Spring has sprung—with a vengeance in some parts of the country; quite gently in others. No matter the geography, spring is prime season for critters to emerge from winter’s hideaways and for adorable new little critters to spring forth, each with a thirst for knowledge of their surroundings and a hunger for, well, their surroundings. Tender shoots and juvenile leaves offer some of the tastiest treats for all manner of plant pests—some of the fuzzy mammalian persuasion, and some just plain slimy.

No matter how cute (or how bizarre), these crunching, munching garden raiders need a bit of discipline if your clients’ plants are to be spared. Your customers, however, are not likely to endorse the types of controls waged on the scalier, creepy-crawlier types of predators, and probably will request more humane methods of protecting their gardens. State and local laws may support them in their demands that critters be shooed away, but remain unharmed in the process. So before you get out the bow and arrow, check local covenants and ordinances.

Photos iStock unless otherwise noted.

Voles and similar rodents

The poor vole. It’s adorable, but it wreaks havoc on garden plants, including veggies and herbaceous ornaments. Most especially, though, it damages turf. And it’s not often considered a protected species, so lethal control is acceptable in many areas. (Still, be sure to check with local authorities before you wage war.)

Industrious little critters, voles are active both day and night, digging a network of short, shallow burrows and creating underground nests of grasses, stems and leaves. These burrows often can be seen in lawns; the clearest sign of a vole infestation is a maze of well-traveled, aboveground runways that connect burrow openings.

Management is best achieved early, before the population grows—given favorable conditions, voles tend to be prolific breeders, and spring is the favored season for adding to the family. Monitoring is essential, and habitat modification can be an effective deterrent. Weeds, heavy mulch and dense plantings tend to encourage them, so removing this protection will likely result in a population decline. Regular mowing to create buffer zone adjacent to ornamental beds also can deter them from entering the garden.

As with rabbits, voles are repelled by low fences; if this can be incorporated into an ornamental planting without compromising the aesthetics, it’s a good start. Mesh must be no larger than ¼ inch, however, in order to be effective.

If damage occurs over a large area, toxic baits may be the best solution.

Rabbits and hares

Among the cutest of garden pests, rabbits are also among the most destructive. Their appetites are wideranging, including flowering plants (both annual and perennial), tender grasses, vegetables, vines, trees and shrubs. Young woody plants are more tempting in the colder seasons, when rabbits will gnaw on thin, smooth bark.

Many experts recommend erecting a fence to deter rabbits from entering the garden, but unless the entire property is enclosed in a fortress-like privacy fence—no openings, no portals for rabbits to slip through—this option is a little extreme. Vegetable gardens can be protected with smaller barriers composed of chicken wire, provided the mesh is no larger than about 1 inch, and the fence is at least 2 feet tall. The bottom should be secured close to the soil—better yet, a few inches should be buried—to ensure that the pests cannot burrow beneath to gain access.

Unsightly? Yes, as a matter of fact. So how to protect ornamental plants? Some municipalities may allow live trapping, but considering that rabbits tend to breed like rabbits, this may not be practical.

Chemical repellents can be used on ornamentals (not recommended for use on edibles), and they work by creating an unpleasant odor, taste or tactile sensation that deters browsing. These compounds must be reapplied frequently, particularly after rain or where an automated sprinkler system is employed.

Habitat management may be the best deterrent: Keeping the grounds neat and tidy, devoid of brambles, piles of brush or densely growing foliage, will deprive rabbits of hiding places. Storage sheds, gazebos and other structures should be fitted with mesh barriers around their foundations.

Photo courtesy of Betsy Hartley


Aw … c’mon. They’re kind of cute, in their own slimy way. When soil temps reach about 50 degrees, slugs tend to emerge from their underground lairs to feast on tender young plants. And because they only come out at night, these lean and hungry types often are hard to find. But if you search beneath the foliage of groundcover plants or under thickly planted perennials, there they are … lurking … waiting for the cover of darkness.

Young plants are most at risk. Slugs love hostas, and they damage leafy vegetables like lettuce and broccoli. How? They scrape and shred plant leaves with their tongues. True. But these tongues are lined with thousands of tiny, terribly sharp teeth.

Thus, these are the spring (and fall) pests that your clients won’t object to eliminating, permanently. Again, a neat and tidy garden is a good beginning; eliminating hiding places and removing mulch and weeds will send them packing.

Claudia Groth, an Oregon State University Extension Service Master Gardener, recommends the following controls:

  • Give them a beer bath. A shallow container, such as a pie plate or a plastic yogurt or margarine container, should be buried up to about an inch from the rim. Add beer; remove dead slugs; refill with beer.
  • Create an artificial hiding place by placing a board among their favorite plants. Place bait, such as ground up lettuce and brewer’s yeast, under the board. In the morning, lift the board, remove the slugs and drop them in a bucket of soapy water.
  • Get a duck. (Check first to see if your client’s city allows it, of course.) Ducks love slugs.

Read more: An insect pest review/preview

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