Dealing with Critters
In the southwest desert, it is necessary to protect gardens from rabbits, javelina,
deer, skunks, rats, mice, birds and more. This can be done using a variety
- While living with our native creatures can be frustrating, many
native plants have survived in unprotected gardens for years.
An Internet search on "critter resistant plants" with your state
or city name will provide lists of plants that are distasteful to native animals.
Protecting Plants Outside of Fences
- All new plantings outside of a rabbit-fenced area should be
initially protected with chicken wire or other fencing that
excludes baby rabbits. Baby rabbits can get through fencing with
2" diameter holes.
- Wrap all new tree trunks with 1/2" wire mesh (loosely) and
remove after one or two years. Apple tree bark is very tasty.
In general, rabbits are most attracted to the bark of rose family
plants, especially fruit trees.
- After mulching the planting hole surface, if the plant is
outside a javelina-proof fence, place rocks or pavers on top
of the mulch to prevent a hungry javelina from digging for grubs.
Smells Can Attract or Repel
- Water in the early morning. If the ground is wet at night, critters
may dig up plants to find the source of the water. Also fix all leaks
in irrigation systems.
- Do not use FRESH compost. Critters will think that it is dinner time.
- Do not use blood meal or bone meal to fertilize plants. Critters
will dig up the soil looking for the bone or the corpse.
- Place Rosemary clippings on planting surfaces. Critters do not
like the smell.
- Plant distasteful plants between desirables to confuse the
Drought Makes Critters Desperate
- When a drought goes on for more than four weeks, critters start to
get desperate. All plants that are watered in a drought, even if once
a month, need to be protected against javelina, rabbits, rats and mice.
Once a plant is watered in a drought, javelina or rabbits will
dig it up and eat it even though they would not touch it unwatered.
Fences, Walls, Containers and Garden Cages
- Consider fencing your garden or part of your yard to keep javelina
and large critters at bay. Heavy-duty, four-foot-high field fencing
supported by six-foot-long iron T-posts provides relatively inexpensive,
secure fencing. T-posts are most easily driven into hard ground
after a long, heavy rain.
- Four to eight foot high walls are used to keep out rabbits
and javelina and offer wind protection. They do not keep out birds
or skunks. Birds can, however, be kept at bay if a couple of cats are
persuaded to patrol the garden.
- It is common to build raised vegetable garden beds having
walls 18-24" high using masonry blocks. These deter rabbits.
The walls have a concrete footing one foot deep that discourages
some burrowing animals. A capstone with rounded edges is placed
on top to allow people to sit.
The width of the bed is often two arms' length so that
gardeners can sit and tend the entire bed using both sides.
The raised bed, filled with soil, is open at the bottom
and allows excess water from monsoon rains to
drain quickly, avoiding waterlogged roots.
- Plants can be placed in horse watering troughs or other
tall containers that deter rabbits. The sides must be
well protected from the sun to avoid overheating roots.
The bottoms must have drainage holes to prevent soggy soil
and fungal diseases.
To keep burrowing animals out of the drainage holes,
cover them with wire mesh, cover the mesh with gravel, then
top with soil.
- Some plants may have their roots eaten by burrowing animals.
Hanging baskets have been used to avoid the problem. Another
solution is to use a wire cage that is buried in the ground.
The plant is placed inside the cage and the damage is
limited to roots outside the cage.
- Garden cages, using 1" wire mesh on sides and top,
can keep out birds and critters smaller than javelina. They provide
some wind protection when the sides are lined with 50% lattice four
Burrowing rats will require 1/2" wire mesh on the bottoms of
raised garden beds. Paving brick or stone will be needed for interior
walkways and the outer sides of the cage to control weeds and burrowing
- Rabbits and rats can be kept out of a garden area with a one and
one-half to two feet high chicken wire or 1" wire mesh fence.
Mice can be kept out only with one-half inch wire mesh that covers an
entire garden cage because they can climb and jump at least three feet
Small Critter Damage
- Seedlings can be treated as a salad bowl by mice or rats,
especially in droughts. Try a rat trap baited with a cherry
tomato or a grape first. If nothing is caught, switch to
mouse traps. When mechanical traps do not work,
a cage made of 1/4" or 1/2" wire mesh can be constructed
to cover the seedling bed.
Such a cage has the advantage of providing filtered shade
to the seedlings it surrounds. The cage is removed when the
seedling is robust enough to deter mice or is too large
for the cage.
- If your low-hanging tomatoes have been nibbled, think mice,
not lizards. Mice love tomatoes but cannot easily climb
tomato plants. Mouse traps should be baited with fruit such
as grapes or a bit of tomato.
- While while mice do not eat peppermint, rats will, and
they can tolerate its presence. A hungry rat will eat lettuce
and green onions growing next to a peppermint plant.
- If you grow strawberries, they are in danger from some lizard
species, mice, rats and birds. A cage of 1/4" to 1/2" wire mesh over
your garden bed is necessary to protect strawberries.
- If a large chunk is eaten out of some fruit, consider the
possibility of grasshoppers. Smaller holes can be fruitworms
or bird pecks. Grasshoppers can be deterred with a garlic-Habanero
spray. Drop four peeled garlic cloves and four Habanero peppers
into a blender with two cups of water. Grind well, let set for
two days, filter out the solids, then spray on anything being
eaten by grasshoppers.
Keeping Rodents Away
- Some species of desert rats like to burrow under prickly pear
cactus. This cactus needs to be eliminated within 30-50' of a garden
to avoid giving rats easy shelter. The cactus is also used by rats as a food
source. Other easy places for rodents to burrow are piles of loose dirt and
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