Peter Rabbit & His Friends: How to Deal with Unwanted Critters in Your Garden

By Rachel Mueller, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

If you’ve already been to this year’s WPS Garden of Lights, you might have noticed that our newest light display, “Veggie Tails,” tells the story of a rabbit hopping through a garden patch only to take a bite out of one of the carrots. Sure, it’s a cute scene and bunny rabbits are some of the more cuddly creatures we see here at the Garden throughout the year, but we would be remiss to say that these furry critters can’t cause gardeners some headaches.

So here are some of the most common critter offenders in Wisconsin and how to handle them if they start terrorizing your garden.

Disclaimer: If you’re dealing with an unwanted critter or pest and aren’t sure the best course of action to take, we recommend contacting your local DNR (Department of Natural Resources) specialist for assistance and for more information about local wildlife laws.

Rabbits

There are several different species of rabbits that call Wisconsin home, but the one that typically causes the most damage is the eastern cottontail. They love to hang around vegetable patches and ornamental gardens, chewing on plants throughout the year. These plants will look like they have been cleanly cut off and you’ll also notice little round animal droppings nearby.

rabbit in grass PC: Ray Hennessy on Unplash

Rabbits tend to munch on juicy green plants like veggies, annuals and perennials in the summer while they’ll snack on bark and young shoots from evergreens and other deciduous trees and shrubs in the winter.

Use non-plastic fencing to keep rabbits out of your garden. Also try to eliminate their hiding spots, like brush piles, to reduce the number of rabbits on your property. Trapping, where legal, is another option.

Birds

A variety of birds can cause problems so we won’t go into specific species-by-species details, but if you’re looking to keep birds away from your fruits and vegetables, we recommend mesh netting or overhead grids made from wire, fishing line and other materials.

Moles, Chipmunks & Squirrels

Moles rarely eat plants – they gobble up insects, grubs and worms – but they love to dig holes and make tunnels. Setting up a trap along a recently used tunnel is the most effective way to deal with them. You can also try to reduce the number of grubs available for them to eat, but using pesticides to do this may also kill beneficial insects and other organisms in your soil.

Chipmunks and squirrels love to dig up plants, pull up bulbs and tunnel into hard-to-reach areas. Squirrels also nibble on veggies, particularly tomatoes, squash and pumpkins.

squirrel on tree PC: Kylli Kittus on Unsplash

Chipmunks are easier to handle since you can use mesh, caulking or another device to keep them out of certain areas. Removing food sources like bird seed and attractive hiding areas, like wood piles, might reduce their numbers, too.

Unfortunately, Squirrels are incredibly hard to remove so trying to do so isn’t very practical or cost-effective, but you could try baiting them with peanut butter.

Raccoons

Raccoons love fruit and veggies, especially grapes and corn, and they’ll forage your garden just as crops are ready to be picked. Pay extra attention and you’ll be able to shoo them away before the damage gets worse.

raccoon in bird feeder PC: Jamez Picard on Unsplash

Set up a battery-operated radio, motion-sensitive perimeter lights or even a sprinkler. These will frighten or confuse approaching raccoons. You can also put up electric fencing where the damage has been frequent or use repellants like hot sauce (capsaicin).

White-tailed Deer

Deer are everywhere in Wisconsin so it’s no surprise they cause damage to crops, gardens and landscaping. They’ll eat pretty much any kind of plant and will leave behind a frayed woody stem. They tend to love plants in the rose family like serviceberry (a berry tree), apples and other fruit trees. They also eat evergreens like cedar, arborvitae and white pine and will sometimes nibble on emerging perennials and tulips in springtime. Bucks can also cause damage by rubbing their antlers on tree trunks.

deer on snow path PC: Gary Bendig on Unsplash

Fence in your gardens and plant beds with temporary (electric fencing) or permanent (high tensile woven wire) materials to reduce or eliminate deer damage. Commercial deer repellants can also work.

Always keep in mind that abundant wildlife is a double-edged sword. While we do want our natural environment to maintain its stability, sometimes unwanted critters can be a handful. Here are a few final tips to remember:

Make an effort to understand your local wildlife laws: Find out what you can and cannot do with wild animals. Make sure you check in with your local DNR.

Determine what you’re dealing with before you act: You can only solve the problem by knowing what type of animal is causing it. From there, you can learn the best way to handle the situation.

Know whether it’s better to exclude, remove or repel: Sometimes it’s simply making sure the animal can’t get into your garden with a fence while other times it’s using smell or taste to make the area less welcoming. Removal should often be a last resort since it can be incredibly complex to trap and release correctly (or kill, if necessary).

And finally, be mindful of other animals or people that could be affected by what you’re doing and whether your solution is the best solution.

Resources: UW-Extension Master Gardener Manual & HumaneSociety.org