Garden Notebook for the Urban Organic Vegetable, Herb, and Flower Gardener  

Critter Management Series Part 2 – Large Critters 

Article and photos by Rob Danforth  

Some larger critters (not rodents) which can affect your gardening satisfaction are deer, skunks, racoons, dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, chipmunks, groundhogs, and squirrels!  

However, as with most things in nature, there are plusses and minuses to critters (e.g., birds, racoons, and skunks eat the bugs and larvae of insect pests). Nevertheless, critter damage can be very annoying and even disheartening.  A fellow gardener was prepared to quit gardening after deer ate all his leafy greens!  Another gardener lost many cobs of corn to racoons the day before he planned to harvest.  We lost a whole row of young bush beans to deer.  We replanted and enjoyed many meals with beans – just a little later than expected.  

Raccoons – are intelligent, nocturnal, urban neighbourhood residents, excellent climbers, with very regular habits.  They may break into your composter, green bin, or attic. They eat bugs, food leftovers (chicken a favourite), fish from your green bin or pond, and all your corn!  Deterrents:  electric fence; motion sensors with sprinklers, lights, or noise makers; human hair or urine; dog hair; aggressive dog; chicken wire full enclosure (not a fence); and nematode purchase to control lawn grubs which racoons enjoy.  Tie down composters with bungee cords; secure green bins so they cannot be knocked over, cover new sod with bird netting or chicken wire, and don’t grow corn!  

Mom and the kids have learned to push lids off our composters and to knock over green bins so they spring open.  When I forgot to secure our green bin, greasy paw prints on the bricks and the remains of a chicken dinner spread about were the price of my forgetfulness.


(Photo:  baby squirrel went on tour of the garden on the top of my right shoe, then hopped off!) 

— excellent climbers that like to sample many vegetables, seeds, flowers, and bulbs.  Specialists in decapitating sunflowers and tulips, and in planting peanuts in lawns, pots, and plots.  They are also destructive.  I watched a squirrel enlarge a hole in a bird house, wood chips flying everywhere, so it could move in, and one chewing through siding to break into a neighbour’s attic – despite all our efforts to discourage it!  Deterrentscomplete enclosure of chicken wire on desirable items, plastic bird net or row covers over less desirable items of opportunity; dog hair or a dog; plastic net bags encasing  squash and melons; light spray of soapy water, cayenne pepper, or garlic on the produce (not the leaves!) to add a bad taste on the outer skin which we can wash off before use; sprinkled blood meal or a suspended bag of it (not particularly effective in our yard); and anti-critter spike mats, or river stones as soil covers in plots or pots.  Remove bird feeders or find a way to squirrel-proof them and keep all the seeds from the ground. 

  • A squirrel ran off with an entire kohlrabi plant it pulled out of the ground – dragged it up and over our fence!  
  • Reminder:  re-apply soap, cayenne, garlic, or blood meal after a rain.  

Cats – Tomcats mark territory with spray that burns vegetation and cat poop has pathogens dangerous to people.  Scoop the poop and the soil around it.  Do not compost! – Deterrents:  shredded leaf mulch, firm packed soil, old rose canes as ground cover, anti-critter plastic spike mats, respectful chat with neighbourhood cat owners, purchased smell discouragers that are enclosed so rain cannot wash the chemical into the soil.   

  • An Ontario study found Cryptosporidium spp. and other zoonotic, enteric parasites in samples from domestic cats and dogs in the Niagara region.  

Dogs – Urine burns vegetation and poop has unhealthy pathogens and parasites that can remain in the soil for years.  Scoop the poop before it rains (soil does not need scooping).  Do not compost!  Deterrents:  4 to 5-foot chicken wire fence, tall-ish plant containers (above leg lifting height), motion sensors & sprinklers, designated pee post inoculated with urine, respectful chat with dog walkers, purchased smell discouragers that will not leech into the soil during a rain.  

Chipmunks – Climbers that may burrow into a box bed, under a shed or deck, or into walls or attics; they chew fabrics for nest material; they love sunflower seeds and will eat nuts, berries, slugs, and dead flesh!  Deterrents: hardware cloth wire fencing, dog hair, row covers, hoop tunnels, and sacrificial sunflowers.  You might also re-consider bird feeders and their “fallout.” 

