There is a one-word answer to some of the most plaintive requests I get for help with garden pests: Fence.
As a frustrated hands-on gardener myself, I perfectly understand how everyone wants relief through an easy fix. And the pushback about physical barriers, whether out of concerns over the expense or aesthetics.
But in most cases, there is no last-minute cavalry charge, no miraculous deus ex machina; a physical barrier is the bottom line. It applies equally to me and other experienced horticulturists even at botanic gardens who have tried everything possible with limited or short short-term success.
As for alluring pie-in-the-sky repellents, despite the earnest testimonials from many sincere individuals, they rarely work well for most folks, or for long.
Scarecrows, yappy feist dogs, flashy tinfoil, perfumed soap, fragrant herbal plants, mothballs, gobs of human hair, bands of lime, clear bags of water, blue paint, sharp punji sticks, concentrated predator urine, high-pitched sound machines, motion-activated sprinklers, intermittent shotgun sounds, chewing gum, fake owls and snakes, pellet guns, prayers, and yep, even voodoo dolls — tried them all, with little dependable success.
Got deer? Fence. Rabbits, armadillos, ‘possums, strawberry-eating tortoises? Fence. Birds? Caterpillar-making butterflies? Fence. Dogs or errant soccer balls? Fence.
There are many types of fences, from tall landscape fencing made of wood, heavy or lighter-gauge wire, to smaller screened enclosures and custom-made individual cages. Some gardeners cover entire plants with inexpensive, lightweight but strong polyethylene netting, using clothespins to fasten them underneath to foil smart birds, rats and opossums.
Then there are electrified wires, which if positioned right can deter most mammals. Two wires are better than one, with the lowest set at raccoon and ‘possum height.
At considerable expense and effort, my old friend Roger Swain, world-renowned longtime host of PBS’ “The Victory Garden,” who has tried everything else, finally put an 8-foot heavy gauge wire fence with double-action doors around his entire New Hampshire property, plus tall walk-in cages for his berry plants. And he faithfully shrouds raised beds with bird and insect netting on other crops. He even covers his bathtub water garden with a wire netting to keep birds and raccoons from eating his fish.
Simply put, the Harvard graduate garden expert wouldn’t do any of if he could rely on easier solutions.
All said, you won’t find a single decent productive garden in England that doesn’t incorporate some of this. It’s simply what they do, because they need protection from garden varmints — and netting works.
I spent a big part of last summer hand-picking tiny green caterpillars from my edible-pod and English peas. This year I covered my vines with a tent made from hoops of rebar rods and half-inch PVC pipe (spray painted brown) draped with netting with mesh small enough to exclude butterflies but large enough to allow more adept pollinating bees through.
In naive societies where fencing is not considered aesthetically acceptable, a savvy gardener has to be creative. Tone down bare wire fences with spray paint or get colored fencing. Durable, UV-resistant poly netting is nearly invisible from just a few yards away. Wood fences can be cute pickets or neatly painted, and can even have windows cut in them, or decorated with wall hangings and vines.
Bottom line, with most garden pests: Fence ’em out.
We’ll still have to deal with slugs, but that’s another story that involves getting rid of their daytime hiding places and every now and then putting a band of slug bait around my raised bed.
Oh, and two other exceptions: squirrels and neighbors’ cats constantly test everything. So far, nothing has been effective against either.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.