Rodent Pests in the Chaparral Garden

Garden garlic

Garlic is one of the few plants the rodents don’t like.

Living in the open chaparral has its high and low points. There is something timeless yet awe-inspiring to see how life adapts to this rather extreme environment. It’s a dry, stoic life in the scrub community, but there are also points of intricate delicacy and amazing moments of blazing beauty.

In all parts of the world it is important for human development to work in tandem with nature. Whenever we get too arrogant with our demands, nature seems to set us back into humility with earthquakes, floods, storms, disease or some other form of rebalancing. Personally, I think this is exactly how it should be as the human ego tends to become way too selfish if not kept in bounds. I don’t think people are the only valuable beings on this planet. All life and non-life are inextricably interconnected.

On the other hand, sometimes living with nature’s other denizens can be severely trying to a person. Rodent pests in the chaparral garden is one case in point.

Perhaps it’s because of the increase in human population or maybe it’s a result of the long term drought but the life that seems to be thriving best in my part of the chaparral are the rodents. These creatures have adapted well to human civilization becoming well fed and comfortably housed. Many of their predators, on the other hand, are being reduced in number by human expansion.

Have you ever tried keeping mice, rats and ground squirrels out of the vegetable garden? With their flexible skull structures, these critters can fit through anything their heads can penetrate and often that means the tiniest of holes.

There are a number of poisons on the market that will help control rodents, but they are very toxic to pets and other wildlife as well as humans. There was a product called ‘Rode-Trol’ out a few years ago that was safe and actually worked well, but for some reason — I was told the EPA wouldn’t approve it — the company was denied production. Banning easy, safe products really worries me if that’s what happened. But for the most part it seems to me the only way left, especially to use around edibles, is a physical barrier. And creating an open-air space with something like small gauge chicken wire or hardware cloth that will be impenetrable by these wily rodents is a very tall order.

I’d be willing to share, but most rodents will collect anything — plant, fruit or seed — that they don’t eat on the spot. Worse, I haven’t gotten a single thank you note after my garden has been raided and stripped bare.

I will continue the war with my local chaparral rodent pests. I will carefully ration out the last of my Rode-Trol, build enclosures and do my best to control these critters. And I’ve found if I start the most pest-attracting seeds indoors and allow the plants to reach a reasonable size before introducing them to my vegetable garden, at least some of them withstand the ravenous onslaught.

I’d love to let my accomplished hunter-cat, Nori, out to patrol the garden, but nighttime is when the rodents are most active and the little feline would be more likely to become prey to coyotes or owls rather than predator. So he’ll keep his job guarding the garage instead. Has anyone had any success with a pet bobcat? Maybe that’s what I should try next.

Raised vegetable gardens fend off pests

Raised gardening is easier and more efficient

Raised gardening is easier and more efficient

One of the most difficult aspects of growing vegetables where I live is the determination to devastate each and every edible plant I try to grow by the hungry wildlife. Living in the chaparral with a desert-like climate, rodents of all descriptions seek juicy fruits and vegetables when the sparse green provided by nature bakes to a crisp on surrounding hillsides. Even the raccoons and coyotes delight in home-grown vegetables.

The best way I’ve found to fend off these hungry critters is to build raised vegetable gardens. You can construct raised vegetable gardens out of any material you want. You simply need to make sure there are no gaps accessible by the smallest of your wild raiders. Using decorative block or painted wood can make your garden ornamental. Just make sure you don’t use toxic materials (including paints and stains) that can leach into your garden soil. Be particularly careful of the creosote in railroad ties. If you aren’t sure about the materials you are using, then line the interior of your raised garden bed walls so the soil does not come in direct contact.

Remember that some birds can also damage your vegetable garden. So even if you build a well-sealed raised vegetable bed, you may have to construct a  netted roof to keep your flying friends away from your prized edibles.

You can find more information on building a raised vegetable garden in my article on eHow and information on garden pests on Examiner.

Also see:

Insect pests and friends: sow bugs, ladybugs, green lacewings, and snails

How to build a raised garden the easy way

Scale Insect Pests

scale insect

Scale settles in large communities and hardly looks alive.

Scale is a little insect that damages warm climate plants and house plants. It’s a strange little pest since the adult form settles into immobility on stems and leaves and looks like anything but an insect. The waxy blobs that cover the adult scale harbor nasty little sucking critters that drink out the life fluids from the plant. Immature scale is mobile and very tiny. Males are also small and have wings, but they do not feed or harm plants. The adult females, like aphids, sometimes excrete a sweet, sticky honey-like liquid that can drip onto surfaces below. The liquid can also attract ants.

