My husband and I are both committed to feeding the wildlife. We have bird feeders, which double as squirrel feeders, all over our yard. People have asked me about how much damage the squirrels and chipmunks (as well as other critters) do to my numerous flower beds. The answer is: They don’t. We all manage to coexist without the use of traps or any destructive measures. In fact, I use only natural means of keeping the wildlife out of my flower beds.
Rodents; i.e., squirrels and chipmunks, seem to be the main culprits when it comes to wrecking havoc in a garden. They just love bulbs. Of course, they will not touch daffodils, since these tend to be poisonous to them. In an earlier article on companion planting [see Improving Your Garden With Companion Planting], I discussed how planting garlic around your other bulbs, such as tulips and lilies, will keep such critters away since they do not like the smell. There are other methods, as well. You can sprinkle some cayenne pepper on your bulbs or whip up an emulsion of hot peppers to spray on them. The critters stay away because of the smell and the hot taste, just in case they do decide to take a taste of one. If they do, they definitely will not come back for seconds. Planting bulbs near artemisia seems to help, too, since rodents (and cats) do not seem to be very fond of it. Another good plant to repel rodents is catmint. It looks pretty, smells great, and rodents (including rats) just hate it. (However, you may find cats laying in it or under it. They love it. A neighbor’s cat used to rush over every time she was allowed out. She just sat under it taking in the fragrance.)
One of the easiest ways to keep squirrels and chipmunks away from your flower beds is to keep them well-fed. I have found that these little critters would much rather hang out at feeders than spend their time digging up all of my carefully planted bulbs. It does not take them long to figure out where the food is. Our critters will also let us know when the feeders are empty. One squirrel, who I named “Brumhilde,” would hang upside down from a limb, shake the empty feeder with her front paws, and stare angrily into the window until we came outside to refill the feeder. We also have a red-bellied woodpeaker that only squawks when his suet feeder is empty.
Which brings me to birds. You actually want the birds in your garden. They will eat a lot of the insects that can lay waste to a flower bed. In addition, some birds — robins in particular — that go for worms in your yard and gardens actually cause the earthworms to be more active, which is great for aerating your lawn and beds plus encourages the worms to leave more of their waste which is high in nutrients. Also, many of these same birds will pig out on grubs that can cause damage to your flowers. At this point, I feel like I should defend the much-maligned bluejay. Yes, it is true that they will sometimes steal and eat eggs from other birds’ nests; however, they have also saved many a songbird from hawks. They are truly amazing alarm systems. We have observed them bringing in birds from all over the area to chase away a hawk, who was trying to get to many of the other birds.
One other note about squirrels, chipmunks, and birds: they will plant sunflowers for you. The seeds are sown through their spreading them around or as a by-product. Every year I have absolutely gorgeous sunflowers, courtesy of all of my critters. Yellow finches will let you know when the seeds are ripe, too. They will perch on top, pull out the petals, and start going after the seeds. Often I will cut off the larger blooms with seeds and leave them under our feeders for the squirrels and other birds. (One baby squirrel thought he had hit the mother lode when he tried to drag off the head of a sunflower, which was three times bigger than he was.)
Then there are cats and dogs. I know many a gardener (myself included) who has found out that some neighborhood cat has decided to use a nicely-mulched flower bed as a litterbox. My solution: lemons. Cats will stay away from lemons and the lemon smell. All you need to do is take a lemon, cut it in thin slices, and scatter it around your flower bed. (It may take a couple of applications, but it does work.) The cats will stay away, and the lemon will just decompose in your garden. Dogs can be a little more difficult, but I have found that strategically-placed cacti will do the trick. When you see where they are coming into your flower beds, break off pieces of cactus (I like to use cathedral cactus) and just stick the pieces into the ground, preferably where they are not immediately seen — under a leaf, for example. (The cactus will probably grow, too.) A dog will step on these just once and then will refuse to come back into your garden. (I kept two little miniature schnauzers out of my herb garden by doing this, when their irresponsible owner would just let them — while they were on a leash — go romping through my herbs.)
Finally, I am asked quite often about keeping deer out. There is really only one foolproof way — a really, really high fence. You can try the various sprays on the market, but I have heard that their success is quite limited. If you are just beginning to landscape, you can start with plants that actually repel deer (Stokes Aster, for example, as well as certain ferns — ironically a deer fern) placed around the perimeter. Once they think that your yard has nothing to offer, they probably will not come back, which means you will be free to plant those roses you have always wanted. (By the way, deer love roses.) There are also some types of water fountains made out of bamboo that make loud “knocking” noises that will often scare away the deer. Otherwise, absent a barking dog, build a fence or just learn to live with some damage.
Remember, though, that anytime you create a garden, you are creating a mico-ecosystem. Part of any such ecosystem are the animals which accompany it. You and these various critters can actually live peaceably together, with all of you reaping the benefits.