How to humanely keep wildlife out of the garden

Illustration of cat next to catnip plant.

Some types of catnip can deter backyard visitors like deer, but the neighbor’s cat is sure to want to hang out, too. As with many things, in the garden, you pick your battles. (Illustration: Bill Kersey)

You’ve no doubt heard the saying “she wouldn’t harm a fly.” It’s a phrase that could easily be applied to Theresa Rooney, a gentle soul whose desire to live in harmony with creatures in her garden led her to write “Humane Critter Control, The Guide to Natural, Nontoxic Pest Solutions to Protect Your Yard and Garden.”

Book coverThe book, which is generously illustrated with drawings by Bill Kersey that emphasize Rooney’s critter control tips, provides a blueprint for humanely and safely deterring, mitigating or preventing damage from pests without killing them. Rooney does that by offering advice on such tips and tricks as how to use various scents, repellants and tools to protect your garden and by going into detail on how to deal with the most common insect and animal predators, including those on four legs, a thousand and even two!

Getting along with creatures is a life-long trait Rooney credits to lessons her mother taught her as a child through her love of houseplants and her vegetable garden. It’s also something Rooney learned while exploring the woods, swamps and public gardens of her childhood home in Virginia, Minnesota.

“I had all of these plants in my bedroom and I thought every teenager did that,” Rooney said. “They didn’t, and I thought that was weird! But that’s how I grew up. I had dieffenbachia, rubber trees and spider plants everywhere. I was just crazy about plants!

“Then I moved out and had apartments and I always had plants and I watched every gardening show I could find on TV. When I finally got a house, the first thing I did was open the front door, throw the boxes in and go out into the front yard and start tearing it up because it was a bunch of turf. Since then it’s never been the same.”

That’s true for her and the critters she meets. Her learning experiences haven’t always been easy.

“I used to be terrified of bees or wasps,” said the Hennepin County master gardener and author of a gardening column for Minnesota Gardener. “I would either scream or I would freeze and not be able to move when they came near me. One day I just thought it through and told myself that they are really little and they are not going to hurt me.”

She remembers well one of the instances in which she put that fear of being stung behind her. “I had moved a log and it disturbed a nest of wasps or hornets. They weren’t happy, and I got stung. But I just quietly walked around the edge of the log and knocked off the ones that were stinging me. I understood I just wrecked their home, and they had every reason to sting me. But it wasn’t that bad, and I survived. That’s just how I look at them. And now I get so excited when I see them in my yard. I have no fear of them anymore. I don’t know where that fear went, but we all get along fine.” How to get along with nature is a theme that comes through clearly in the book.

“I don’t really want to kill anything,” Rooney said. “I just want everyone to have their own fair share. And that’s pretty much what we do! We all want the same thing. A safe place to live. Food. Water. And if we have families we want to raise our families safely. Animals and people are the same. We all want the same thing, and there is plenty for everybody.”

Dealing with your backyard visitors

To make sure you get along with the critters in your yard, Rooney suggests that the first thing you do is to put yourself in their shoes; or, as she puts it, “in their little paws or their little feet.” The idea is to be aware of what’s going on outdoors. If it’s the middle of winter, for example, think of what you would eat if the ground was covered with snow.

“If you are a rabbit or a deer, you’re going to eat whatever twigs you can find,” Rooney said. “And then coming into spring what are you going to eat? Well, the rabbits and the deer are and everybody else out there every day see those little green sprouts as soon as they come up in your garden.” To them, your lawn and garden, whether it’s a vegetable garden or an ornamental garden, is suddenly a glorious buffet.

“If you are going to try and protect something after it starts growing, that’s not going to happen,” Rooney said. “The rabbits and everybody else will have seen these fresh green shoots long before you do because they are more aware of the situation. Or when the apples start getting ripe. How can you protect them from the squirrels or apple maggot? You have to think about that when the apples are little to protect them from the squirrels or the insects … You have to think ahead a little bit and be prepared.”

One way to think ahead, she advises, is to keep a calendar. During different seasons, record the dates that various plants emerge or begin setting fruit. As you keep the calendar through the years, you’ll begin to see trend lines emerge on what’s happening in your yard and when. The calendar will provide you with a schedule about when to take proactive steps to protect your plants.

Here are five of Rooney’s favorite proactive measures:

Illustration of rabbit outside garden fence.Plant clover for the bunnies. This is her secret weapon against rabbits because she says rabbits would prefer to eat clover more than most other things. You can plant it in your turf if you’re OK with natural-looking turf or you could plant it in a side yard. “The rabbits will be out there in the middle of the night and you’ve created a wonderful environment where the owls and foxes will come and help keep the rabbit population at healthy numbers by culling some of the rabbits. Then you are feeding the owls and foxes and bringing down the rabbit population and everybody is happy.” Rooney realizes that may seem inhumane for some of the rabbits, but it’s realistic for the overall rabbit population, which will suffer if their numbers become too large.

Learn to love chicken wire. This is Rooney’s go-to fencing for protecting her garden. She’s also realistic that it’s not the most attractive fencing, but she has a solution for that. “Decorate it! Turn it into an art object. Spray paint it and put ribbons on it. Let it rock your garden!” She points out that you don’t even have to keep it up year-round. “You just need it when you know predation is going to be happening,” she said.

Employ the floating cover rule. A floating cover is a polyspun white fabric that protects seeds from birds and young, tender plants from predators such as deer. Many animals feed at night, and you can remove the cover during the day to allow pollinators to reach the first flowers. The covers can be taken off completely after the plants become established and are less tasty to critters.

Illustration of chewed leavesAccept holes in leaves as a sign of a healthy yard. “When you see things like caterpillars in your garden or little things like sawflies or sawfly larvae, be excited about it. That’s baby bird food! If you create a habitat for birds to raise their young, they are going to eat those caterpillars and other bugs for you. One tiny little chickadee trying to raise a clutch of young is going to catch 3,000-6-000 caterpillars to raise that clutch to adults. And that’s just one teeny tiny chickadee. If you see leaf miners, just pinch off the leaf and toss it away. It’s not a big deal. When I see holes in leaves, I know everybody is getting full tummies.”

Keep things locked up. “We have a lot of raccoon pressure where I live, so we just have to make sure things are locked up and as clean as possible.” Grills, for example, should be kept clean and garbage cans as well as chicken coops secured.

The importance of getting along

Most of all, Rooney said she hopes her book will help gardeners understand that we all live on this little spinning blue and green ball in the universe together; it’s the only planet we have and we need to share it with a lot of other creatures. “We are not better than them, and they are not better than us,” she emphasized. “We’re all in this together. We have this ability to think things through, whereas the animals and the insects might not have that cognitive ability. It’s up to us to figure out how to make things work because they can only respond how they respond. We can change how we respond.”

This is true, she said, even if that sometimes means letting things go. Gardens, after all, are not supposed to be perfect. They’re supposed to be fun. And while they are also a little bit of work, she cautions against making part of that work taking over the role of Mother Nature. That’s something humans are just not good at, especially when it involves patrolling and killing animals and insects.

“The more you can let Mother Nature do it, the easier it gets for you and the more beautiful your garden will be and the more fun you will have,” Rooney said. “And the cool thing is Mother Nature lets you take all of the credit for your beautiful yard, even though she is doing all of the work.”

If the book doesn’t satiate your interest about learning to live humanely with wildlife or you just want more resources on the topic, visit “Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife,” an online book published by The Humane Society of the United States.


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