Building the Perfect Fence for the Garden — Dealing with Animal Invaders

garden fence

The hog wire kept the dogs out but rabbits wiggle through. Poultry netting keeps the rabbits out, but only if you do it right.

Anyone who attempts to grow their own food will encounter many other living creatures that eat the same things. If you live in the city, bugs might be your only problem, unless the neighborhood dogs and cats come around to investigate. A fenced yard and some insecticide takes care of that, but even in the city you can run into country trouble with a garden. Raccoons might not eat much but they like to dig up whatever you’ve planted, to see what you put in there, and never seem to understand that the new plant doesn’t cover some neat treasure. Raccoons were put on the planet to sort things, and they’ll sort through your garden until they ruin it. Usually, after planting season the only things the raccoons want are sweet corn and ripe melons. Other things will be all right once the coons realize there’s nothing of interest underneath them. In the country or the city, you’ll run into deer trouble eventually, and in most suburbs you’ll find plenty of rabbits. Even groundhogs find green areas of the city as favorable to groundhog development as any wild place. Gardening can be deceptively easy at first, since the wild creatures need a little time to get used to changes. Deer, for instance, don’t immediately sample plants they don’t know. Daikon might not attract deer for a couple of years, but when the deer do take a bite, they’ll be back for more.

notched trunnels

Best tool for making a notched trunnel is a single-beveled tomahawk.

If you took a poll of gardeners, most of us would vote to let animals have part of the crop instead of getting rid of the animals through violence or subterfuge. Few gardeners have that option, however. In most areas, a garden is a small oasis of edible things during times of the year when food outside the garden is scarce. Hungry animals will find their way in, and will eat everything if allowed. Keeping them out is difficult, but it’s easier than killing everything that raids your crops. Shooting or trapping one offender does nothing to deter the rest, and only opens up the territory to new contenders. After many years of growing gardens and often losing them to animals unable to understand legal boundaries, I’ve tried all kinds of solutions, including mayhem. Some years you make a better profit by eating what eats your crops, but most years the best solution is a good fence. Best of all solutions, the electric fence keeps everything out, if it works. Expensive electric fences can go wrong, and do require considerable maintenance and thoughtful installation. Other kinds of fences solve specific pest problems less expensively. Before I get started on that, though, here’s a list of troubles you might encounter and some solutions that might work:

notched trunnel

Set a trunnel anwhere you find a gap between the netting and the ground after you've pulled the wire tight and fixed it to the posts.

Chipmunks vs Peanuts — No chipmunk gives a damn if a seed peanut is treated with poisonous fungicides or not. To a chipmunk it’s just a delicious peanut, and the little critters will go right down the row and dig up every peanut you plant and haul it off. The only thing I ever found that prevents this is garlic powder. Just buy the cheapest store brand you can find and sprinkle it over the top of the row. It’ll last for long enough that the chipmunk goes on to other work and your peanuts have a chance to grow.

Deer vs Gardens — Most deer can jump right over any fence a gardener can afford, so only active defenses like things that smell terrible or things that make scary noises or sparks will keep the deer away. In the Ozarks, deer were so scared of people that they were seldom a problem in gardens, but where people don’t eat any deer that shows itself, things are very different. Gardeners report good luck from stringing ten-pound test fishing line on poles just outside the garden fence. A deer trying to push through the line snaps it, and the twang sends the deer running. You’ll have to reset this trap whenever a deer tests it. Repellents like bags of hair and the dung of predators (some zoos sell lion poo, stinky but effective) can also work. Success will depend on how hungry the deer get.

staked fencing

Place the tip of the notched trunnel into the lowest weave of the fencing and drive it in at a slight angle. The notch catches the bottom strand of wire and pulls the fencing snugly to the ground. Leaving grass and other ground cover in place helps seal gaps. Grass growing up through the mesh makes the fence even tighter.

Raccoons vs Gardens — Fences of any sort aren’t likely to offer complete protection against raccoons when the sweet corn ripens. Coons are smart enough to figure out how to get past most obstacles. One older neighbor of mine solved the problem of coons raiding his sweet corn field by resolving never again to plant sweet corn. That may be the only solution that really works, but in a small plot you could try motion-sensor lights or motion-sensor noisemakers placed at likely entry points. If you hear Billy Bass singing “Take Me to the River!” at 3 in the morning, out in the sweet corn, it’s time to get out the shotgun. Picking sweet corn a day early also helps, but almost always you’ll visit the corn to find that the raccoons harvested it all the night before. Consider growing coon hounds alongside the corn if you’re serious about this project.

Metal rabbit fencing has smaller mesh at
the bottom and mesh size increases towards
the top. You still need to eliminate gaps
and loose spots at the bottom.

Alternate Gardens — I’ve tried this and never have seen it work, planting crops outside the garden as well as in it and letting animals forage on the crops outside. Wherever I’ve lived, it would take a lot of crops out there to keep anything from moving on to the real garden and trashing it as well. If you live in a place where there’s lots of food available, it might work for awhile. Most solutions to animal problems only work for a few years, then the animals figure it out and you have to come up with something new.

Now, on to more serious problems, like groundhogs.

Fencing Out Groundhogs

To a groundhog, a garden must be paradise. You can see how happy they are by the trail of destruction they leave. A groundhog will walk through a row of tomatoes and take one bite out of every ripening fruit, completely ruining the crop for the human that planted it. You can tell they’re just in awe of the riches they have found, so much food just hanging from the trees in easy reach. A groundhog will crop a patch of sweet potato vines right to the ground, probably hauling them home to store for later. Then they won’t bother the patch at all for weeks and you’ll think they’ve left the area, but just when the vines recover and you’re thinking you’ll get some potatoes out of it, it’s gone again. All the things you like to eat, a groundhog likes to eat, and they will eat everything or trash it.

