Fact and folklore: Ways to keep pests from gardens

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COLUMBIA, Mo. – Gardeners who seek environmentally friendly ways to keep pests at bay could do worse than to heed the wisdom of some old wives’ tales, University of Missouri horticulture researchers said.

“Garden folklore has been passed on through many generations,” said Mary Kroening, University of Missouri extension horticulturist.

While not all such folklore is based in science, it “provides some useful and entertaining remedies to try,” she said.

Voracious deer are a common nuisance in both vegetable and flower gardens. “Deer are sometimes deterred from unwanted areas by hanging a bar of soap from a tree, spreading human hair or even animal urine around an area,” said Jessica Van Tine, university horticulture intern.

“Bobcat, fox, and coyote urines are commercially sold as deer deterrents.” Some places even sell exotic varieties like tiger and lion urine.

As anyone who reads children’s stories knows, rabbits can ravage a vegetable garden. “On campus, fox urine is used to deter rabbits,” Kroening said. “Your best defense against rabbits is probably to build a fence,” Van Tine said.

A strong, wire-mesh fence buried 12-18 inches into the ground will keep out not only the cottontails, but raccoons as well.

Moles and gophers hate vibrations, so try placing a pinwheel into the newly turned earth or partly burying a half-filled bottle, which will whistle whenever there’s a breeze. The irritating noises encourage unwanted pests to relocate.

“You can also take used kitty litter and just put it in the mole hole,” Kroening said. “There are issues with disease, so it’s probably wise to wear gloves.”

Scarecrows can discourage birds to some degree, Van Tine said. “Dress a figure in red clothing and it may keep the birds away.”

For extra help, hang aluminum foil, small plastic flowerpots or metal wind chimes from the head and limbs of your figure. These create movement and noise that help scare away the birds.

Although the color red deters many birds, it attracts hummingbirds, which are efficient pollinators and also pest predators. “Hummingbird feeders should be filled only with sugar water, not honey, because it can develop a fungus and be fatal to the birds,” Van Tine said.

For the garden that has an infestation of slugs, place a half full jar of beer into the ground and the slugs will be drawn in,” Van Tine said. “Remember to place a stick into the jar as an escape route for other insects that happen to fall in.”

The gazing balls that ornament many home landscapes were originally thought to ward off witches, she said. “In 17th-century England, gazing balls were used to preserve plants from the wicked witches who would come to steal the garden’s prime plants. The shiny balls attracted witches, but once the witches saw their ugly reflection, they fled.”

There are several books about gardening folklore, she said. Two of the best are Garden Folklore That Works by Charlie Ryrie and Old-Fashioned Garden Wisdom by Larry Maxcy.

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