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Naturally Deter Squirrels (and Other Critters) from Your Garden

My chickens are so polite. They love to share their food. The minute I put out some tasty sunflower seeds, they invite the squirrels over to share in their feast. It’s so nice to see them sharing their good fortune. I’m not quite sure where they get it from though, because I’m not a fan of sharing my garden vegetables with the squirrels, rabbits, or chipmunks.

The squirrels, especially, have been a menace this year. They especially enjoy the sweet cherry tomatoes planted about the garden. Now, I may find them extremely annoying, but that in no way means that I’d resort to putting toxic chemicals in the garden to drive them away. Nor would I like to see a squirrel hunt take place.

So what can one do?

Luckily, over the years I’ve collected a few methods for deterring small critters from the garden. With these few good tricks, you can chase the pesky squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, mice, and more away from your garden without harsh extremes that will hurt your plants or the animals stealing their fruits. 

Ways to Keep Small Critters Away from the Garden

Fence in the garden. Before moving to 22 acres covered in trees, I didn’t put a fence around my garden. But, now that our garden would be naturally bordered by trees on three sides, putting a fence up was a must. This hardly phases the squirrels. They simply climb up and over the cedar posts. However, using chicken wire to wrap around the garden has done a tremendous job at keeping our hefty rabbit population out. Be sure to bury the fence a little ways underground to prevent any clever burrowers.

Plant marigolds. Small animals (and many insect pests) detest the smell of marigolds. It is best to plant them around and throughout the garden to fill the air with their scent. Plus, your chickens will enjoy munching on some marigold seeds come fall.

Spread coffee grounds around. Another foul odor to critters that so many of us humans enjoy is coffee. Spread spent coffee grounds throughout the garden to deter pests, while also fertilizing your garden plants.

Scare them off with the scent of a predator. (I’ll warn you, this one is a bit weird. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do, though.) Small critters (and even some large ones) are often skittish over the first signs of danger-not that I’m blaming them. By placing human or pet hair around the garden you are sending these pests a warning. The scent of a human or pet will likely send them packing. You can simply spread a bunch throughout the garden, or you can create a “repellent bag” to hang around the garden. Find out how to do that here. 

Sprinkle cayenne pepper on and around your plants. Cayenne pepper will make the leaves and fruits of your garden plants not so delightful-sending squirrels and their friends off in search of tastier food. Be sure to reapply frequently as it washes away with rain and watering. **I’ve read that cayenne pepper can be harmful to pollinators. I do not use this method until the end of July or August when I’ve noticed a decrease in the number of bees in the garden. Just in case.

Mix up a hot and spice spray. A cup of hot sauce, a pint of vinegar, and 12 mashed garlic cloves sitting in a spray bottle in the sun for a couple of days will be no match for those garden thieves. Spray this concoction on your plants, vegetables, and fruits and watch as the squirrels, rabbits, and others turn up their noses and head elsewhere for dinner.

Plant herbs. Probably my favorite suggestion. Similar to marigolds and coffee grounds, small rodents do not like the strong aromas coming from common kitchen herbs. Dispersing herb plants throughout the garden will discourage any critters from snatching your garden vegetables. And as an added bonus, you will have lovely homegrown herbs to add to your meals. A double win for you!

Your Best Bet for Success

I don’t believe any one of these is a magic solution better than another. Not one idea is a cure-all for squirrels, rabbits, or other small animals from wreaking havoc on your garden. These suggestions work best when you combine their benefits in your garden. With a bit of vigilance you can keep the critter population to a minimum in your garden.

Think about how much work you put in starting seeds, fertilizing and watering sprouts, and pruning plants. Don’t let all of that be carried off by woodland creatures for a free meal. Use these effective methods to rid small critters from your garden without toxic chemicals or harming the animals. Just simple, all-natural ways to deter pests so you can enjoy the harvest you most assuredly deserve!

Have you dabbled in critter control before around your garden? What is your most effective method?

Zinnia Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

While visiting with my grandparents recently I shared a picture of my newly opened zinnias. I planted them from seed at the edge of my garden. My grandmother, a flower enthusiast, delighted in the colors. She remembered her mother planting zinnias around the garden, too. This made me curious. Why are zinnias such great garden flowers?

