Taming the wild ones: Tips on how to get rid of potential pests including squirrels, pigeons, mice and muntjac — plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.
THERE are some animals that will forever be the bane of gardeners’ lives — rabbits that munch like locusts through plants, moles which decimate bowling green lawns, squirrels digging up bulbs and stealing bird food and huge pigeons which strip leafy veg.
Only recently, there have been reports that fast-breeding herds of deer are gorging themselves on undergrowth in important woodland habitats, threatening rare native species such as nightingales, dormice and bluebells.
Numbers have risen to two million after the introduction of new species such as muntjac, fallow and Chinese water deer that are smaller and breed faster.
So how can we stop these nuisances from damaging our gardens?
Grey squirrels: These fast-breeding, invasive creatures introduced from North America, which have largely replaced Britain’s native red squirrel, will dig up your bulbs, steal your bird food and chomp through fruit, flower buds, sweetcorn and nuts. It will also strip bark from your trees.
To minimise damage, wire-net fruit cages and place other netting over areas where bulbs and corms have been planted and over flowering shrubs such as magnolia and camellia. Invest in squirrel-proof bird feeders, although the RSPB warns that they will only work if the squirrel cannot jump directly onto the feeder, but will have to approach via the defended route. Feeders with a cage around them are squirrel resistant, although not squirrel proof, and a small individual will be able to fit through.
Rabbits: They can do untold damage, razing herbaceous plants to the ground, gnawing the bark from the base of tree trunks and gorging on young, newly planted plants. If you erect a fence to keep them at bay, you’ll need to make it at least 120cm tall with a further 30cm sunk below ground level and angled outwards to discourage them from burrowing underneath. Any wire netting needs a maximum mesh size of 25mm, or young rabbits will squeeze through. Place tree guards around the base of trunks and cloches over new plantings. While animal repellents are available, they are not reliable to give long-term protection. There are some plants that rabbits don’t like, including Michaelmas daisies, catmint, lupins and heucheras. For a full list of rabbit-resistant plants, visit www.rhs.org.uk
Deer: Muntjac and roe are the most common deer seen in domestic gardens. They are particularly fond of roses but will eat many other plants and are territorial, so once they’re in, it’s going to be difficult to get them out. Some become brave enough to nip off potted roses on people’s patios. Damage is most common on new, succulent spring growth or in winter when other food sources are scarce. The only permanent solution is to erect a 6ft-high fence around your garden. According to the British Deer Society, muntjac will eat virtually any plants, although they are less keen on camellia, cistus, hellebore, hosta, hydrangea, lavender, poppies and sedum, while they do like geraniums, sweet Williams, clematis and, of course, roses.
Moles: Mole activity is usually greatest in late winter and early spring and when those telltale mounds of soil appear on the surface of your lawn, you know moles have been tunnelling. All manner of deterrents have been tried to make them go away, from traps to fumigants, throwing mothballs down the holes or pouring mixtures of caster oil and detergent down the holes, to varied effect. Others have invested in ultrasonic devices to scare them away, which are not always effective. If you really can’t get rid of them, it may save you time to call in a professional.
Wood pigeons: These large birds will feed on brassicas such as cabbages, cauliflowers and Brussels sprouts, stripping the leaves in no time and they’re a particular nuisance in winter when other food is scarce. Net your brassicas to keep them off as preventing access to food is a key to dispersing pigeons. When feeding smaller birds, cage in all food so that pigeons cannot reach it. Pigeon-resistant feeders are also available, as are various scaring devices such as scarecrows, glitter strips and audible deterrents, although any such deterrent is likely to scare any bird within its range and is likely to be of limited effectiveness.
Mice: These will feed on the seeds of germinating sweetcorn, peas and beens and also eat crocus corms and orchard fruits in both gardens and those stored in sheds. You can set mouse traps in your garden, under log or brick shelters to reduce the danger to birds. When you’ve planted crocuses, firm the ground down well to make it more difficult for mice to find the corms. Mice often eat seeds which are sown directly into the ground. This can be remedied if you start early crops in pots and transplant them later.
Best of the bunch - Gaultheria (wintergreen)
You see lots of these evergreen berry-producing plants in garden centres at this time of year as they’re perfect for perking up winter pots, combining well with winter heathers and skimmias.
In borders, they act as ideal ground cover under rhododendrons and camellias as they are lime haters, while you can find other varieties which are small enough for a rock garden and at least one type, G. shallon, which can be used to make a dense 1.5m-high thicket and which produces dark purple berries in autumn and winter.
The most popular, though, is G. procumbens, whose spreading branches bear glossy dark leaves followed by small, insignificant white flowers in the summer and much more showy red berries in autumn, growing to around 15cm (6in) high. If you want a slightly taller plant and white berries, go for G. cuneata and G. miqueliana.
Good enough to eat ... Planting garlic
This is an ideal veg to grow if you have a small garden as it doesn’t take up much space and will sit in ground that would otherwise be vacant at this time of year.
Also, if you give it a good head start it will root and grow through the winter, giving you a better harvest than if you plant it in spring.
Buy garlic specially sold for planting from garden centres or seed catalogues, preparing the ground as if you were going to sow vegetables, removing any weeds and stones, applying a light dressing of general purpose fertiliser over the area and raking the surface to a fine tilth. Then push each clove in so that only the tip shows above the ground.
Plant in straight rows, around 10-15cm (4-6in) apart and while the garlic is growing, keep the area well weeded. The grassy shoots should soon appear and you should be harvesting the garlic by the end of July, which is much earlier than if you plant it in spring, in which case you won’t be harvesting it until September.
Three ways to... eliminate snails now
1. Hunt them out under containers, at the foot of walls and under planks and dispose of them.
2. Place traps such as lengths of plastic drainpipe, under which they will congregate.
3. Go out after a downpour and pick them off walls, plants and from under garden debris.
What to do this week
Continue to clear fallen leaves and rake them up to make leaf mould.
Keep off the lawn during prolonged spells of wet weather or you’ll make a muddy path which hardens in summer.
Plant bare-rooted plants such as roses or hedging plants.
Move shrubs which are in the wrong place or have outgrown their allotted space while the ground is still workable.
Take hardwood cuttings from shrubs including buddleia, forsythia, spiraea, weigela, berberis, hydrangea, pyracantha and roses.
Make sure newly planted trees and shrubs remain well watered if there is no rain.
Plant hyacinths and tulips.
Lift and store dahlias once the foliage has turned black after they’ve been hit by frost.
Continue to plant lily bulbs.
Protect slightly tender plants such as hardy fuchsias with a deep mulch of bark chippings in cold regions.
Continue to force witloof chicory.
Dig up the remainders of your parsnips and carrots for storage.
Ventilate the greenhouse on warm, sunny days and reduce watering to a minimum.
Mulch pruned fruit trees with organic matter.