Varmints Are the Unwanted Garden Perennials

January 2021

Gardeners are patient people. We can’t really hurry nature, so we learn to orchestrate the selection and placement of plants to best suit their needs for light, soil conditions, and climate tolerance. At the same time, we arrange plants to achieve our desired overall look and feel of the garden––texture, color, height, movement (grasses sway in the breeze). We attempt to have that coveted succession of bloom, with several beauties showing off at any point in the growing season.

Nature demands we march to her circadian rhythm. We know who’s boss. I’m fairly adept physically and mentally to roll with her occasional punches of droughts, plagues, infestations, soggy or scorching springs and summers, and frigid winters. Like other gardeners, I adjust.

Except, that is, for the incursions of four-legged varmints, large and small: grazing deer, burrowing moles and voles, nibbling rabbits, digging squirrels, and ravenous groundhogs. I’ve issued many a Declaration of War on these critters over the years. In the end, aggravation is my reward.

The best defense is a good offense

I start early in spring with a series of defensive strategies. Picture it: a harsh fluorescent light spots me at the garage’s garden worktable, bent over diagrams of troop movements, my mostly non-chemical anti-varmint arsenal spread out before me at my elbow, planning my next strategic offensive on the Varmints.

Wireless deer fences provide a fairly effective deterrent as plants emerge and animals prowl for young leaves and shoots. I have a few dozen of these “fences” I charge up and stick in the ground to protect tender stems as they emerge.  Two C-batteries power the two-foot-tall hard plastic stakes that have four wire prongs protruding from the top. In the center is a small, perfumed plastic tube that lures deer (and groundhogs, I suspect) and zap them on the nose for their curiosity with an electric shock.

And I know just how that feels. The stakes blend in with other plants, and more times than I’d like to remember, I reached into a bed and the tender bare underside of my arm touched one of the charged metal poles. In any case, they seem to work, but once the plants grow taller than the zappers, they lose their punch.

deer photograph
Mom stares back at me while her three juniors snack on the local flora just beyond the garden.

Especially when the stems of favorite Forever Susan lilies grow beyond the height of the wireless deer fences, exposing the clusters of apparently delectable flower buds to foraging deer. That period in late spring requires my vigilance. One year I tried covering the plants with black mesh netting supported by tall stakes. But lily buds grew through the mesh, then opened and deformed, straining to break the plastic chains of their bondage. An utter failed attempt to deter ravenous beasts.

Summer arrives, and I diligently spray noxious deer and rabbit repellent on the choicest, juiciest buds of day lilies, cone flowers, black-eyed Susans and the obviously delicious and tender leaves of hostas and hydrangeas.  This action does produce results. But if you try this kind of product, make sure your house with its open windows is uphill from the breeze. I neglected to consider the consequence until my partner popped out of the door yelling about a horrendous odor seeping into the living room.

Here’s another downside of this method: every time it rains, I have to spray all the animal edibles again. And if I forget to respray, I can count on a groundhog noting my slip-up to eat every flower cluster and leaf off the three plants of a newly hybridized phlox variety. It never fails, and leaves the naked stems sticking up like grave markers.

Cute, fuzzy-tailed squirrels look for secret places to bury nuts and other treats to see themselves through our bleak winters. They select my planters and urns to hide their treasures; in the process, they unearth annuals and make a mess. A Google search provided an effective remedy. Crushed chili flakes and chili powder sprinkled around the urn apparently irritate their paws; when they lick them off…well, you can imagine the surprise.

Agnes is a friend of mine

Non-venomous black rat snakes used to live underneath our next-door neighbor’s house, and I could count on them to cull the underground mole and vole herd that ate plant roots, exposing roots to air via their tunnels. I learned recently that voles are much more harmful than moles, because they eat plant roots.; Moles instead feast on destructive grubs and rid the garden of these pests. Alas, the reptiles moved on, Agnes the six-footer along with them. Before her departure, occasionally I found her relaxing with several lumps in her body, and I smiled with the assumption she may have crashed a vole party. But I don’t miss her scaring the wits out of me when I practically tripped over her as she slithered across the garden walkway in search of lunch one afternoon. Now I sprinkle supposedly tasty pellets from a cone-shaped container around the voles’ warren entrances to at least give them heartburn. The battle seems endless.

But I sure know how fruitless it is standing in the back yard at sunset screaming at a family of four white-tailed deer calmly munching on some tasty weed in the field behind our house. “Stay out of my garden!” Ears prick up as they stare at me for a moment, then they return to snacking. Crazy human. I know they are planning a return visit to my garden buffet for their after-hours dining pleasure. Where IS the deer repellent?

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