Gardening season in most of Canada is in full swing which means that home gardeners and farmers alike are beginning to experience crop loss due to wandering native wildlife. Deer, rabbits, squirrels, insects, birds, and so many more wild creatures share the land that we use to grow our food, which can be a major inconvenience to humans, and very dangerous for these animals.
Traditional modes of deterrence are often dangerous or lethal to wildlife. Pesticides poison insects, birds, and small animals; poorly made fencing can injure, trap or kill animals; traps can severely injure or kill, whether intentionally or accidentally; and even more humane, well intentioned attempts at deterring wildlife, be it commercial or homemade sprays and pesticides, can irritate, injure, and even kill small animals and insects.
How can you prevent wild animals from reaping what you sow? Below are some options for deterring wildlife that may help protect your food crops from creatures large and small.
- Permaculture, polyculture, and crop rotation
The safest, most ethical way to ensure that your crops are not decimated by wild animals is to create an environment that is conducive to coexistence with local wildlife. Unfortunately, creating a productive garden or larger scale growing operation using permaculture principles is not a quick fix, and requires a great deal if planning, patience, and experimentation. Luckily, there is an increasing body of literature written for home gardeners and small-scale farmers that teaches the basic principles of permaculture, crop rotation, polyculture gardening.
The basic premise of use these methods specifically to protect your food crops of being decimated by wildlife, is this: in any healthy ecosystem there is balance. There are animals and insects that eat plants, and there are other animals and insects that prey on those animals and insects. By planting a wide variety of plants and creating a safe space in your garden or on your farm for wildlife, you can coexist without sacrificing your garden yields. Some crop loss using this method is expected, and even welcomed. This requires a significant shift, not just in your method of gardening, but also your way of thinking about garden productivity.
There are lots of great books and websites on the subject. Some of my favourite books on the subject include Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, Ruth Stout’s Gardening Without Work, and, if you’re interested in taking a deeper look into your soil and the wildlife living beneath the surface of your garden, Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels.
- Row covers, garden mesh, and secure fencing
If you are small space gardener or growing in containers in your yard or on your balcony, it may be difficult to use polyculture or permaculture principles. Companion planting — which is an example of polyculture gardening whereby you plant crops that may benefit one another together — may be possible on this smaller scale, but you will likely have more luck by simply making your crops inaccessible.
For example, row covers — either using clear plastic or a fine mesh — can prevent invading insects, birds, rodents, rabbits, and other small animals. For containers, using a portion of a cattle panel both beneath and on top of planters may be effective in preventing burrowing animals like gophers and voles, as well as small animals like rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and opposums and birds. For smaller single crops like lettuces, a garden cloche can be effective (though likely not cost effective).
To protect fruit and berries, garden mesh can be effective in preventing animals, especially birds, from harvesting your fruit as soon as it ripens.
And of course, to prevent larger animals, like deer, especially in more rural areas, secure, safe fencing (which means no loose ends, barbed wire, large holes of gaps, etc.) can be highly effective.
- Homemade natural pesticides for tiny hard to see invaders
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, tiny, sometimes literally microscopic invaders wreak havoc on your garden crops. From leaf borers to fungus gnats to aphids, tiny bugs can be the bane of a gardener’s existence. For these creatures only I recommend healthy, natural homemade pesticides, used in moderation. Many organic gardeners recommend neem oil — an oil extracted from the seeds of the neem tree. It is naturally antimicrobial and antifungal, and can play double duty in your garden of smothering gnats and aphids while preventing the invasion if leaf borers and even powdery/downy mildew (the white powdery fungus that often appears on squash plants, and even lilac leaves during particularly wet and humid summers).
There are significant drawbacks to using even the most safe and natural pesticides though. While a neem oil solution is largely safe for larger insects and small animals, there is evidence that even a highly diluted neem oil solution can have toxic effects on juvenile bees when consumed. For this reason it is very important that you do not spray a neem oil solution on or near flowers of plants, and if possible, only use it on effected plants prior to blooming. This will help ensure that bees and other pollinators will not come into contact with or consume the need oil while seeking out nectar.
There are definitely many more ways that organic gardeners have attempted to prevent animals from invading their gardens and farms. What I’ve included here is a small selection of options that I have used and have had some success with while trying to grow food for my family sustainably and ethically.
What are some of the ways that you have tried to keep wildlife from snacking on your hard-earned food crops?