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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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In the Garden: Protecting your garden from critters

Rabbits are miniature deer in disguise and not a good thing to see in a garden. (Susan Mulvihill/For The Spokesman-Review)
Rabbits are miniature deer in disguise and not a good thing to see in a garden. (Susan Mulvihill/For The Spokesman-Review)

In May, I wrote about how to keep deer out of your garden. While they can certainly be trying, I know there are many other critters in this region that can make gardening a challenge.

Two small rodents that can cause a lot of damage are voles and gophers.

Voles have small, round bodies and long tails. They primarily operate above ground or in the top couple of inches of the soil. They create trails in the lawn, especially underneath the snow during the winter. If you discover a plant that appears to have been chewed off at the surface of the soil, a vole is the likely culprit. They also will gnaw off the bark from the lower portion of tree trunks and other woody plants. Voles do not leave piles of soil on the ground.

Gophers have more elongated bodies with short tails and digging claws. They tunnel underground, feeding primarily on plant roots, and push mounds of soil out of their 3-inch diameter tunnels while they’re excavating. Gophers will eat the roots off of trees and have been known to chew through irrigation lines and utility cables.

I have had good luck repelling both voles and gophers from an area by using a repellent that has been impregnated with castor oil. There are several types of traps that catch gophers; your local garden center can recommend the ones that are legal to use in your state.

Please don’t use poison bait for gophers or voles. The poison is still deadly inside them and can result in poisoned pets or hawks and owls.

Squirrels are prevalent in wooded areas. They will eat seeds, nuts, tree buds, berries, leaves, bulbs, bird eggs and nestlings. They nest in hollows in tree trunks and construct dense nests on branches. Squirrels will also jump from trees or buildings to get to bird feeders.

To keep them away, avoid intentionally feeding them and place a metal baffle below any bird feeders that are mounted on poles.

With their bandit masks, raccoons are easily recognized and are considered nuisance pests. They are nocturnal and omnivorous, meaning they will eat just about anything: fish in a pond, insects, vegetation, seeds, garbage and pet food. Raccoons are good climbers, too.

To control them, secure garbage and compost piles, and seal off the area under porches as well as openings into garages and attics. Feed your pets indoors, or at least bring their food dishes inside before nightfall. If you raise chickens, enclose their pens. An electric fence surrounding a garden area can be effective if lines have been placed at heights of 12 and 18 inches. Pick up any fallen fruits or nuts from your orchard. Never feed raccoons intentionally and remove any wood piles or other materials that they could create a den under.

Cottontail rabbits are another problem animal for some gardeners. They primarily eat leaves, grass, clover, vegetable crops and bulbs.

The most effective way to keep them out of a garden is to surround the area with 2-feet-tall chicken wire or other type of wire fencing. Another option is to cover susceptible plants with netting or wire.

Having a dog in your yard is also an effective deterrent against squirrels, raccoons and rabbits.

Dealing with critters in the garden can be frustrating, but there are many ways to scare, repel or exclude them. Consider calling the Master Gardeners in Spokane County at (509) 477-2181, or in Kootenai County at (208) 446-1680, for additional ideas.

Susan Mulvihill is co-author, with Pat Munts, of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.” Contact her at Watch this week’s “Everyone Can Grow A Garden” video on

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