Everyone loves a garden. Sometimes, that’s a problem

IRRESISTiBLE: Berry growers have to be resourceful to fend off hungry birds and bears. Photo courtesy of Wild Abundance

Hello to green leaves and delicate blossoms! Gardens are beginning to come alive as the spring unfolds. Yet, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Temperatures likely will continue to rise and fall like the beautiful mountains that surround us for another few weeks, at least. As you get your hands into the soil, send me your gardening questions at gardening@mountainx.com so we can all learn here together

How to deter berry-loving critters

I live in Kenilworth and am thinking about planting blackberries, blueberries and strawberries in my yard. Do you have any advice on dealing with wildlife like bears, birds and squirrels?

Everyone loves eating berries, including bears, birds and squirrels. If you live in an area with lots of these critters, you may end up needing to protect your plants from marauding opportunists. However, sometimes folks in residential areas don’t end up having problems with these critters, who may be deterred by pets and human activity. My suggestion is to wait to set up any serious animal-proofing in your berry patch until you actually notice a problem. 

If and when you do notice thieves helping themselves, the most effective means of protection will be a physical barrier. And, unsurprisingly, what keeps birds and squirrels at bay is quite different from what will keep bears from filling their bellies. Also, since blackberries and blueberries are bushier, upright plants, and strawberries grow low to the ground, your approaches with these different crops will also be distinct. 

To protect blackberries and blueberries from birds, covering the entire plants with bird netting is the simplest and cheapest approach. Without constructing a support structure for the plastic netting, it will simply rest on the bushes. This means that a few berries may be grabbed right through the netting, but the majority of your crop will remain out of reach. A downside of this most basic approach is that when you want to get in there and harvest, you’ll have to duck underneath the netting or throw it off the plant and then re-cover it after you’re done. 

A level up from simply tossing the bird netting over your berry bushes is to build a simple support structure to keep the netting off of the plants. You can do this with wood, tall metal T-posts and wire, or even PVC pipes. Since the netting is extremely light, your support system doesn’t need to be very strong, but it should be sturdy enough to withstand wind gusts and rainstorms. Ideally, use materials that won’t photo-degrade in the presence of sunlight.

If birds are your primary antagonist and you don’t feel up for using netting, “bird scare” reflective tape is another option. This is basically a disco ball in a roll that will wave about in the breeze, reflecting sunlight and potentially convincing birds that there is something dangerous and unpredictable going on in the berry patch. While this has worked well for me as a short-lived bird defense, in a germinating corn patch for example, I can’t speak to its effectiveness over time with something so delectable as berries. 

Strawberries grow close to the ground, so protecting them is a little different. The same bird netting can be thrown over a strawberry patch, supported by small hoops either made of split bamboo, small plastic pipes, or you can buy fiberglass rods specifically for this purpose at a gardening store. If you’re looking online for such hoops, search “row cover hoops” or “row cover support hoops,” as these same rods are used to support row cover that protects crops from bugs and cold. The edges of the bird netting will need to be weighed down somehow if squirrels are your main adversary. Row cover itself (a white spun fabric made for agricultural use) can protect strawberries against birds and squirrels, but it will also trap heat and increase the temperature underneath it. Through the winter and at the beginning of the season, this can be great, but as it warms up, you’ll need to pay attention to how the strawberries are faring under there. If it gets too hot, they have a harder time taking up nutrients, and berries may rot. 

As for bears … these majestic creatures, my friends, rule the mountains that we call home, and no amount of bear-proofing will completely overcome their wild cleverness. That said, if you end up with a bear problem in your berries (this applies to other crops too, along with beehives), one tool that has been proved somewhat effective is an electric fence. For bears, you’ll need to run two-seven strands of electric fencing from about 6 inches off the ground to about 4 feet up. A key with using electric fencing to deter bears is to bait the fence so that the bears in question get a good strong zap on the nose. Bears have very thick fur and skin, so even a powerful electric fence might not feel like much if they get zapped on the side or behind. Several beekeeper friends of mine swear by baiting bear fences with raw bacon. Once the fence is set up, you simply hang a few slices of bacon on the wires. The aroma will be so enticing that nearby bears will come for the treat and receive a jolt on their nose or tongue that, hopefully, will teach them that the fence is to be avoided. 

A final word on berries that’s unrelated to fellow hungry lovers of sweetness: Fall is the best season for planting all of the berries you’re excited about. Fall-planted berries have the whole fall and winter to settle into their new digs, allow their roots to recover from transplanting and get ready for growing again in springtime. You can plant them now, but they won’t grow as well, and they may need more TLC, especially in the form of watering, in order to get established while they’re also growing leaves, flowers and fruits. Taking the time to prepare the soil through cover cropping, adding amendments, etc. during this growing season will end up being worth the effort with these longer-lived, generous plants.  

The vole-dahlias standoff

Is it OK to plant dahlias in pots in the ground to deter voles? Will this prevent them from multiplying?

Planting dahlias and other tubers in plastic pots won’t be effective, as voles can easily chew through them. If your vole problem is really bad and you want to put in the effort to protect your dahlias, you can plant them in “baskets” made of stainless steel mesh (often sold as “hardware cloth”) with quarter-inch openings or smaller. Be sure to use stainless steel if you’re planning to leave them in the ground for more than one season. Other types of metals will rust and corrode to the point of breaking so that vole-sized openings form easily. 

Removing such baskets each season is a lot of work, so consider that before you bury them. If you have a spot that you know will be a permanent flower bed, it may be worth investing in the stainless steel and leaving the protection in the ground for several seasons. 

It’s true that dahlias and other tubers multiply as they grow, so be sure to construct your wire baskets a little larger than the tubers you plant, to allow for this expansion. 

Trapping voles is another approach to this issue. The Top Cat brand stainless steel vole and mole traps can be quite effective. They’re expensive but are also durable and can be reused for many seasons. Additionally, keeping grass and weeds cut short around your garden will reduce the cover that voles take refuge in. They don’t like running out along exposed ground, so a clear and/or close-clipped border around the garden can help reduce their numbers.  


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