence is a highly effective spray that uses scent to repel deer and rabbits for several weeks. It's non-toxic, but DO NOT get it on your hands.  

It's rotten eggs and garlic, y'all, but once it's dried
in the garden you won't notice the smell.

Funny story: I once ruined a favorite pairs of gloves when I accidentally came into contact with a leaking bottle at work.  This stuff is made of rotten eggs and garlic, y'all.  For an entire day I thought my coworkers were passing gas around me, only to realize later it was me and my smelly gloves!  

I recommend wearing disposable gloves and mask when you apply it, not because it's dangerous, but because it's stinky and the smell lingers on skin and in your nostrils.  Once it has dried in the garden you won't even notice the smell.
Liquid Fence is available in a ready-to-spray gallon, concentrate (best value!), or granules, however, the granules don't seem to work as well, since they're applied around plants, not directly on them.  The Liquid Fence company also makes snake repellent.  (Snakes aren't really garden pests, but not everyone enjoys their company, so some people might consider them a pest.)

Liquid Fence uses scent to deter deer and rabbits from eating your plants.

If you live in Texas, you may be able to get a great price on a smaller bottle of ready-to-spray Liquid Fence Deer & Rabbit Repellent or the Snake Repellent at your neighborhood HEB.

Sprays for caterpillars and borers

Caterpillars are a huge problem for gardeners.  There are many types, known by various names, each one affecting different plants.  Caterpillars eat holes through cabbages (cabbage worms), make tomato plants disappear virtually overnight (tomato horn worm), mow down pepper plants and poke holes in potatoes (cutworms), dig into squash stems (squash vine borers), and destroy peach trees and their fruit (peach tree borers).  These pests all have one thing in common.  They're all moth larvae (caterpillars) and they're all susceptible to a naturally occurring bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (commonly known and sold as Bt or Thuricide).  It's their "kryptonite".

You can spray Bt on plants when you see caterpillars, or use it on peaches/plums/apricots/etc. during blooming, to prevent moths from laying eggs inside the developing fruits.  Add a tiny amount of molasses to the mix to help the bacteria live longer on plant leaves.
As you may know, I'm a beekeeper, so on the rare occasion that I use any sort of insecticide, it's important to me that it's natural, and that it's safe for bees

In the case of peaches/plums/etc., many caterpillar pests hatch out between the branches before the trees flower or leaf out, and you can kill many of these by using what we horticulturists call "dormant oil spray" while the trees are still in their dormant (not actively growing) stage.

My favorite dormant oil sprays are Medina Orange Oil (which has many other garden uses, detailed in this blog) and Garden Safe Neem Oil (also known as "Fungicide 3" because it kills insects, mites, and fungi on plants).  These are both natural and bee-safe when used correctly.

Dormant oil spray is just one of Medina Orange Oil's MANY uses. 
More uses for orange oil listed here in my blog.

This Garden Safe product is actually neem oil,
which also works as an insecticide and miticide.

The Ortho Dial N Spray hose end sprayer is inexpensive and can be used to
apply any liquid fertilizers or sprays.  It has an adjustable dial that does all
the measuring for you.  It's "goof proof."

As with any pesticide, even natural ones, I recommend spraying in the evening, when many of the day-flying pollinators, like honeybees and butterflies are least active.  I use the Ortho Dial N Spray hose end sprayer to apply all sorts of liquids in my garden.  I like it because it has an adjustable dial that does all the measuring for you.  You just pour in the fertilizer/pest liquid, set the dial, and attach it to the hose, and it sprays out a perfectly pre-mixed solution.  The sprayer just takes out a little of the spray concentrate at a time, so the liquid inside the sprayer bottle stays at full strength, and anything leftover can be poured right back into its original bottle.

If you're interested in learning more about bugs in the garden (both beneficials and pests), Howard Garrett's Texas Bug Book: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is an excellent resource, loaded with color photos and information about life cycles, pest control, etc.  It's applicable for gardeners outside of Texas, too.  I frequently refer to it while teaching my gardening workshops.

Do you have a gardening question?  You can ask in the comments below, or by e-mail.  I'll pick my favorite questions to feature on this page.  Follow me on Facebook or Instagram for more helpful gardening tips, tricks, and how-to's.
If you're in Texas, you can probably get some of the products I mentioned at your neighborhood HEB.  If you make a purchase using one of my blog links, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you as part of the Amazon Associates Program.

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