I was hoping to find some folklore stories on the matter. However, there wasn’t much I could find on the traditional practice of planting zinnias around the garden. The history behind these colorful beauties is rather surprising though, and too good not to share! Besides that, there are many fine reasons to plant zinnias-in the garden or just for fun.

Zinnia History

Zinnias, native to Mexico, are named after a German anatomist and botanist named Johann Gottfried Zinn. In his 32 years of life Zinn made a lasting impression on both the medical and botanical fields. He was the first individual to create a thorough anatomy of the human eye. One part of the eye has been named after him as well-the zonule of Zinn or Zinn’s membrane.

In addition to his medical studies, he was passionate about plants. The German Ambassador to Mexico once sent Zinn a pack of zinnia seeds. But at that time, the plant was better known as ‘mal de ojos‘ which means ‘sickness of the eyes,’ or ‘ward off the evil eye‘ to the people of Mexico. There the plant was deemed an uninvited weed. Zinn wrote the first botanical description of the plant, and therefore it was named after him.

Having a fondness for these bright bursts of color, this came as a big surprise to me. How would such beauty be considered a weed? Then I remember all the beautiful “weeds” growing around here-dandelion, clover, chicory, …and the list goes on.

Why Grow Zinnias

I’m glad I could partake in the planting of zinnias around my vegetable garden as so many have before me. Zinnias offer many benefits beyond the natural cheerfulness you can’t help but feel when you look their way.

  • Zinnias are easy to grow, and a great project for kids. Just barely cover them with no more than 1/4 inch of soil in full sun. Water daily until sprouts appear and in no time you’ll have flowers to adore.
  • Zinnias are low maintenance. They don’t require much in the way of fertilizer, mulch, or even water-maybe an inch a week is all they ask. The Zahara species will even clean itself-no deadheading required. And they tend to self-seed for the next year.
  • Zinnias attract pollinators with ease. Their bright, multiple colors call out to the bees and butterflies making them helpful in pollinating garden veggies.
  • Zinnias believe variety is the spice of life. They come in every color except for blue, and their sizes range from 6 inches to 4 feet tall. They either have single or double layers of petals.
  • Zinnias make it easy to grow more and more at no cost. To collect their seeds you’ll just need to let them dry on the stem before gently smashing their flower heads between your hands. This will let the seeds come out, and you can store them in a cool, dry place until the next growing season rolls around.
  • Zinnias make lovely cut flowers. Their colors will brighten up any room, and they will last for quite a while in a vase of water.

Zinnia’s beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, yet their potential and benefits cannot be debated. Their history as a weedy wildflower is unbelievable as I gaze toward my garden. Seeing these zinnias standing tall makes me wish I had planted more. They will always have a place in my garden, as I hope they will yours, too!



A Simple Method for Collecting and Utilizing Rainwater

As I listen to the rain fall on the tin roof, I begin thinking about the just what this rain will provide. Rainwater is our only source for household needs. Water to bathe in. Water for dishes, flushing the toilet, and washing my hands. Water for houseplants and water for garden veggies. (Very soon—water for laundry!) I can feel my connection to Mother Nature’s cycles as I watch the rain pour down. Contemplating these gifts enhances my gratitude for this life-giving resource.

Watering plants with a watering can  And might I add—a finite resource, at that! One that needs careful conservation among a growing population. When I was in school I became deeply interested in environmental justice. I read, on a global scale, how climate change would devastatingly effect the countries contributing to it the least before really being noticeable to those directly contributing to it. This breaks my heart—one, because we, in developed countries are still engaging in the “is climate change real?” debate, and two, because I cannot stand the idea of my privilege creating such an unjust world. (Perhaps this is why I was studying social work to begin with.) Collecting and utilizing rainwater—even to supplement the use of water—is a great way to become mindful of one’s water use as well as help conserve water in a world of growing need and limited resources.

