“Nuisance” wildlife strategies in gardening

We have a lot of strategies to attract the animals and insects we want, and repel the ones we don’t. Here I discuss beneficials and nuisances.

Last week, during Pollinator week, I attended a talk on the wild bees of Montreal. We have 350 species, and not all look like bees. Some are iridescent blue and green (and I saw some of them recently in a swarm around a flowering bush on the farm, at right).

Bees need forests and open green spaces to get around; they don’t like following highways. Unfortunately, humans seem to need pavement like bees need green spaces (ha ha ha. Not really).

Populations respond to an abundance of food by increasing in number. We definitely want this for native pollinators, and it’s easy to plant native species. That was the take-home message from last week’s talk. So I decided, instead of getting a hive of honey bees, I’ll increase habitat for native bees.

Honeybees outcompete native species for food. The benefit of increasing honeybees in the city is increased awareness of, and response to, their needs, and their needs are our needs! If people accommodate honey bees, then they also increase accommodation for native bees with food sources. The next step, then, is to exposing earth that ground-dwelling bees can live in, wood for them to burrow into, and putting bee hotels in the right places. Most bees like a sunny spot in the morning; that’s the one problem with my current Mason bee house as it doesn’t get sun until 11 o’clock or so.

Having food and shelter for insects and wildlife means that if you garden, you’ll have visitors. With some experience, you’ll know which animals and insects are pests, and which are merely hazards of gardening. You might want to actively welcome them. If so, ask for advice from a local wildlife service that knows the area’s ecology (some are humane removal companies; they may know, and they may appreciate having a place to release unwanted guests). Otherwise, ask your nearest university’s Biology department or other ecology organization.

Non-gardeners have funny ideas about what a pest is: usually something that gets into your unsecured garbage, something that has a “bad reputation,” something that they haven’t seen before and isn’t necessarily cute… People who need to get used to sharing the outdoors with non-humans, and the best way is through education. Of course, don’t leave garbage unsecured, and for the animals’ own security, don’t feed the wildlife — except with good bird feeders.

Gardeners have to protect our work and our harvests from being made off with. The Canadian Wildlife Federation has a tip sheet on dealing with problem wildlife. Strategies begin with

  • repellents and exclusion — such as fences, chicken wire coverings, and netting
  • companion planting with strong-smelling plants that herbivores don’t like such as chives, onion, garlic, lavender, rosemary, and marigolds (which are known for repelling insects)
  • Do not use cayenne or hot pepper as a repellent. It can get into the animal’s eyes, causing it extreme pain, and it is vindictive and hardly instructive to do so. Coffee grounds are one recommended substitute.
  • A high-tech repellent that works for cats and other animals is to install a motion-detector sprinkler.

In the city, we rarely have to consider rabbits and hares and we don’t have to consider deer getting into our gardens and eating our vegetables and shrubs. But if we did — if we live on the riverside — use trunk wrapping on trees, made of plastic or wire, to keep the deer or beavers from eating the bark or cutting down the tree. You can see this in various parks with watercourses in them.

If you did have wild rabbits, low thorny shrubs can become welcome refuges from predators, just as evergreen trees are refuges for birds in winter. Just keep your vegetable plot fenced!

The SPA de l’Estrie has a site in French what to do if you’re having problems with a small mammal — and explains why removing the animals don’t help the situation. Nature abhors a vacuum. If, on the other hand, you find a baby wild animal in your garden, you can start with the Sherwood Park Vet (Beaconsfield, QC) blog post about what to do with them.

I’ve also recently found out that repellents for moles are hyacinths, spurges (Euphorbia, one variety pictured above) and castor oil plants. Moles don’t like their odour, so they may not hang around.

Alternatively, the following sound repellent might work: Stick an empty soda bottle in the ground near the mole nest, right side up. The sound of the whistling wind in the empty bottle drives the animals away. Caution: don’t use a rodent-repellent sound emitter device outdoors. It could interfere with more animals than rodents, and eventually, they will become desensitized to it.

You can also plant with thorny plants such as roses, which will attract bees and other pollinators, or hawthorns, which are native and will feed birds in the winter. Don’t plant buckthorn, which is an invasive species that produces allelopathic chemicals in the soil to ward off other plants competing with it.

If there are birds that you want to repel, such as pigeons, starlings, and others (personally, I’m a fan of house sparrows, though only where the native birds have gone away), you can read up on strategies at the Audubon FAQ website.

While one doesn’t want a colony of fire ants, especially anywhere where people are going to sit or dig in the garden, the only other ants that we should concerned with are carpenter ants. They eat wood from the inside out, and are destructive to structure. As for the rest, the videos on YouTube and eHow of attracting ants with boric-sugar mixes just angers me: the ants they are killing are harmless and in fact can be beneficial! The biggest “danger” of sugar ants, who are ubiquitous this time of year, is that they are aphid farmers — this is good. Aphids live off your plants, and the ants live off the nectar the aphids secrete.

If repelling ants is the goal, I recommend sprinkling cinnamon or talcum powder in the path where you don’t want them to go. It reportedly confuses their sense of direction, or they just don’t like it. Keep your sugar sources in airtight containers. Don’t let yourself be bothered by them, even if this doesn’t seem to be normal at first. We were, after all, raised on cans of Raid. (You are now weaning yourself off.)

As for insect pests, when you choose your vegetables for planting, read up at the same time what pests they tend to attract. For cucumbers, squash, zucchini, and melons, beware the many kinds of cucumber beetle. They can decimate your crop in less than a week by transmitting bacteria that causes wilt. The best prevention for this: a daily inspection of your plants, with a handy dust-buster or hand-sized vacuüm. Flip the leaves over and look for masses of eggs. Be as thorough as possible. A big country-sized garden (say, a 5 x 10-meter plot) takes about an hour a day to inspect during pest season. That’s one advantage our small city gardens have: we can do the tending and watering in a fraction of that time.

If you have other questions about insects, ask Étienne from AnimaNature.


Originally published at Big City, Little Homestead.

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