Timothy Hill, Gala, Benefit, Ranch, Riverhead
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Hamptons Life

Jul 9, 2018 12:31 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Get Control Of Your Garden By First Knowing Who The Enemy Is

A chain-link fence is only a minor obstacle for a rabbit. Fast and efficient diggers, they can get under fences with little effort. Fencing must be buried nearly a foot deep to prevent rabbit entry. ANDREW MESSINGER
Jul 9, 2018 12:42 PM

There is a whole menagerie of visitors to our gardens but it’s the four-legged ones that can be the most vexing.

Some can be as tiny as a shrew weighing as little a half an ounce, all the way up to the white-tailed deer that can come in at a couple of hundred pounds. But in many cases I find that gardeners attribute damage to garden plants to the wrong animals. If you don’t know for sure who or what you’re dealing with, it’s nearly impossible to control them and, as you’ll see, there are a few that need no control at all.

Let’s start with the mole because this small animal is blamed more often than any other in this group for garden damage that it hasn’t done. Moles—two types may be found on Long Island—don’t eat plants, roots and bulbs, and that includes vegetables. And yet when spring bulbs disappear in the garden, moles are often blamed. It’s often incorrectly assumed that moles tunnel to get to underground plant parts like roots, corms and bulbs. Wrong again.

Moles are carnivores. They are not vegetarians and have no interest in any part of any of your plants. Their diets primarily consist of worms and grubs. A lawn networked by mole tunnels and hills, more often than not, indicates a grub problem from any number of beetles, but often from the Japanese beetle. A healthy lawn can be plagued by moles because a lawn high in organic matter will support a good worm population—and thus a good mole population. So, moles can be a curse, but also an indication of a problem or the fact that you’ve treated your lawn and soil well.

Often confused with the mole is the vole. Different animal and different diet. Voles are slightly smaller than moles and, unlike moles who are nearly blind, voles are visual. Voles do not tunnel, which also separates them from moles. However, they will use mole tunnels to get about and they surreptitiously inhabit the organic debris just above the soil, so they love moving through leaf litter, grass clippings and mulch. They often spend their time at the woods’ edge where they can hide from predators, like hawks, under fallen leaves, fluff and such. But when a garden is nearby, they’ll take a chance and scoot into the garden in search of food.

Food, in this case, can be a tuber, a root, seeds, a lily bulb, a tulip bulb, the crown of a perennial or the bark of an apple or quince tree. And unlike other rodents, voles are active year-round and always looking for a meal. They have to—they are one of the few rodents that continues to reproduce right through the winter.

Then there are the mice. While we are most familiar with the white-footed mouse, we actually have several species in our area including jumping mice that can leap just like a kangaroo rat. Mice primarily eat seeds and small insects and— other than being an important part of the life cycle of ticks—our mice do only minor damage in our gardens. But, left uncontrolled, you can find them making their homes in yours, in the air filter of a garden tractor and just about anywhere that they can build a nest, hide and stay warm.

Last on the small list is the shrew. The tiniest of this group, and probably the one least seen, the shrew often weighs only a half ounce and, again, they do no damage to your garden and plants. Shrews are carnivores and eat worms, insects, other shrews and rodents, salamanders and newts. It’s not likely you’ll ever come into contact with one as they are tiny and fast and will simply ignore you.

Squirrels come in three varieties out here. The gray squirrel everyone knows but the red squirrel is less common. Gray squirrels will maraud your garden for nuts and fruits but the fruits don’t have to be ripe. They will also dig, eat and transplant a number of garden bulbs, but avoid daffodils. Every year we have issues with the squirrels going into our orchard and harvesting the small green apples. They will also dig your tulip bulbs, and a few other bulbs, within minutes of them being planted. Red squirrels are not as bold, move about much more quickly and will rarely be seen in the garden. However, like all squirrels, red squirrels need to keep their teeth sharp by gnawing and one actually went to work on the gas tank on my chipper-shredder leaving the tank leaking, useless and creating a real danger for a fire. Flying squirrels are rarely, if ever, seen and I’ve never known them to do garden damage. However, if they ever get into your attic, eaves or dormers, you are in for a long battle to get them out.

Chipmunks are the bane of my existence. Cute and often tamable to the point where they will eat out of your hand, they can destroy some garden plants such as hardy lilies. Over the past few years, my lily collection has grown and been depleted as I battle with these little guys. They dig down to the lily bulbs and feast on the bulb scales and later in the season feast on those varieties that produce bulblets or offsets. But my truce came to an end with them two years ago when I caught them climbing my ready-to-bloom lilies where they would open the flower bud, feed on the inside of the bud leaving nothing left but the outer green sheath.

Moving up the list we come to opossums and skunks. Again, we rarely encounter these two in our gardens. They do visit but don’t bother our plants. They may dig for insects and are big fans of grubs, but other than that both are nocturnal and the only sign you may see of their visits are the holes they’ve dug or the skunks’ telltale perfume.

Larger yet on the list is the raccoon. This skillful masked bandit will not eat your plants but will wait until just the right moment to steal and feast on your tomatoes, corn, melons and even some tree fruit. We had a raccoon set up home in the hollow trunk of a large maple tree behind our house last year and it was delightful watching the litter of kits grow up and to see them peeking out from their den waiting for mom to return with food. But raccoons will nest only once in a spot, so we knew the family was transient and going elsewhere for meals.

Then there are the rabbits. Mine are intimidated by nothing anymore. I watched one come around the barn last Sunday, then another. They looked at each other then began boxing like they were a pair of kangaroos. That was new. But the week before I figured out how they get to the buds on my 2 foot and taller purple coneflowers. As I watched from the porch, a single rabbit went to the edge of the garden and just leaned against the plants, lowering the buds to his munch level. I deprived him of his snack though and grabbed my bottle of repellent and sprayed all the foliage and flowers. Problem solved for the moment. I also did a generous application of Rabbit Scram, which I’ve found to be very effective.

Bottom line is that there’s lots of four-legged critters who want a bite of your garden. There is a host of remedies that I frequently mention from sprays to fences and even electrical shocks. But before you can get control you need to know who the enemy is, then what to use and when. Don’t give up. Keep growing.

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