Most home gardeners will generally agree that having wildlife in the garden is a good thing. Without pollinating insects, there would be no flowers or food; and without certain plants, there is little habitat for nesting songbirds. However, plants that attract desirable wildlife will inevitably attract the less desirable animals that seem to take up permanent residence in carefully tended gardens and lawns. Though it may seem hopeless, with a little forethought and careful planning, you can successfully manage and prevent wildlife destroying your garden.
The usual suspects
A common nuisance animal for many gardeners are deer, which can cause significant damage to gardens and landscapes in just a few feedings. Most active in the early morning and late evenings, deer damage will appear ragged at the leaf and stem edges, and may look as if they were pruned with a weed-eater. Deter deer by selecting resistant plant varieties, and avoid overwatering and overfertilization as this encourages succulent new growth which attracts hungry deer. Exclusion traps are effective at preventing deer from feeding on young trees and fruit trees. Chemical repellants containing the active ingredient thiram are effective at deterring hungry deer. Avoid using mothballs, as the chemical naphthalene ineffective at deterring deer and is toxic to dogs and children.
Two other pests that get a lot of attention are moles and voles. Although considered a pest, moles are active during rainy periods in summer, and are quite beneficial as they help aerate lawns, and feed on grubs dwelling in the soil. Most gardeners want to trap or kill moles; however, in North Carolina it is illegal to kill moles. Avoid electronic, magnetic, or vibrating devices that “scare” moles as none of these products are proven to be effective. The most effective method of mole control is removing their food source, which are white grubs. Always consult with a landscape professional or your local extension agent before applying any insecticide.
Voles are much smaller than moles and commonly feed on the roots of landscape plants and turfgrass. To inspect for damage, look for small gnawing marks on the roots of plants. Closer inspection around the trunks of trees or shrubs may reveal 3-4 inch piles of earth and small tunnels about 1.5 inches wide. Voles can be controlled by close mowing or by removing mulch from around the base of trees or shrubs. Both of these methods reduce the amount of cover that voles require to hide from predators.
Rabbits. Although cute and seemingly innocent, these small mammals are voracious eaters and seem to decimate vegetable gardens almost overnight. Successful control means first removing brush piles and any other “structured” areas that may provide shelter. Exclusion cages or fencing around smaller gardens or trees will deter rabbits from feeding on your vegetable plants and on tree roots. The same product used to repel deer, thiram can be effective also as toxicant; however should be avoided for use in food crops.
Snakes in the garden may cause concern for some people, but actually most snakes are very effective at controlling rodent and rabbit populations. Snakes can be deterred by reducing cover and food supply and by mowing closely around homes and storage buildings. Store firewood away from homes and elevate from the ground if possible. Traps and toxicants are ineffective at controlling snakes. While most snakes like the black rat snake are non-venoumous, one of the common venomous species is copperheads, which are identified by their triangular head and dark-colored crossbands that form an hourglass shape on its back. Never attempt to handle snakes.
If you plant it, they will come
An increase in urban sprawl means that many wildlife species are adapting to live and thrive in close proximity to humans. Although it is important to conserve wildlife and their habitat, it does not mean you need to install a ‘buffet’ sign in your yard anytime soon. With some careful planning and a few maintenance strategies, you can successfully manage nuisance wildlife in your yard and still do your part to attract other beneficial wildlife.
For assistance identifying and managing wildlife problems, visit ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center. If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610.
Sam Marshall is the horticulture agent with the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension of NC State University, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.