Gardeners are the most optimist people in the world. They know the seeds they pat into the soil will fulfill their dreams of fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit. It will just take a bit of time, sunshine, water and nurturing.
Unfortunately, dreams sometimes fade to nightmares when marauders skulk among the beans or under the zucchini leaves. Garden marauders are sometimes mammals — squirrels, chipmunks, gophers or deer; feathery marauders are all types of birds; insect marauders arrive as adults or larvae and ready to nibble.
What to do, what to do in order to savor the fruits of your labor?
Mulch is the alternative to herbicide spray to control weeds in the garden. In the same way, there is no effective spray for marauders.
In the fruit and vegetable garden, barriers are the way to keep out mammals. Sometimes this can be a fence around the sides and top of your garden. In Europe, fruit cages are very popular because they keep out birds and small mammals.
Since most small fruit is produced on shrubs that are not moved or rotated, cages work well. It means that you may have to redesign and transplant your small fruit into an area that can be fenced with half-inch hardware “cloth,” which is a small-gauge wire mesh. The cage is more humane than netting and is more permanent. Netting kills birds that become trapped in the fibers. The reason the bird wants to be in your garden could be more than looking for a sweet snack to feed its young. Often birds are effective cleaners of insect larva and eggs that would otherwise damage your fruit.
If you have trapped birds in netting before the fruit is ripe, it would be a sign that you need to be more diligent at watching for insect pests. Research done on fruit damaged bird by birds concluded that most of the stomach contents of the bird is filled with protein-rich insects and that the fruit is a bit of dessert.
The annoying aspect is that birds snack on many piece of fruit rather than filling up on just one juicy orb. I feel that my fruit production is plentiful enough for me and for my feathered friends because they do a super job keeping insect pests at bay.
There are two types of mammal marauders: miners and munchers.
The miners are the diggers such as gophers, squirrels or chipmunks. These furry rascals dig in the soil to snack on roots or to bury some treasure for later retrieval. Mostly, the miners cause damage by uprooting plants and exposing their roots to the drying air.
The munchers are squirrels, chipmunks and deer. These guys eat the crops when they first germinate or wait until there is a foot of succulent leaves to chomp. The best way to keep these marauders out is not necessarily a fence. The fence has to be 18 inches into the ground and 7-feet tall to keep out the deer and the digger.
To keep deer away from the garden, install six feet of pig wire spread on the ground surrounding the vegetable garden. You can mow over this, and it is tidy. The deer will not cross it since they are afraid of getting their feet caught in the mesh.
Floating row cloth secured to the ground with long staples works to keep our squirrels and chipmunks. A hoop house covered with floating row cloth is even better. Keeping the enclosure tightly closed is what makes this system work. It also keep birds and flying insects out. The disadvantage is that it must be unstaked to harvest the crops or to inspect for insect damage. Fifty-foot rolls are available at garden centers or online.
Insects are also marauders. The best defense against this pest is vigilance. Most insect pest populations start small and then multiply rapidly. If you are consistent with daily observation of your garden, you can stop the pests when they first appear. It is easy to rub the eggs from the bottom of leaves or to smoosh the first few adults such as squash bugs or aphids.
May all your gardening dreams come true.
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. Bonnie Orr is one of four columnists featured.