Soft scale and armored scale are common in warm environments. They are killed off by frosts of varying degrees, but then so are many of their host plants. The mealybug is a type of scale, too. There are hundreds of types of scale insects. They come in a wide variety of shapes, textures, favorite host plants and climate tolerances.

Scale can be a serious pest to edible crops like citrus and debilitating to houseplants. There are some varieties that are used commercially to make shellac finishes and cochineal dye is a red pigment that has been harvested from some species of scale insects. But the scale insect is far better known for its destructive effects on plants.

Scale is difficult to control and natural preditors are the most effective. For individual houseplants and in the home garden, horticultural oils can be effective by literally smothering the insect. Some insecticides can kill the mobile young and the males on contact, but rarely penetrate the adult female waxy shell.


Pests in the vegetable garden


raccoon pests

Raccoons may look cute, but they are dangerous and trouble in the garden.

Look out for pests in the vegetable garden. Some sneak in at night, some fly in by air, some creep in under the soil and others find their way in riding piggyback on other wildlife. Pests will vary depending on where you live. Some are widespread and bother vegetable gardens in many climates.

There is nothing sweeter than a home-grown tomato. That’s why so many people find space to grow at least one tomato plant – even on a patio or balcony when there is no garden space. In warm, sunny summers tomatoes grow easily in all parts of the country. There are cultivars to fit into just about any space. You can even grow sun-dried tomatoes on the vine. But beware the ubiquitous tomato worm. It is green so it is hard to see and eats its way into growing very large (about three very fat inches long). Because these are the larval form of the hawk moth – a delightful creature often seen at sunset that looks like a tiny hummingbird – there are few places you can grow your tomatoes that will be inaccessible to the egg-laying adults. Hand pick the tomato worm or hornworm when you see it. These caterpillars are voracious and can reek a lot of destruction fast. On the positive side, the adults are important because they are prime pollinators of many plants — some can benefit from them more than from bees.

Even when summer ends, pests can be active in the vegetable garden. Insects can have a last rush at dining on your plants and even the animals that go dormant in the winter – like ground squirrels or gophers – are likely to want to party in your garden before taking a winter snooze. Racoons are perfectly happy to rummage through your landscape at any time of the year. In the eastern half of the country they can carry rabies, and even in the western half of the country in rural areas that had no raccoons they are becoming more and more common. I suspect it’s because of the increase in the human population. The recession may have slowed the influx of people in these areas, but the raccoons don’t seem much worried about the economy. The most useful deterrent I have found for these plucky critters (that can destroy ponds, vegetable gardens and trash can areas) are electrified fences for cattle or sheep. There is even a raccoon electric fence made specially for them.

Sometimes vegetables grow unmolested for the first few years until the wildlife discovers you’ve planted them a paradise. Those ridiculous old cartoons of people playing tug-of-war with a gopher on the other end of a vegetable plant lose their absurdity when you find yourself on the opposite end of your favorite plant as something greedy beneath the soil tries to wrest it from your grip. There are a hundred and one home remedies to use against gophers from chewing gum to kitty litter to tar-dipped corn cobs. Try them first if you want. Then try any of the noise vibrators, scent deterrents, smoking bombs, and, if necessary, poison baits. (Please use the last with caution so pets and other wildlife are not endangered.) If you don’t have success, go for the long-lasting solution of building physical barriers. Half-inch hardware cloth lining the vegetable garden underneath and up the sides, is usually a surefire, long term way to keep plants safe from gopher pests. Building a raised vegetable garden can help, too, especially if the bottom is lined with wire.

Physical barriers will keep out most of the other destructive rodents like mice, rats and rabbits. Mice and rats can be tricky, though, since they’ll find the smallest of spaces to sneak through. You’ll have to keep a careful watch on all gaps and seams. Rats and mice may find entryways before you do. I’m currently testing out the raccoon electrical wire to see if it will discourage the rats from entering the vegetable garden.

To keep out the rabbits, plan on making wire fences at least two feet high. And since rodents like mice and rats have skulls that can compress, these pests can fit into holes that look way to small for them to enter. You are safest using half inch hardware cloth rather than the chicken wire to keep them out.

For those of you who have better luck with exposed vegetable plants, sometimes cages wrapped with one-inch chicken wire are enough to protect sufficient crops for the table. When it comes to late season melons or winter squashes, try using plastic net bags (like the ones turkeys come in during the holidays, or sometimes onions and potatoes are sold in bulk with these nets). For some reason the gnawing pests seem to be put off their game by the bags, while air and sunshine are free to pass freely. Bag up young fruits and vegetables letting them grow to fill up the interior; the netting expands along with the growth. Maybe this trick will help you preserve more of your produce from those ravenous wild critters out there.