To lend some perspective on just how imbalanced water usage is, it has been estimated that the average American (take note—that this is one human being) consumes close to 180 gallons of water every day. Whereas, the average African family (group of people) uses only 5 gallons of water a day. This raises many questions in my mind about the convenience of modern technology. Nevertheless, the real issue is to find a solution to the overconsumption of water.

Mindfulness lends a helping hand here. When I began collecting and using rainwater for everything except drinking and cooking, I realized just how thoughtlessly I was using water before. I was clueless as to how much water I had been using—and wasting. I’m often amazed at how blind I am to the gifts around me. I don’t know exactly how much water I’m using now on a daily basis, but I am confident that it is much less.

There are many ways to get started using a rain water supply within your home. Here is how I manage to live off-grid without a well or city water. The rain that falls on my roof is transported into trash barrels along the side of the house via gutters and PVC pipes. After a good rain (or when they are looking like they need it) I put 1-2 tablespoons of bleach into each full trashcan. I don’t like using bleach (at all) but this step helps to ensure bacteria in the water are eliminated prior to filtering. This step also helps keep the mosquito population to a minimum that close to the house throughout the summer months.

Several times a day, I carry the water inside by the bucketful and empty it into a Berkey water filter. The water filters into a container that holds it until it’s needed. A pump sends water to the bathroom for washing hands and flushing the toilet. When I need hot water for a shower or dishes, I put it on the stove for a while toart, branch, clear heat up. A pump carries the hot water (placed in separate container) into the bathroom for a shower. The shower head is turned on when I am rinsing myself and needing to get wet, and turned off while lathering up. Any gray water that I collect in the process of any of these tasks then gets used for watering houseplants or taken out to water trees. I have a separate water collection system atop the chicken coop for garden watering.

It may sound like a lot of extra work, but once you begin seeing how much water you save this way it becomes less of a chore. And just because this is the way I’ve chosen to conserve water doesn’t mean your way will look exactly the same. The most important part is that you take the steps to make the most of the water you’ve been given. Maybe you could start collecting rain water just for garden use. Or just for doing the dishes. There are so many benefits to adding just one or two of these practices—both for you, in terms of your water bill, and for the environment. Even the smallest step is still movement in the right direction. And once you start, you may realize you really like the feeling of this practice of Earth stewardship—it can be very addicting, for all the right reasons!


Garden Design: Things to Think About

Creating a garden is truly a work of art. Placing one’s hopes within tiny seeds and leaving their fate in the hands of Mother Nature is a beautiful act of faith. And a great way to practice taking responsibility for one’s own health. The process of garden building is fun and can be as creative as the gardener allows it to be.

The design and organizational structure of your garden is completely up to you. Once you’ve chosen what type of plants you’d like to grow 
you are ready to plan the garden of your dreams! This is one of my favorite parts because I can see my ideas coming together. Proper planning will allow you to be the most efficient when it comes time to getting in the dirt. The following considerations aren’t the only ways to go about designing a garden. However, they have been beneficial for me in creating some very aesthetically pleasing and deliciously productive garden plots in years past.

Starting a garden is much like beginning a jigsaw puzzle. The major difference is that you don’t have an image to go off of when putting the pieces together. You get to create that image and you’ll want to start with the border. Being as precise as possible (maybe to the half-foot or so) will help you determining how many plants can fit within your given space later down the road. Take out a tape measure and figure out how long and wide your planting space will be. This is also a good time to determine what kind of border you will have around your garden. Will it be fenced? Will you have a natural edge, or will it simply end and grass begin?

Now that you have a border you can really have some fun arranging and rearranging the plants you’ve picked to grow in your space. There remains a great deal to consider when determining where to place your plants. The sun, the surface of your growing space, and your plant’s needs all play a role in the positioning of your plants in the garden. Despite all of this, infinite possibilities remain!

My next step is thinking about the sun. In the past, the gardens I’ve designed had zero shade. This is great for cherry tomatoes and cucumbers, but not so good for leafy vegetables that need a break from the hot summer sun. This year my garden is surrounded by tall cedars on every side except to the south. I’m having to consider the pattern of the sun a great deal more to ensure I don’t block any low growing plants (like sweet potatoes) with taller bushier plants (tomatoes and peppers). Making a chart of your plants with the categories: full-sun, partial-sun, and full-shade is helpful to have handy when planning out your garden.

