by Judith Johnson, Extension Master Gardener
Many of the visitors to the Organic Vegetable Garden (OVG) want to know how to protect their carefully and lovingly tended vegetable gardens from the deer, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, insects, and birds that want to enjoy the garden’s bounty. Below are some of the strategies that work in the OVG, at least much of the time.
Because the OVG is in Potomac Overlook Regional Park (with its abundant wildlife), protecting the garden from deer, rabbits, and raccoons is imperative. A 9-foot-high fence around the garden serves to keep out deer, at least if the gates are closed. Depending on the size of the garden, protection against deer can be as simple as putting netting over hoops in a raised bed or enclosing the plants in various types and sizes of cages available through garden supply companies. We use chicken wire (1-inch x 1-inch) affixed to the lowest part of the fence to deter rabbits. The chicken wire needs to be at least 2-feet high. Usually, the chicken wire reinforcement to the fence will cause bunnies to look elsewhere for dinner. However, not even a 9-foot-high fence is enough to discourage raccoons. For this reason, we do not grow the traditional three sisters of corn, squash, and beans. Although not tempted by the squash and beans, which we do grow, they are adept at shucking corn!
Squirrels and, less so, chipmunks present a particular threat to ripening tomatoes, and tomatoes are seemingly what every gardener wants to grow. In the OVG, we have tried two ways of protecting the large-fruited tomatoes. For several years we erected what we termed “the fortress.” Although effective, it cannot be left in place because we rotate crops. In 2022, we are trying lighter weight and more easily assembled structures. We are still assessing whether this system can provide enough protection—squirrels have already managed to chew through the netting in some places. We have again used the versatile chicken wire to reinforce vulnerable areas.
We only use pesticides that are labeled organic because they come from natural sources, usually plants, and only then use them sparingly. Instead, we have found barriers to be effective in protecting plants from insects. For example, we cover eggplant seedlings with row cover over hoops to limit the damage from flea beetles. Of course, when the plants start to flower, we must remove the row cover to allow pollination by the beneficial insects that we entice to the garden by growing flowers. We have also used row cover to protect many other plants such as self-pollinating cucumbers and seedlings that have just been planted.
We enjoy watching the many birds that visit the garden, especially the hummingbirds and bluebirds, but birds can also be a nuisance. We place row cover directly on the ground after planting some varieties of seeds and keep it there until the seeds germinate and the plants are pushing through the soil. We have also used row covers over hoops to protect Swiss chard from, of all things, goldfinches. They present a pretty picture when they land on the colorful chard but peck holes in the leaves, ruining them for donation to food banks.
In general, we find that barriers of various kinds provide enough protection to enjoy a good harvest. If one type of barrier does not work, do try another type. Most pests will choose to move on to a more convenient meal.