Groundhogs are great climbers that enjoy leafy greens and love to burrow.  They are not too concerned about people if a home hole is nearby – there will be more than one, and not far away!  Deterrents: blood meal, cayenne pepper, human hair, dog hair or a dog, old rose canes, chicken wire full hoop enclosure (not a fence), human urine or full-strength household ammonia down the home holes (effective!).  A smoke bomb down a hole you then block will reveal the system of holes, but then what?  Please note – a hose down the hole is an enormous waste of water.  The sleeping chamber is usually higher up than the travel tunnels.  Also, travel tunnels that fill with fall water and freeze solid can lift things (like our shed!!!) and then collapse in the spring melt. 

  • A groundhog tried to dig a home in our basement window well.  Household ammonia and chicken wire persuaded it to move elsewhere.   
  • Landscape fabric at the bottom of our cold frame stopped a groundhog from completing a tunnel – twice!  
  • Live trapping is not recommended (please see critter series part one DTE May issue). 

(Photo: baby rabbit came through the fence –barely visible, eating clover)

Rabbits – eat a little here & there at dawn, dusk, and on cloudy days.  They are not voracious but they have favourites and may nest under shrubs. Baby rabbits can pass right through a chain link fence! Deterrents: used coffee grounds, human hair, dog hair or a dog, blood meal (dusted or bagged), chicken wire, or “hardware cloth.”  Distract them with Dutch White clover in the lawn.  The good news is they do not climb so containers are usually a good choice, but tall rabbits can reach high on their hind legs and some will jump up if the temptation is strong! 

Caution:  some rabbits seem to see dogs as protection rather than a deterrent – those near us do! Rabbits also seem to know when a fence between me and the wee beastie keeps them safe. They stop short and stare back – I’d swear that rabbit smiled at me!

  • Note:  Dutch white clover in the lawn will add nitrogen to the soil and attract rabbits and bees.  We use clover to recover the lawn from chinch bugs – they do not like clover.  20 % Dutch White clover is sufficient; when it flowers, let the bees enjoy it and then mow the lawn – all will be green again!  Tip:  we use 20% Dutch White Clover and perennial rye grass along with regular grass seed which is usually a blend of 3 or more varieties of grasses. 

Deer – will enjoy your beans, squash, zucchini, and leafy greens.  Deterrents: 8-foot thin plastic fence; human hair; rotten eggs (not fun for people either); cayenne, garlic or soap spray on produce with skins we remove but not leaves; strongly scented herbs (garlic, rosemary, thyme, oregano, mint etc.); pleated, springy chicken wire as ground cover; bar of Irish Spring soap, or fragrant dryer sheets. 

  • Caution:  If you try the soap or dryer sheet deterrents, protect them from rain and keep liquid run-off from getting into the soil (e.g., put soap or dryer sheets in a recycled can — it is the strong smell that is the actual deterrent). 


(Photo: 8-foot deer fence + electric racoon deterrent, + chicken wire – 1 ft. under & 2 ft. above ground to deter rabbits & ground hogs) 

  • According to the hoof prints and the jaw marks on the ¼ inch of butternut squash rind that remained on the ground, a large deer ate 95% of one of our butternut squashes as a main dish, a few of our zucchinis as a side dish, and all my bush beans for dessert. We fenced after that! 

Birds – are a problem only if you have berries or seeds to protect.  Deterrents:  plastic bird netting draped over the berry bushes, a plastic raptor or raptor kite on a tether attached to a flexible pole, fly fishing rod, or whip antenna. This kite flies – alive like – whenever the wind blows. 

(Photo:  Crow perched on a plastic raptor – it must be moved about to suggest it is alive!)  

  • Note:  Plastic raptors (owls & hawks) will discourage all birds and may not be the solution you want!  Many birds eat bugs, especially when feeding their young, so cover seeds, berries, and currants with firm plastic netting (green or black) draped over the bush or spread over a hoop or a bamboo frame.  This lets birds get at the bugs in the rest of your garden. Caution: there is a bird netting that is not firm (feels like recycled plastic wrap) that does more harm than good.  Birds get badly tangled in it; we had to get scissors to free them.  

(Photo 1: firm green bird net draped over berry bushes) 

(Photo 2:  firm black bird net; soft green bird net – feels like plastic wrap) 

Reminder:  Knowing your critters and their habits can give you ways to manage them – they can even work on your behalf! 

Whatever the challenge, keep calm and carry-on gardening! 

Copyright:  © Rob Danforth; permission granted to print and/or post but not to edit.