- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2007

If flowers and plants start falling over in the back yard, it may not be because of bad gardening habits. A vole could be on the loose.

Voles are a major threat to vegetable and ornamental gardens, says Adria Bordas, horticulture extension agent in Fairfax County.

“They feed at the roots and the material at the soil line,” Ms. Bordas says. “They will basically eat all the roots, and you will have your plants fall over one day in your yard.”

Critters of all shapes and sizes can destroy a garden with little effort. A fuzzy-tailed animal easily could eat a flower garden for lunch, while other animals like to dig holes in the terrain.

For gardeners who are having difficulties with destructive animals, 90 percent of their problems can be solved by installing a fence, says Jim Parkhurst, associate professor in the department of fisheries and wildlife science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. He holds a doctorate in wildlife science.

Apart from not installing a fence, the main mistake people make is installing it improperly, he says. The fence needs to be buried 8 to 10 inches into the ground and L-shaped prongs should extend under the ground away from the garden another 6 to 8 inches.

“If you have something like rabbits or groundhogs, that are digging animals, if you put a fence just to the ground surface, they will easily dig under it,” Mr. Parkhurst says. “Burying it with a return will allow them to encounter a fence in front of them and below them. If they try a few inches over and have the same problems, they will very often give up.”

Appropriate material needs to be used for the fence, he says. Generally, a 1-inch mesh fence is best; baby rabbits and other smaller critters can go through the larger fences.

To drive away climbing animals such as groundhogs, the posts should be on the inside so they aren’t used to climb, he says. The fence should wiggle a bit if an animal tries to climb it; the wobbly feeling may deter the critter.

“In the most complex situation, we have to encourage people to put an extension on the top of it, to prevent the most persistent climber,” Mr. Parkhurst says. “You can bend the fence outward at the top at a 45 degree angle, that usually will stop just about everything.”

With deer, the average fence is not going to do it, he says. To stop deer, the fence has to be about 8 feet tall.

“People will have to make some decisions if they want to go to that extent or if a garden is really important for them,” Mr. Parkhurst says. “Even with an 8-foot fence, the deer can get over it with a good running start.”

Research shows that repellents are not always effective, he says. When the food supply is restricted, if the animals have to eat they will, even if it smells bad.

“With habituated animals, don’t look to repellents to be the end-all,” Mr. Parkhurst says. “A fence is a more effective strategy.”

The most successful defense usually incorporates many strategies, says David Yost, plant specialist at Merrifield Garden Center in Fairfax. Fencing, traps, poisons and repellents are the four major options to deter wildlife.

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