Deer, rabbits and voles, oh my! Plus gophers and pocket gophers, moles and chipmunks, woodchucks and raccoons. The list of of four-legged pests that northern gardeners deal with is long, but dealing with deer, rabbits and burrowing crittes has long been a top pest concerns of members of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society.
Today, gardeners are most likely to mention are deer as the pest they hate the most — but that was not always the case. For the first 50 to 100 years of MSHS publications, deer are hardly mentioned as a garden pest, which might have more to do with hunting patterns and an abundance of natural spaces than the eating habits of deer. But as suburban and urban neighborhoods grew, so did the appetite for hostas and other garden goodies among deer.
A 2008 article on one gardener’s battle with deer offers several tried-and-true tips:
Fence it, physically or psychologically. Deer can jump, so most garden advice is to build a fence at least 6 feet tall around your garden area. But they do not like to feel trapped and they are risk averse. If you create a situation that feels risky, they will move on. In the 2008 story, the gardener describes building a bramble-like fence of branches, logs and sticks to create a psychological barrier. (Using the same psychology, Kent Scheer describes using small enclosures to deter deer in a 2019 article.)
Choose the most “deer-proof” plants: If they are hungry enough, deer will eat anything but Eric Johnson offers a list of deer resistant plants that includes: daffodil, bee balm, ornamental grass, lamb’s ears, pachysandra and yarrow. Here’s another good list of deer-resistant plants. Plants to avoid: hostas, tulips, pansies, arborvitae, daylillies, yews and apple trees.
Try trap plants for rabbits. Rabbits can be extremely frustrating for urban gardeners because without a predator they breed like . . . well, rabbits. And they are hungry. In a 1909 issue of Minnesota Horticulturist, West Concord Trial Station superintendent F.J. Cowles reported leaving bundles of corn on one side of his property to keep rabbits from nibbling on the bark of his fruit trees. Come spring, the corn was gone and the trees were fine.
When in doubt, fence bunnies out. Unlike deer, rabbits can only jump a couple of feet high. A 3-foot tall fence made of chicken wire has protected many northern vegetable gardens through the seasons. Persistent bunnies will try to go under a fence, too, so bury your wire a few inches underground.
If your bulbs are damaged, it may be pocket gophers. In 1968, entomologist D.M. Hatfield reported on his investigations into burrowing critters who damaged bulb plantings. Many gardeners blamed moles, but that was the wrong suspect. Unlike pocket gophers, who eat a mostly plant diet, moles prefer worms and insects. Moles, Hatfield noted, are usually beneficial because of the amount of insects and larvae they consume.
Wait to mulch hostas, if you have voles. Voles burrow just under the soil and can cause a lot of damage to hosta gardens, especially if they are mulched in winter. Hosta expert Bonnie Blanchette recommended in 2000 that gardeners wait until after soil is frozen to mulch their hostas. If the area around the hosta is warmer than the surrounding soil in late fall and early winter, you can expect guests.
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