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Mr. Smarty Plants - What is eating the plants in my garden?

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Friday - August 08, 2008

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Diseases and Disorders
Title: What is eating the plants in my garden?
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I have both purple and yellow coneflowers. Something is coming into my garden and eating the flowers off the stems. We don't have deer but may have other small animals that can get into our yard. Do you have any idea what animals eat coneflowers and what can I do to stop them?

ANSWER:

We're afraid the simple answer to your question is "no and no." We don't know what the animals are and we don't know of a way to stop them. The funny thing, well, maybe funny is not an appropriate term, this very subject was being discussed last week at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center by both staff and volunteer gardeners. Not only were the coneflowers being eaten, but the Big Red Sage in the garden was also falling victim to the midnight vandals. The Wildflower Center has long been the nocturnal target of deer, in spite of fences and barriers. Lately, raccoons and possums have been marauding in the Plant Nursery, tipping over young bedding plants in the Shade and Sun Yards in the Nursery, either eating the plant or going for something in the dirt. Every morning in the Nursery, the first few minutes is spent rescuing the plants, repairing the ones that can be saved, putting on bandaids.

As to what is now working on mature plants in the garden, the possibilities suggested were raccoons, possums, rabbits, field mice and (yuck) rats. We also have a resident roadrunner, but he is in charge of snake control and doesn't bother the plants. We have a couple of (totally unproven) theories on why the animals are moving in on the urban gardens. In the first place, this has been a hot, terrible summer, starting in May, and showing no signs of letting up. The gardens in the Wildflower Center are irrigated, although as thriftily as possible, and your garden probably is, too. The plants in the irrigated, cultivated gardens are alive, as opposed to the ones in the fields that the animals have been feeding on previously. Our other theory is that as more people move into the Austin area, more green and wild areas are being developed for housing, shopping, etc. and the animals are losing their natural habitats. In order to survive, they are moving into urban neighborhoods.

We went trolling for ideas from other gardeners on how to protect garden plants, and pretty much struck out. There were repellants suggested, as well as traps. There are, of course, poisons that can be put out. All of these solutions worry us because, in the first place, someone besides the target animal, like a pet cat or a child, might chance across the "fix" with very bad results. And, in the second place, if you do succeed in killing or capturing a marauder, then you are faced with the problem of disposing of it, dead or alive.

This is not a solution, but patience and some common sense seem to be about all we can offer. We can hope that better weather, a cooler, wetter Fall and some rain will revive some of the natural wildlife food out in the fields, and also, by a natural process, that the populations of the wild animals will decrease with the decrease in availability of food. You can make your outdoors area as unattractive to wild animals as possible, never leaving out pet food or water, making sure kitchen disposal areas are clean and tightly contained. Keep brush and undergrowth cleaned out, eliminating places for the animals to skulk as they shop at your supermarket. And count down the days until cooler weather!

 

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