By Kimberly Toscano, gardening expert, landscape designer and writer.
As much as we love a gorgeous display of flowering bulbs in spring, rodents, rabbits, and deer enjoy feasting on these ready-made meals. Voles, mice, and other rodents can’t resist the plump, juicy bulbs we so conveniently tuck in the garden for them each fall. Deer and rabbits relish the fresh greens that emerge in spring. Who can blame a hungry critter for seizing such an easy meal? Luckily, there are several tricks you can employ to prevent your bulb planting from becoming a wildlife buffet.
Critter-Proofing Fall Bulbs: Know Who You’re Dealing With
First, we'll help you identify which critters are eating your bulbs or flowers. Experience will tell you whether your problem lies with squirrels and chipmunks digging up bulbs to munch, or voles and mice burring beneath the soil. Perhaps your bulbs survive the winter only to be nibbled by deer. Each problem has its own unique solution. Look for these signs to identify the culprits:
- Bulbs Are Dug Out of the Soil: Squirrels commonly dig bulbs to eat, as do chipmunks, skunks, voles, raccoons, and rabbits. If a skunk is involved, you should be able to smell remnants of his or her odor. Footprints and chew marks are other clues you can use to identify the culprit.
- Bulbs Never Emerge: Sometimes you plant a bulb and it simply never emerges. In this case, something is attacking from below ground. Voles, gophers, and mice are common burrowers that eat bulbs. Moles are often blamed, but these animals eat worms, grubs, and other insects. Other rodents, however, will use their tunnels, which is why they are often blamed. Some bulbs do not emerge due to rotting. If the soil is wet and heavy, that is the likely problem.
- Foliage and Flower Buds Are Eaten: Deer and rabbits can devour a bed of tulips overnight. Look closely at the damage to determine which animal is active. Deer tend to leave jagged tears in foliage where they nibble while rabbits cut stems at a clean angle using their powerful incisors.
- The Dreaded Groundhog: You will know if you have groundhogs thanks to the large piles of soil they create in the landscape. These voracious eaters nibble on bulbs below ground and feed on tender shoots after they emerge. You just can’t win with them, but they are cute.
2. Use Exclusion Devices
Wire cages, and barriers made from hardware cloth with ½-inch openings, keep bulbs safely out of the paws of hungry animals. The small opening keep pests out, but allow shoots and roots to pass through. While hardware cloth can be laid across the top of bulb plantings to prevent diggers, it is best to completely enclose the bulbs on all sides to avoid problems with burrowers as well as diggers.
- Excavate the planting area an inch deeper than the recommended planting depth for the bulb. Line the bottom with hardware cloth, leaving enough extra to wrap up all sides of the planting.
- Apply a one-inch layer of soil and then set bulbs. Add more soil to bury the bulbs, wrapping the wire mesh or fabric up along the sides of the planting. Do not place bulbs directly against the wire -- a little distance on each side will keep rodents from nibbling bulbs through openings in the cloth.
- Cover the top of the planting with more hardware cloth and apply a mulch layer.
Individual or small groups of bulbs can be enclosed within wire cages that are buried in gaps in the garden. This method is more time consuming than planting in mass, but useful for planting bulbs in areas where extensive digging is impractical, such as among trees and shrubs or within densely planted beds.
3. Make Digging Difficult
Another way to deter digging and burrowing is to fill planting holes with coarse materials such as gravel or crushed rock. The sharp texture hurts little paws and discourages burrowing and digging, while also improving drainage for the bulbs.
You can also prevent digging from above by placing framed screens over the planting area until the ground freezes. Of course, screens must be removed before spring emergence. Similarly, row covers can be used to exclude above-ground diggers like squirrels and chipmunks. Don’t forget to cover containers and window boxes where you’ve planted bulbs.
4. Provide Ample Food Alternatives
Many gardeners have found that simply offering easy access to alternative foods reduces damage to bulbs and other ornamental plants. Set up a feeding station with peanuts and dried corn cobs to feed hungry wildlife. You’ll enjoy watching animals feed because they are not eating your plants. And the feeding station just might keep squirrels out of your birdfeeders as well.
Place feeding stations at the far corners of your landscape to draw wildlife away from the most decorative areas of the garden.
5. Use Critter Repellents
Gardeners use a variety of repellents to deter pests. Repellents can be particularly useful in preventing deer and rabbit feeding. While many household products have been used as repellents, few are truly effective. It is best to use labelled, commercial products that have been proven effective through research.
Repellents work in one of two ways, either through an unpleasant taste or odor to discourage pests. Area repellents utilize odors and are generally less effective than contact repellents that deter feeding through bad-tasting substances. Repellents can reduce damage, but will not entirely eliminate damage. An animal will eat just about anything if it is hungry enough.
You can also use deer resistant bulbs and plants as deterrants. Dutch bulb growers like to plant Crown Imperial Fritillaria (found in unique bulbs) among tulips and other tasty bulbs as the smell reportedly repels squirrels and deer.
Tucking bulbs among daffodils and snowdrops is another option.
6. Fence the Critters Out
While fences can be extremely effective at excluding deer and rabbits, they are expensive and do not fit every garden situation.
For rabbits, a fence must be only two feet high, but must extend several inches below ground to prevent rabbits from burrowing under. The openings in the fence must be small enough to prevent passage.
Deer can jump up to twelve feet, but an eight-foot fence is generally high enough to deter them. A variety of fence types are used to manage deer, from electric fencing to lightweight mesh “deer fencing”. Many deer fences are constructed in such a way as to become nearly invisible from a distance.
7. Employ Scare Tactics
Several products are available on the market that combine motion sensing technology with a scare tactic to frighten wildlife away from the garden. Many of these are designed for deer, but work with other animals as well. Water and strobe lights are the more common devices used to frighten unsuspecting wildlife. When animals trip the motion detector, the device either emits a quick burst of water or flashes lights to frighten animals away. Scare devices need to be moved around the yard periodically to prevent deer from getting use to them.
A good dog is another scare tactic that works for many happy gardeners. (Though Rover can create his own problems in the landscape.)
8. Don’t Advertise
Good sanitation can go a long way toward managing pests. Clean up the planting area by removing papery bulb sheaths and other debris that contains the scent of bulbs. Discard damaged bulbs, which release odors at the site of damage.
Likewise, don’t invite rodents to bed down in the garden where you’ve just planted bulbs. Wait to mulch until mid to late November, after mice and voles have built their winter nests.
For Best Results, Combine Strategies
Seldom is there one silver bullet when it comes to pest management. Combining several different management strategies is the best way to protect bulbs in the garden. It is also a good idea to rotate between different methods to prevent animals from growing accustomed to one particular scare tactic, repellent, or other protective measure.
To learn more, read How To Keep Animals Out Of Your Garden