How To Safely Deter Animals That Steal From Your Garden

Updated: Jun. 04, 2024

Keep animals out of gardens and away from prized plants by adopting a selection of expert-approved, species-specific strategies.

Young male deer in a gardenLASZLO PODOR/GETTY IMAGES

Cultivating backyard biodiversity, rewilding your yard and living peaceably alongside visiting wildlife has many benefits. But if furry frequenters are decimating your prized plant collection, stealing your veggies or digging holes in your lawn, you might be searching for strategies to keep animals out of gardens.

There are heaps of hacks and commercial products out there, but many aren’t effective and some do more harm than good. Certified Wildlife Biologist Brian MacGowan explains that it’s easy to get desperate when the damage gets out of control. “Homeowners see this device that’s 20 bucks, and they put it in the ground and hope it works. It doesn’t cost a lot of labor or money, but it’s often just grabbing at straws,” he says. Instead, MacGowan recommends taking swift, scientifically supported and species-specific action. He also explains that a long-term integrated management strategy is better than one single solution.

I spoke with two wildlife specialists to look at popular, proven ways to keep animals out of garden landscapes or to allow you to share your space more harmoniously and with minimal damage.

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garden plant growing in a wire cloche to keep animals out
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Wire cloches, especially in early season, can be helpful to protect individual plants,” Sanchez says. Alternatively, use wire mesh to keep pests away from peppers and tasty tomatoes by wrapping it around the plants. The one downside, as MacGowan points out this exclusion method can be expensive and aesthetically unpleasing if you need to cover many prized plants.

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bird feeder baffle to prevent squirrels
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If you are an avid birdwatcher, consider using baffles to keep squirrels away from feeders. These wide, slippery domes typically hang mid-pole, scuppering the squirrels’ attempts to scurry up onto the feeding platforms. They’re also a good choice if you have hanging planters you want to protect.

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Fruit Tree growing in protective net for birds.
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Bird Netting

When birds are feasting on fruiting trees or berry-covered shrubs, an economical option is temporarily draping bird netting over them. Select something lightweight, pliable, and sturdy, such as three-quarter-inch plastic mesh netting. To prevent birds from becoming trapped, don’t pick a netting that is too thin or tricky to see.

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Layout of the foundation for the fence
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Underground Fencing

Erecting or adapting fencing is an effective exclusion technique, but it can be a pricey project. The type of fencing also varies depending on the species you’re trying to keep out.

When you want to get rid of moles or other digging animals, Sanchez says any fencing needs to include a below-ground component. “Run that part of the fence continuously with traditional upright fencing down into a trench, then include an L-shaped apron that reaches out towards the animal,” she says. “In most cases, having the trench go a foot to 18 inches deep is more than sufficient.” Sanchez recommends using a robust metal, such as hardware cloth, rather than chicken wire, which rapidly degrades.

If ground squirrel colonies burrow and threaten to displace the soil holding a home’s foundation, Sanchez suggests calling in a contractor. They may need to dig a two- to three-foot-deep trench with solid corrugated metal installed to prevent structural issues.

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fenced vegetable garden
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Deer Fencing

Sanchez says deer fencing needs to be at least 6 to 8 feet tall. Plastic mesh with UV inhibitors can be a temporary solution if you don’t have the budget or desire to erect permanent fencing. You can attach this to posts around the landscaping areas you want to protect.

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Electric fence gate protecting green grass pasture
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Electric Fencing

Sanchez recommends a single electric wire just above any fencing to keep out predators, such as coyotes, that can jump overtop this barrier. A wire around 8 inches off the ground can also deter mammals like skunks or racoons.

Electrified poultry fencing creates a mobile pen you can move around rather with free-ranging animals. “This can also be sufficient for raised garden beds when you only want to do full exclusion during the growing season,” Sanchez says.

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Gardener woman with spray gun spraying tomato plants in garden
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Store-Bought Repellents

Commercial repellents are a convenient way to keep wildlife off small areas in your yard. However, MacGowan points out they don’t have a long-lasting effect, and responses vary across species and populations. You will have to reapply regularly, vary the formulas to prevent habituation and experiment. Some common formula ingredients that repel based on fear, smell or taste include predator urine, putrefied egg solids, and capsaicin.

MacGowan prefers ready-to-use repellents for keeping out rabbits and other wildlife to homemade solutions. These formulas tend to have buffering and sticking agents to help them adhere to plants, and there is some product research. Opt for EPA-approved, labeled-for-use products and carefully follow the instructions.