Insect pests are often controlled by hosing with water. If that doesn’t work, try an insecticidal soap or Neem®. If you still need to resort to poisons, make sure you read and follow the directions carefully for the most successful and safest applications. Personally, I prefer keeping poisonous insecticides out of edible gardens altogether if I can.

Speaking of insects, if you have celery plants, you might want to let some of them set seed. I find they often get aphids that then become magnets for ladybugs. Celery is best planted from seed and will be ready to crop in the late winter in warm climates. In the spring and early summer it will put out its flat-topped clusters of tiny yellow flowers that are likely to become loaded with ladybug families: eggs, pupae, nymphs and adults just in time to defend your garden from invading six-legged pests. All the members of the ladybug family (eggs excepted, of course) are voracious devourers of aphids all over the garden. You can even purchase live ladybugs. They will fly away over time, but only after their food supply of insect pests runs out.

Now if I could only figure out what plant I could cultivate that would intimidate the ground squirrel population. Maybe the electrified raccoon netting will work with them, too. (It shocks the intruders, but will not kill them.) I’ll let you know if this net fencing is successful as it is tested out in my garden during the coming year.

Garden Tips:Discourage Raccoon Pests

Raccoon family

Raccoon family (Photo by Jane Gates)

Looking at those little bandit faces, raccoons could fool you into thinking they are cute. In some parts of the country raccoons can be worrisome due to the fact that they can carry by dangerous diseases like rabies. But even where disease is not a primary worry, these curious-looking critters can be destructive and seriously bothersome. They can be vicious fighters with pets, fish pond destroyers and raiders of the garden. Raccoons have become highly adaptive to human habits and are thriving as the human population spreads. Protecting your property from their marauding is a good idea, so here are some garden tips: discourage raccoon pests! There are a lot of tricks that just don’t work since these critters are agile and smart. But there are some steps you can take.

If you allow food or trash to gather in your landscape you will be inviting raccoons into your property. Never leave pet food and water outdoors. Fasten down trash can lids if you have edible material to throw out. And plan to build barriers to protect fruit and vegetables as well as ponds that house fish. Fruit, vegetables and fish are gourmet meals for raccoons. You may even have to surround your pond with an electrified wire to discourage raccoon pests from nighttime fishing. These low-shock wires will make your pond harder to invade. But since the shock is not dangerous but unpleasant for humans, too, you might want to set your electric wire on a timer so it is ‘hot’ during nighttime hours when raccoons are active but people are less likely to come into contact.

Never intentionally leave food and water out for raccoons even if you do like their fuzzy masked faces. Also beware of keeping food – including pet food – in bags or other containers that do not block the scent of food in your garage. These garden tips should at least help you discourage raccoon pests from reeking havoc in your yard.

Identify and treat whitefly insects

Whitefly insect

Adult whitefly and juvenile form. Sketch by Jane Gates

Whitefly insects are tiny flying bugs that infest indoor plants and feed off of those growing outdoors in warm climates. These insects do not survive frosts, but then many of the plants they like best don’t tolerate cold either. Like aphids and mealybugs, whiteflies are sucking insects that can carry infections and will weaken the plant over time, potentially killing it.

If you spot tiny, flying, white moth-like creatures – the size of a pinhead — chances are you have an infestation of whiteflies. The eggs are even smaller than the adults and the immature forms are so tiny you won’t see them easily with the naked eye. Whiteflies will coat the underside of leaves where they quickly breed as they suck the life juices from your plant. Those tiny white moths are easy to identify as the adults fly off in clouds when disturbed.

Organic control can be done by hosing off all parts of the plant with a strong stream of water with particular attention to the underside the leaves, and/or spraying with an insecticidal soap or Neem solution. It is difficult to rid an infestation of whitefly with organic means only and you’ll have to treat frequently and regularly.

The most efficient way to kill off an attack of whitefly is to use a systemic insecticide that will be drawn up through the roots and into the sap. Insects drink the poison and die. Systemic poisons usually have a strong, unpleasant odor. They also make foliage and stems toxic so keep children and pets away from treated plants. Never use systemic insecticides on edible plants. Unfortunately, whiteflies have a tendency to quickly develop a resistance to pesticides, so it is best to continue with organic insect controls even after a chemical treatment.