Next, you’ll have to think about the earth. You may want to consider the following questions. What is the surface of your plot like? Is it flat or sloped? Is the soil rocky, sandy, or clay-bogged? In my second year of gardening I made the mistake of switching the direction of my garden rows so they flowed down the slight slope of the land. Several of my plants were washed away as the rain ran down the hill. Thinking about the natural characteristics of the land and how you can work with it is a valuable lesson. It’s safe to say that my rows followed suit going against the rain in the years to come.

My favorite consideration is companion planting. Knowing who is a friend of who can change the flavor and the amount produced of such allies. It can even lessen the amount of time you spend ridding pests from the garden. A general guide for this is to think about what foods pair well together on your dinner plate. Those will often pair well together in the garden, too. Tomatoes and basil, for example. There’s a ton of information out there on what works well together and what to avoid. It is definitely worth looking into when planning your garden.

Next to actually being out in the garden, this is my favorite step. I do it every year because it’s fun to imagine new possibilities. So pull out some graph paper, grab a ruler and a big eraser and get to work. The best teacher I’ve had is experience. There’s always something to learn, and the very best part is that what doesn’t work out or needs to be modified can easily be changed the following year. The only way to really fail when it comes to gardening is to stop trying. There isn’t any fun to be found in that approach anyway.

Minimizing the Use of Plastic Grocery Bags

Most people make their life goal changes and resolutions for improvement in January, but I like to wait until April when my soul comes alive with anticipation for the bright, colorful months ahead. The opportunity to celebrate another Earth Day—a day I only half-jokingly profess as the most important day of the year—is the perfect time for setting new “green” goals and getting creative with how I can cultivate a greater Earth-consciousness in my daily routines.

A change I’ve wanted for several years without success is to eliminate the plastic grocery bag. It seems so simple, yet time and time again, I walk out of the store with ten more grocery bags to stuff in the already overflowing collection in the kitchen. I leave the store feeling guilty and thinking, “You know better than this. Get yourself some reusable bags and don’t go to the store without them.” But then I get home and don’t think of my advice to myself again until I’m in the checkout lanes again.

I’m needing a little push in the right direction. A surefire way to motivate myself toward any environmental change is taking a look at facts. A reminder of just how terrible a practice is for Mother Earth is the perfect spark to get my fire for environmental stewardship burning again. Naturally, what I found was heart wrenching.

It is estimated that 100 billion plastic bags are used for shopping in the U.S. each year. This costs some $4 billion for retailers to have their names placed on bags so we might become walking advertisements. Only between 1 and 3% of those consumed are recycled. And for the most part, my grocery bags end up in the trash acting as small trash bags themselves.

Furthermore, plastic bags are derived from petroleum products. This means their production causes air pollution and uses energy that could be focused elsewhere. The polyethylene used to create these convenient shopping pals likes to stick around long after their convenience is spent. For polyethylene to break down we must wait 1000 years. But even then, plastic bags aren’t completely gone. This is because they photodegrade instead of biodegrading. They breakdown smaller and smaller until their tiny, toxic bits spread through soil and waterways waiting for an unknowing creator to ingest it.

Often plastic bags cause problems for animals before even reaching the tiny, broken-down, toxic bit stage. Somewhere close to a million seabirds and mammals die from ingesting plastic bags or the bags wrap around their intestines leading to a miserably painful death.

I can’t seem to let go of that image—an animal dying from the inside out because I needed the convenience of a plastic bag to carry my consumer goods home. I won’t shift the percentage alone, but that won’t stop me from joining the only 5% of U.S. shoppers who use reusable shopping bags. Maybe the self-reminding research will encourage you, too.

There are plenty of ways to get your hands on some reusable grocery bags. I found some lovely ones here. You could also pick some up in the grocery store or make your own from old T-Shirts or other materials. However you go about it, be sure to enjoy the feeling of “less” you are creating. Less plastic bag waste. Less energy used to create them. Fewer animals suffering a harsh, unnatural end to life. And less cluttered up grocery bags in your home. Sounds like a major gain for me!