Four foot high galvanized wire
poultry netting with one-inch
diameter mesh provides the raw
material for a groundhog fence.

To keep a groundhog out of the garden, you need protection around, above and below the perimeter. Groundhogs dig under things, climb over things, and gnaw through things to get to the garden they consider their own territory. Poultry netting makes a good barrier, but groundhogs will climb fence posts and drop over or simply dig an entryway underneath it. To stop groundhogs you need to dig a trench about a foot deep and a foot wide and place your fence in the trench. Buy poultry netting at least four feet tall and lay the first foot flat in the bottom of the trench. Cover that horizontal layer with dirt. When the groundhog tries to dig under the fence it will encounter more wire. That stops most of them from digging underneath the barrier, but it won’t stop them from climbing the fence.

To interfere with overhead entry, place your last fencing staple on the post about a foot down from the top, leaving the top of the poultry netting loose. When the groundhog tries to climb over, that last loose bit will fold down over it and interfere with upward progress. Seems to be enough to keep groundhogs from going over the top, but taller fences offer much better protection than short ones. A three foot tall fence built of four-foot galvanized wire poultry netting with a loose top and one foot of buried wire kept groundhogs out of my Ozark garden for several years. Eventually, one gray-backed old varmint outsmarted me.

You won’t believe how smart groundhogs are until you have to battle one for a garden. This one knew my routine, and we rarely encountered each other except by accident. He also knew if I had my shotgun with me or not and was careless of me if I didn’t. I should have tackled him with my bare hands and teeth the day I found him in the garden eating the last of my green beans and bok choy, but instead I chased him off. That loose top layer of fence doesn’t keep groundhogs in, they’ll tumble right over it on the way home. I fought him all summer, and he always found some way to outsmart me. He claimed all the crops, not just a part. I could not find where he was getting in, groundhogs always use the same trail over and over and this one left no trail.

In the late fall when all was lost, I opened the garden gate just as a gust of wind lifted a tarp I had used to cover my strawberries during a late spring frost. I had folded it and left it on the ground just inside the garden gate, all summer. The wind peeled a corner of it back and exposed the entrance to the enemy’s lair. I couldn’t find his path because all summer long, he’d been using mine. I just hate it when a large rodent turns out to be smarter than I am.

Groundhogs are such a serious problem that in this case, I recommend mayhem. Best solution to groundhog problems is a .22 Marlin with a telescopic sight, used as soon after you spot the groundhog as possible. Don’t let them in the garden and get rid of them before they do explore it. A rifle combined with a good fence works, if applied consistently. Once you let a groundhog establish a territory that includes your garden, shooting one brings three more.. A farmer in southern Arkansas once said that when the groundhogs start connecting up tunnels underground, there’s nothing you can do but move. Act before that happens. Groundhogs are smart, able to learn your routines, observe your behaviour, and adapt to it. The early chances are the only ones you’ll get.

.410 shotgun

Grandma Ethel's solution to groundhog problems -- the singleshot .410 shotgun from Ivers & Johnson's Firearms and Cycle Works.

Grandma Ethel’s Groundhog Recipe:

Despatch the animal with a singleshot .410 shotgun. After skinning and gutting the woodchuck, look for little orange glands in the armpits and the back and cut them out. If you don’t, the musk in the glands leaks out and makes the meat bitter. Groundhog meat is often a bit tough, so soak the carcass in a pot of salt water overnight, then divide it up and fry it in batter, like you would a chicken. I don’t think I ever cared much whether the groundhog meat was bitter or tough, sometimes groundhog is the only vegetable you get from an Ozark garden. Revenge makes it sweeter. I inherited the shotgun.

Fencing Out Rabbits

If rabbits are your only problem, you’re a lucky gardener. Rabbits can do a lot of damage, but they aren’t impossible to fence out. Rabbits do a little digging, but not a lot, so a fence that fits tightly to the ground provides a good defense. Around my garden I’ve staked the poultry netting to the ground securely with trunnels. “Tree nails” are easy to make and last for at least a couple of years. Rabbits don’t particularly like to jump barriers or climb over them, and there’s enough grazing here outside the fence that they aren’t driven by starvation to get at the green things on the other side of them. If they can get there easily, they’ll wipe them out. They particularly enjoy the pea vines and the edamame soybeans. First they’ll eat the vines, then they’ll come back in a couple of days and eat the pods they shunned before. Build your fence with one-inch poultry mesh, not two-inch, because a family of young rabbits can wiggle through a two-inch hole and have a party with your peas. Cottontails aren’t jumpers unless they’re being chased, so two feet of poultry netting has been effective so far. Above that, around half the garden that I fenced off last year, I have two feet of plastic rabbit netting, enough of a barrier that they won’t mess with it. Placed at ground level as your main defense, plastic rabbit netting does not slow rabbits down much at all, since they just chew through it. Hung a little higher it’s a deterrent against climbing and jumping. Around the other half, the original hog wire provides the upper half of the fence and has worked well so far. I do consider it a weak point in the system but rabbits aren’t climbers.

If you live with jackrabbits, build a higher fence and consider burying the bottom foot of wire netting. Jackrabbits live in tougher country and won’t give up so easily.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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