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Rethinking 'critter problems' in the garden

It's understandable that gardeners and homeowners get angry at animals that damage their plants. I think we would all like to live in a perfect world in which we can look out upon pastoral meadows, dotted with lovely woodland creatures that know their boundaries and don't touch our gardens and landscapes.

Nice idea, but that's not the way it is.

All those animals have basic drives -- to eat, drink, find safety and shelter and procreate. Many of them don't have sufficient or proper habitat in which to do those things.

Or, in the case of domesticated species, humans haven't taken appropriate care of them. So deer eat your shrubs, dogs poop on your lawn, rabbits eat your tulips and kitties make a litter box out of your raised bed. It's not about you. Still

How can we stop all this? Or can't we?

This column won't offer the 100 best tips for foiling critters, although I have some solid suggestions. It has been studied, written and talked about, and ultimately you'll have to find out what works for you. Each situation is different. We do know some general truths, however:

The first truth is: A working arrangement between animals and gardeners is not easy, and there are almost no quick fixes.

The second truth is that our expectations and attitudes about animals are a big part of the problem. If we could collectively change some of our thinking about "critter problems" and become more accepting, we would all be happier.

>The art of compromise

As I began writing this column I could see a familiar group of five deer out toward my pond, peeking this way. I could almost hear them thinking, "Should we check out those old apple trees? Oops -- is that the odd lady with her annoying dog? Maybe later."

They are only one of the small clusters that come and go at regular intervals around here. Fortunately, I have many acres on this old, overgrown farm, and this gang finds enough to eat.

For me and for them, this is mostly a good deal. I love to see them, and mostly they don't eat up all the spring bulbs, perennials and shrubs close to the house. That's partly because of the dog and partly because they have some acres with lots of undergrowth, unlike the poor creatures in Amherst and other overpopulated towns.

I'm lucky, for now. (Well, to be honest, they did get the Witch Hazel, some hydrangea tips and the "Fine Line" hawthorn. But that's my compromise.) I keep as much land for them as I can, try to arrange my plantings, use some repellents and shrub covers, and observe. Sometimes I win the negotiation, and sometimes I don't.

Last summer I had the pleasant experience of participating in a landscape design for a family who really valued and treasured the wildlife. The plants were chosen with consideration for the nearby animals -- deer, rabbits, raccoons, turkeys, pheasants, squirrels and all kinds of songbirds.

We also chose some plants that the deer mostly don't like, for beds closest to the house. But we knew that some would be eaten.

The first years in establishing that landscape will be a juggling act; some plants won't make it, but the overall naturalized landscape will. The family watches and loves the animals as part of the landscape, and it's part of why they live where they do.

>Realistic site analysis

It sometimes surprises people to hear that when deer (or rabbits, woodchucks or raccoons) do eat plants I've purchased and nurtured, I blame myself. I put the plant in the wrong place.

The animals are part of the site analysis. As I have deer nearby, alkaline soil and high winds, I should plant lilacs and Sorbaria and not rhododendrons or arborvitae -- but I took a chance. Part of the art of gardening is selecting plants that suit the site, and being responsible for taking some chances.

But I can hear your voices as you read this: "But my deer eat everything, even the boxwoods they're not supposed to eat! I put so much money into that landscape; I've given up gardening because of them. I'd like to get a gun!"

Yes, it's expensive and disappointing when the animals eat your landscape. The deer and rabbits just won't read those "critter-proof" lists!

So much depends upon the "deer pressure" in your area. The animals need the plant material now, and you're providing a protected salad bar right under your eaves.

If that's the case, your only choices are fencing, the Shrub Coat products they can't chew through, or a really diligent effort with deer repellent products and fragrant things (dryer strips, strong soaps, garlic sprays).

You'll have to alternate your repellent tricks, too.

Animals, especially deer, get used to strange scents, noises and lights, so you have to keep surprising them. Online and in books you'll find a plethora of proven animal repellents and tricks, and many work well some of the time. If they don't, or it's too much trouble, you'll simply have to adjust what you want in a landscape.

>Not just deer

In urban settings, the complaints are about cats and dogs. If we would all neuter our pets and adopt animals from shelters, we would decrease the homeless populations.

Again, it's human society that's erred. Those outdoor cats would much rather have safe homes and clean litter boxes, instead of your flower bed. (Hint: You can foil them by putting chicken wire or other unscratchable material on the open soil, or use odor repellents.)

As for dogs who dig holes or urinate on your Chamaecyparis, you'll have to rearrange the garden, set up obstacles and keep teaching them. (Gardeners: It's smarter to adopt a calm, mature, neutered dog instead of a puppy in the first place.)

The animals, thank heaven, will be with us. Love them; celebrate them; help them. And keep gardening. It's a matter of making the right compromises.


Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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