Most gardeners eventually have heated encounters with unwanted wild animals. The best and kindest solution is to keep them out with the right kind of barrier. A good farm dog can be a huge help, and repellents and scare devices work sometimes for some animals, but you can’t beat well-chosen garden fences for reliable long-term, around-the-clock protection.
Assessing Your Needs
When the primary purpose of a fence is to deter animal pests, you can't choose the best garden fence until you know what they are. The eight most prevalent wild animal pests of gardens are (in alphabetical order): deer, groundhogs (woodchucks), pocket gophers, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, and voles. Note that opossums and moles are missing from this list. Neither species directly damages garden crops, and both eat enough insects to be considered beneficial.
To help you identify which animal (or animals) is making mischief in your garden, match the evidence you see to the damage descriptions in Who’s Raiding Your Garden?
You can often witness damage being done by birds, squirrels, or groundhogs during daylight hours, but the night shift can be harder to track. If you can’t figure out which critters are doing the damage, station a $10 wireless motion-sensor light in your garden, and then turn off most of the lights in your house. The light might scare the animals the first few times it comes on, but after that they will accept it if doing so means getting a good meal. Have binoculars handy to get a good look at your new enemy.
Permanent Perimeter vs. Temporary Pop-Ons
Do you need to fence your whole garden, or are there only certain plantings in need of protection? If your only problem is protecting strawberries from birds and squirrels, making a secure cover for one bed using chicken wire, row cover or both is much less work than putting up a fence. Raccoons after your sweet corn are another problem that can be handled on a small scale with a carefully positioned two-strand electric fence, with one strand 6 inches above the ground and the other 12 inches high. See Electric Fencing for a full report on your electric fencing options.
You probably need a perimeter fence if you need to exclude chickens and other domestic animals, if deer are a serious problem, or if you are battling territorial critters such as pocket gophers and groundhogs. Plastic mesh fencing can be an inexpensive option to deter deer, but be aware that rabbits will quickly gnaw through the plastic, creating openings for smaller critters. You may be able to cut some of the posts you will need from your own land if you have rot-resistant woods such as cedar, locust, mulberry, or Osage orange. In locations where appearance is important, you can build an attractive wood fence and line its base and the ground surrounding it with poultry netting (chicken wire) or hardware cloth to keep animals from digging their way in. This add-on feature is necessary if any fence is to exclude rabbits, pocket gophers, and other small animals with sharp teeth.
On many homesteads, the garden fence also controls the movement of goats, dogs, pigs, or chickens, so many folks start with a post-and-wire perimeter fence, and then add poultry netting or electric fencing to enhance the fence’s pest-deterrent properties. For the main fence, there are three economical choices:
Woven wire fencing must be forcibly stretched between sturdy posts, so the ends and corners require secure bracing. On the positive side, woven wire’s flexibility makes it resilient and easier to install on uneven terrain than other types of fencing.
Welded wire fencing is stiffer than woven wire and requires minimal stretching, so it is easier to install (and requires fewer deeply set, reinforced posts) compared to woven wire. Welded wire works best on relatively level ground. Welded wire products with smaller mesh along the lower edge (intended to keep horses from getting their hooves caught) also deter some animal pests.
Stock panels are rigid fencing panels sold in standard 16-foot lengths. They range in price from $20 (for a 34-inch-high panel) to $45 (for a 5-foot-high panel). Installation is a simple matter of attaching them to metal posts with clips — no stretching required. And they are easy to relocate if necessary.
Any of these basic fences need more features before they can serve as barriers to smaller animal pests. To keep out pocket gophers, groundhogs, rabbits, and skunks, you will also need a buried barrier of poultry netting or hardware cloth that flares outward from the base of the fence. How deep the buried edge must be varies with the creature’s ability to dig. If you only need to deter rabbits, you can securely pin the flared section to the ground. Better diggers, such as groundhogs and pocket gophers, often require deeper deterrence.
If you have never handled poultry netting or hardware “cloth” (which is made of metal), allow yourself time to learn which materials best suit your needs. Buy small rolls to experiment with before choosing a fencing product for a big project. You also will need heavy gloves and wire snips strong enough to cut your fencing of choice. If you are working alone, have secure weights handy (stones, bricks, buckets of dirt) to hold the fencing to the ground as you unroll it and bend it flat.
Fencing Out Deer
We could go on for hours discussing deer deterrence, which can include many other methods in addition to fencing (such as growing catnip and daffodils in deer access paths, or hanging dirty dog blankets from trees). But when you get to the ultimate solution — an effective fence — set aside the notion you may have that height is what counts most. Height certainly helps, but it turns out that depth (as in two fences) is the critical factor. Deer are great jumpers, but their depth perception is poor. Here are two ways to create a three-dimensional fence to keep them out of your garden.
If you already have a fence that’s not keeping out deer but your kids play there so you don’t want to go electric, you could install a second fence about 3 feet inside the outer fence. The two fences — one inside the other — will deter deer from jumping in because of their limited depth perception.
Where deer pressure is severe and losses cannot be tolerated (such as new fruit orchards), you can deter deer effectively with a 3-D electric fence. You can use strand-type electric fencing if you like, but it’s even better (and cheaper) to use electrified tape because it’s easier for deer to see. You will need a minimum of three lines: Two of them form the inner fence (about 2 and 4 feet from the ground, varying slightly with the size of local deer), and the third hot line (about 3 feet from the ground) creates the outer fence, 3 feet away from the inner one. Most deer leave after getting zapped while eating grass and weeds beneath the single strand outer fence. If they attempt a jump based on the more visually prominent inner fence, their front hooves will likely connect with the outer fence before their rear hooves leave the ground — a critical detail for a successful zap. This electric fence can be integrated into a wire fence quite easily.
Not everyone likes to use electric shock to get the attention of animals, but sometimes difficult choices must be made. When you install a critter-proof fence, you can keep your food garden and local wildlife peacefully separated.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia. She dares any vole to make it through the new underground, hardware-cloth barrier that protects her fingerling potatoes.