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Garden works background with spray atomizer in female hands. Watering the bushes.
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Homemade Repellents

There’s not much science to suggest homemade solutions keep animals out of gardens. However, if you’ve already got the ingredients in your pantry, applying them could be worth a whirl when used alongside other exclusion strategies. Sanchez suggests a sprinkling of capsaicin or pepper flakes might help in the short term. Some alternatives include garlic (because this is toxic to dogs, it’s best for yards without pets), castor oil or mustard oil.

“I would discourage people from going to the internet and creating toxic brews of chemicals on their own — anything involving things like bleach and ammonia,” she says.

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Loudspeaker pole
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Noise Makers

Devices emitting fear-inducing or unpleasant sounds include fireworks, gas exploders, or recorded distress signals and predator calls. While MacGowan says these can be effective in the short term, they are often really loud, unsuitable for urban areas and animals can become habituated to the sounds. “Typically, they work better when combined with other things, like repellents and fencing,” he says.

While the much quieter ultrasonic pest control devices might sound appealing, MacGowan cautions that limited research suggests they are ineffective.

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Scarecrow in a garden
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Visual Repellents

According to MacGowan, things that move and reflect light, such as mylar spirals, are effective for visually-oriented animals, like birds. Other visual repellents worth trying are scarecrows, vinyl balloons with holographic eyes, and economical foil strips.

However, habituation to these things can happen over time, so MacGowan recommends regularly changing the location and type of stimulus and using them alongside other exclusion techniques.

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Motion-Activated Repellents

Motion-activated sprinklers or lights can be effective as part of a strategy to keep animals out of gardens. “The tricky part in suburbia is that we have to aim very carefully so we won’t hit the delivery person, meter reader or neighbors,” Sanchez says. Plus, if you can’t change the aim, the animals can become habituated or simply graze in a place where the water doesn’t reach.

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Small rocks used for mulch on a thin tree trunk
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Make Your Yard Less Attractive

Making your yard less attractive to local wildlife reduces the need for repellents and exclusion strategies. MacGowan recommends switching from wood to rock mulch for landscaping, reducing mulch thickness in beds and removing ground cover, like ivy, that small animals can hide in. Some other simple strategies for keeping animals out of gardens include:

  • Clear away piles of leaf litter, overgrown shrubs and grass and other den-making debris.

  • Remove fallen fruit, pet food bowls, dropped birdseed and other easy food sources.

  • Lock up your trash cans and enclose compost piles.

  • Cover or remove rain barrels, birdbaths, watering cans and other sources of standing water.

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Flowerbed of marigolds in bloom
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Pick the Right Plants

Pick plants that won’t make an appealing buffet when designing your landscape. For example, while no species are completely deer-resistant, MacGowan recommends avoiding jewelweed, tulips and hostas, which they find irresistible.

Sanchez recommends adding native plants. Animals might still make a meal of them, but she explains that, amongst their many benefits, they’re often better adapted to being nibbled on than exotic ornamentals. “If a deer overbrowses a native shrub, that shrub might put on more woody material,” Sanchez says. “A plant capable of making thorns might put a few more on, or another might make itself more bitter to manage how much removal or damage it will allow those animals to make.”

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Little Chipmunk in Garden
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Frequently Asked Questions

What animal deterrents should you avoid using in your garden?

Sanchez recommends steering clear of the debunked animal deterrent hacks of chewing gum, bath soaps and mothballs. “They aren’t effective, and, in the case of mothballs, you don’t want to have physical or respiratory contact with those harmful chemicals,” she says.

Is trapping animals entering my yard an effective strategy?

Trapping isn’t generally an effective long-term strategy for keeping animals out of gardens, the laws on what you can trap and how vary by state, and professional assistance is often recommended or required. Sanchez cautions against live trapping and relocating in the spirit of not wanting to hurt the animal. As well as often being illegal, she says that translocated animals have under a 50% chance of surviving, and you can disrupt the local species population by creating social unrest or spreading disease.

About the Experts

  • Brian MacGowan, PhD, is a Certified Wildlife Biologist. He has been an Extension Wildlife Specialist with the Department of Forestry & Natural Resources at Purdue University since 1999; video interview, May. 20, 2024
  • Dr. Dana Sanchez is an Associate Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist for the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University. She is a mammalian ecologist who conducts basic and applied research, especially when integrated with public education and outreach duties; video interview, May. 15, 2024.