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Backyard Harmony: Gardeners Share Secrets for Living in Concert with Wildlife

Cat litter, dog hair, sweaty socks, and shiny objects help keep nibbling neighbors at bay

All Animals magazine September/October 2012

  • Nature/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

We’re all animal lovers, right? So what’s so difficult about sharing our backyard bounties with our fellow earth travelers?

For gardeners, that’s easier said than done. Even the most humane among us can get cranky when the kale becomes a midnight bunny snack and the sunflowers lose their heads to a feasting woodchuck before the first bloom.

Recently we asked HSUS supporters for advice. Among our favorite tips: Enlist best friends (wrap bulbs in dog fur) as well as large predators (encourage husbands to relieve themselves around garden beds).

The effectiveness of such remedies often depends on garden location and gardener patience. And the real key is prevention: resistant natives or mixed plantings that make plowing down one type of flower or vegetable more difficult. “I simply plant things deer don’t like to eat!” writes MJ McGee of Wellesley, Mass.

A simpler and more rewarding strategy is to embrace coexistence. Says deer lover SR DuVal of Woodland, Wash., “why would we chase such beauty away?” Sightings of foxes, turkeys, and other animals inspire Cindie White-Weiss to create habitat for even more species, including snakes and lizards, in her Duxbury, Mass., yard. “It is a privilege,” she writes, “to have wildlife call my garden home.”

Here are ideas for living in harmony with wild friends and smelling the flowers, too.

Cease and Resist

One way to foil garden marauders is through repellents: irritants or bad odors or tastes applied directly to the area needing protection. For best results, apply early and often, especially after rain or snow, and only when animals have other foods available; in times such as late winter or early spring, not even the nastiest concoction can deter a hungry critter.

I’ve had great success by using soap shavings. The stronger the scent, the better. Coast or Irish Spring has worked best. Just spread a little around the base of fruit trees or scatter in the garden. I throw a few pieces of soap in the dirt before covering newly planted bulbs to keep the squirrels away. Even though deer still visit my yard, they now eat other plants or clover. I’ve heard that animals get used to the scent after a while, but this has worked for years in my garden.­
 — Valerie McMillan, Durham, North Carolina

Other writers suggested making a solution of Irish Spring and water that can be sprayed onto vulnerable plants, or stuffing bars of the soap into pantyhose and tying onto the limbs of trees and bushes.

When I was growing up on our ranch in northern California, my mother would take a pair of Dad’s socks, dirty and sweaty from working in the fields all day, and tie them to a pole in our field garden. The smell of this human scent never failed to keep the deer from nibbling on the fruits and vegetables!­
 — Marjorie Nothern, Danville, California

I have a long-haired German shepherd who has lots of hair to brush. I spread his hair over the ground where my bulbs are. When planting new bulbs, I wrap each bulb in dog hair. If I don’t have enough of his hair (which is seldom!), I get some from the dog groomer. My tulips, hyacinths, crocuses, and daffodils all bloom year after year. The deer come right up to the windows, but they leave my flowers alone.   
­— Mary Anne Mupo, Edgerton, Wisconsin

I love watching the deer, groundhogs, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, turkeys, and chipmunks near my home. For the most part the animals are respectful of my garden, but once in a while, they stray from our agreement (as do my neighbor’s goats). In a glass jar, I mix 3 tablespoons of 90K heat unit cayenne pepper with ½ cup of vegetable, canola, corn, or sunflower seed oil, ¾ cup vinegar (any type), and ¾ cup water. I shake it well and let it sit for a day or so until the pepper settles to the bottom, then carefully pour the liquid into a spray bottle and spray my plants. Be sure to wear gloves and protective eyewear, especially if it is windy. After it rains hard or we’ve had a couple of showers, I respray. Wash your harvest well before eating or cooking to remove the residue. Most of the time, the animals will not touch the plants, and if they do, it’s only one bite.   
­— Laurel Galvan, Boone, North Carolina

This formulation is similar to commercial capsaicin-based repellents such as Critter Ridder and may last longer than direct applications of cayenne pepper or tabasco sauce.

I spray my flowers and bushes that deer love to eat with a product called Liquid Fence. It smells really bad so the deer won’t touch anything that it’s on. It also keeps rabbits from eating plants. Just remember to be downwind when you spray it.  ­
Laura Gural, Toms River, New Jersey

Our backyard bird feeder was attracting unwanted rodent visitors. I strewed my cat’s used (pre-scooped) biodegradable pine litter beneath the feeder and near the rats’ presumed points of entry, and it has worked. The litter loses its aromatic potency over time, but my cat has been making more to replenish the supply.
 ­— Mary Kay Ogden, Arlington, Virginia

As a wildlife rehabber myself, I take hundreds of calls each year just on this topic: bears in garbage cans, raccoons in attics, deer eating ornamental shrubs, etc. One of the things I tell a lot of people is to consider creating a human urine barrier around the problem area. What better opportunity to offer your husband and his buddies the option to play poker in the garage and then to pee out in the yard in between hands (of course only if they are in a rural area). Other alternatives are to use a gallon jug and pour it out once everyone is done. The urine should be strategically poured around the base of the plant or grass (not to exceed a single pouring, as urine can also backfire to kill other plants).
 ­— Liz Nicholas, Blue Ridge, Georgia

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