Walk into a roadside restaurant after a long day on the highway, and you can practically taste your meal before sitting down. The familiar smells of fresh-baked pie and salty fries need little introduction en route to your belly.

That sensory experience is similar for wildlife coming upon lush patches in otherwise denuded landscapes. Typical home gardens, fertile islands amid seas of turf, are flashing beacons for animals. “If you’re putting in a garden in a place where it’s kind of a food desert for them,” says HSUS director of urban wildlife solutions John Griffin, “of course it’s going to be attractive.”

Unfortunately, homeowners’ responses to wild nibblers often involve poisons and traps. As a culture, we tend to appreciate birds and butterflies but lose patience for other creatures, especially foraging mammals just trying to survive in a human-dominated world. But you can have your veggies—and your flowers and trees—and let the wildlife eat some, too, by following these methods.

brown rabbit in the grass
Tom Sundro
Alamy Stock Photo

Let them eat plants

From caterpillars to deer, many animals need greens even more than we do. Rather than mounting resistance campaigns, plant vigorous native species that they prefer. In Toni Genberg’s urban Virginia yard, deer are welcome to dine on coralbells, New England asters, wild strawberry and especially elderberry, a large shrub that withstands browsing. “Everybody complains that deer eat their hostas,” says Genberg, who runs the site choosenatives.org. “I do have two hostas, and the deer don’t even go near them because there’s this huge native smorgasbord.”

Adding deterrent plants also mitigates vegetable grazing. Genberg has noticed that wherever Swiss chard grows, deer leave lettuce and spinach alone. Colorado farmer Tammi Hartung, author of The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener, plants extra parsley for deer and rabbits, who prefer it to the greens behind it. Chives deter deer when intermixed with strawberries, and peppermint protects squash from rodents.

Create a haven for wildlife.

A humane backyard is a natural habitat offering wildlife plenty of food, water and cover, plus a safe place to live free from pesticides, chemicals, free-roaming pets, inhumane practices and other threats. And it's so easy to build!

humane backyard with a bench and birdbath
Meredith Lee / The HSUS

Obscure the view

When deer discovered my Joe-Pye weed, a butterfly magnet, I placed rosebush cuttings around emerging leaves and let nearby grass grow taller, creating visual and tactile barriers that encouraged the deer to move on. Similar methods protect the orchard at the HSUS-affiliated Fund for Animals Wildlife Center in Ramona, Calif., where staff must deter free-ranging wildlife from eating produce grown for injured and orphaned wild patients.

woodchuck in the grass

As animal care specialist and garden manager Emil Smith learned, the orchard is preferred habitat for ground squirrels who feast on fruit. Because they dislike dense vegetation, she’s adding brush and native species; the sagebrush and coyote bush near the garden’s seven raised beds also draw pollinators and aphid predators. “I’ve definitely seen a lot more ladybugs and bees around our native plants,” says Smith.

Rotate repellents

In addition to visual vegetation barriers, I hang scented soap in laundry bags, create makeshift scarecrows and ask my husband to supply free-range, locally sourced urine around the perimeter. (It sounds silly but is much more humane than bottled predator urine collected from animals on fur farms.) Other deterrents include crushed red pepper scattered around plants and motion-detecting sprinklers. As Hartung notes, the key is to switch methods to keep wild visitors guessing: “[Animals] get used to it, and then it’s not effective anymore.”

closeup of a gray squirrel

Humanely exclude

Chicken wire protects tender plants in new gardens. But if you require more fortification against groundhogs and voles, sinking fencing into the ground prevents digging underneath; keeping it wobbly above deters groundhogs from climbing. (Avoid netting, which ensnares animals.) The raised beds at the wildlife center sit atop a wire-mesh floor beneath a carport frame also covered in wire. “So we can still have our butterflies and pollinators come through, and little birds will come through as well,” says Smith. “But the squirrels and the rabbits can’t get in.”

Cultivate differently

Excessive mulch invites voles to tunnel and gnaw on plants. Herbicides deprive rabbits of dandelion delicacies that would deter them from cultivated plants. Learning about wild behaviors can help you adjust your own habits accordingly.

On my property, we’ve discovered the benefits of going wild. Deer are so fond of grazing on wildflowers and trees emerging in the former lawn that they don’t venture as close. When animals do nibble gardens, I’m gratified to offer a respite from mowed-down suburbia. For many of them, eating plants isn’t just a healthy lifestyle—it’s key to their very survival.

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