How to Keep Varmints Out of Your Garden

Critter Proofing Your Garden

How to Keep Varmints Out of Your Garden

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Stacy Benjamin – Knowing how to keep varmints out of your garden can be the difference between success and failure. There’s nothing better than the sense of satisfaction that comes from growing your own food — and nothing worse than the feeling of disappointment when a critter eats the fruits of your labor before you do! After moving to a rural area after years of gardening in a city backyard where the only garden pests I had to worry about were chickens, it wasn’t long before I got a crash course in all the wildlife that are only too happy to eat your garden down to nothing! In addition to deer and songbirds which are common garden pests, we’ve also had to contend with everything from rabbits to squirrels, voles, and chipmunks.

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As much as I enjoy living close to nature and getting to see wildlife up close on a regular basis, I’ve come to realize that the cutest critters can be the biggest pests. Once you know how to keep varmints out of your garden, you will then be able to reap the rewards of your labor.

Deer Fencing

Installing an electric fence was the first measure we took for keeping deer out of gardens. Deer fencing needs to be a minimum of six feet high, with the strands of wire placed close enough together so that the deer can’t squeeze through — trust me on this because it does happen! Our fence is six-feet high with multiple strands of electric wire alternated with vinyl-coated cable spaced about eight inches apart. Our fence is powered by a solar charger, and it’s pretty low maintenance. It is important to remember to keep it turned on and tighten up the wires if they sag over time. Deer are quick to get past your defenses when they see an opportunity, and it only takes one slip up to see the surprising amount of damage they can wreak in a short time should they get into your garden.
Cute, but unwelcome garden visitors squeezed through the electric fence.
I’ve also tried protecting a few small garden beds located outside the electric deer fence by wrapping them with thin woven deer netting, and my advice to you is don’t even bother with that because the deer can chew right through it. As an added layer of protection, we also have fencing around our chicken and turkey flocks, and they are well away from our garden. If you have a free-range flock or some high flyers, you may find that a six-foot-high deer fence is not tall enough to keep everyone out.
The thin woven type of deer netting is easily chewed through by deer.

Bird Netting and Cages

Raspberries and blueberries were two of the first things I planted in our newly fenced garden, and I couldn’t wait for those first summer harvests. Unfortunately, I had to compete with the hoards of marauding songbirds that I would frequently see flying around the farm with berry juice-stained beaks! We tried two methods of excluding birds from our berries, and the method that I like best is the cage that was made with a series of hoops using plastic electrical conduit and covered with chicken wire. There is a door that rolls up on one side so that I can get in and access the berries. Very occasionally a small songbird will find its way into the cage, but the good thing about this design is that it’s easy to let them out by opening the door and they don’t get caught up in the chicken wire itself.
Raspberry beds are protected with bird netting.
The other design we’ve used is to hang bird netting over the hoops and install landscape staples to secure the netting tightly to the ground. But it seems that no matter how hard I try to secure the netting, birds always find their way in and get caught in the net. I make it a point to go up to the garden every morning and evening to check if anyone is caught inside or in the net, and I can usually manage to free them without too much trouble. This method is a bit easier to install, but it does pose a greater risk to birds, which is why I prefer the chicken wire cage method.

Rabbits and Rodents

It wasn’t long before I realized that a strand-style electric fence wasn’t going to keep all four-legged critters out. The lowest strand of wire is about 10 inches from the ground, which leaves easy access for rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks. We added two-foot-high chicken wire around the bottom of the fence (after first trying one-foot-high chicken wire with not much success), and the two-foot-high chicken wire has worked to keep the rabbits out. I also made small round cages using half-inch hardware cloth to protect some of my smaller transplants which worked fairly well, but making these individual cages is more labor-intensive than wrapping the base of the electric fence. Even with the added layer of protection provided by the low chicken wire fence, all manner of rodents still get into the garden. It seems like every year they go after something new, and we are constantly troubleshooting a new problem. We had mice digging up from below ground into the strawberry bed, so we lined the bottom of the bed with half-inch hardware cloth. The next year the chipmunks started raiding the strawberry patch, so we built a lid covered with hardware cloth over the top of the bed — after first trying chicken wire and realizing the one-inch openings were not small enough to exclude the chipmunks. It’s pretty labor-intensive, working with hardware cloth, but it’s worth the effort to protect those highly valued crops.
Strawberry bed protected with hardware cloth to keep out smaller rodents.
I’ve long had some critter, I suspect voles, dining on my potatoes before I dig them up. It hasn’t been enough of a problem to bother doing anything about, but last summer ground squirrels suddenly discovered my garden and began digging up from below in several of my raised beds. Combine that with the Douglas’ squirrels digging down into the beds from above, and enough was enough!
Raspberry beds protected with bird netting.
I tried to start a fall garden from seed, only to be thwarted by digging everywhere. I am slowly beginning the process of using vinyl-coated steel hex wire (similar to chicken wire, but a little sturdier) to line the bottom of a few of the raised beds that had the most activity this year, and I also put a layer of wire over the top of the beds. We’ll see how this will work out next year, and what new problem I find myself dealing with because I know it will be something! In what other ways do you know how to keep varmints out of your garden? We would love to hear from you in the comments below! Originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy. 

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