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GARDENING | IN THE GARDEN

How to Keep Vegetables Safe From Pilfering Pests

July 26, 1998|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Wouldn't it be nice to go to sleep at night, or off to work in the morning, and know that your fruits and vegetables are safe?

Safe from robber raccoons and burglar birds, sneaky squirrels, tunneling gophers, rabbits, deer and digging dogs and cats?

If you had a big enough garden, you could afford to share a little with this wildlife. But in the typical Southern California garden, there is precious little produce to spare.

With some minor carpentry skills and a modest budget, it's possible to build a bulletproof planter box, so you can put away the plastic owl and the ultrasonic devices (that don't work anyway) and still pick strawberries or tomatoes at the end of the day.

Confounding Critters

Several years ago I saw such a contraption in Arizona, home of the ultimate garden pest, a wild pig called a javelina, which makes all these other creatures look like they're walking on tiptoes through your garden. With its snout and claws, it tears up gardens like some peccary corps of engineers, moving mounds of soil in the process.

The owners of this garden built a garage-sized structure that had welded wire on the top, sides and underneath. No one is going to get at these folks' vegetables.

I've recently seen two similar versions of this bulletproof bed here in Southern California, one in Pomona and the other in consumer reporter David Horowitz's backyard.

Horowitz had a 75-by-200-foot vegetable garden at his previous house, "so I could afford to share, even though the animals used to scarf about 25% of the crops."

Now he has a much smaller vegetable bed, where he grows just a few tomatoes and things, so keeping critters out became important. Since he frequently travels in his work, he can't keep watch on the chicken coop, so to speak.

Tree rats were his biggest problem, pillaging freely at night, sometimes even in broad daylight. There are gophers on the property as well. His solution was simple, affordable and scaled right for the smaller backyard.

He built a 4-by-10-foot raised bed, nailed uprights to the bed's redwood boards, put in pipe rafters and covered the thing with 1-inch chicken wire. It looks like a little playhouse with a pitched roof, sheathed in chicken wire.

Additional galvanized chicken wire is buried about 10 inches deep around the sides to keep gophers and other digging animals from undermining his vegetable fortress.

The openings in the wire are wide enough "for bees to freely fly through and do their work," and the sides roll up so he can harvest or work inside.

He says it took him two days to build and cost about $115. Right now the cage is full of "the sweetest, most wonderful tomatoes" and not a one has been nibbled on.

You could even make this citadel slug and snail proof, by wrapping copper strips around the outside of the raised bed. These creatures won't crawl over copper, but slugs and snails are not a problem in Horowitz's garden. They're the favorite food of those roof rats he's keeping out.

The bulletproof bed in Pomoma is more on the scale of the one I saw in Arizona. Natasha von Rathjen lives in the hills above Cal Poly and had problems with squirrels, rabbits, skunks, opossums and blue jays.

Her solution was to have a builder of aviaries put together a 25-by-30-foot structure, a kind of aviary that keeps birds out instead of in.

The structure is made from galvanized poles and wire aviary netting. While she was at it, she had bubblers installed in the beds. They're on a timer so she can water even when she's not there, and her work often keeps her away for 12 hours at a time.

Paths Between Beds

Because it is so large, she has the luxury of being able to widely space the plants, and she can comfortably walk around inside the cage. The paths between the individual beds are even paved (no muddy feet when picking dinner!) and there is a regular screen door that lets one inside. And, in the 11 years she's had it, no animals have ever gotten in.

She had the additional problems of hillside wind and inland heat, so the sides of the "aviary" can be covered with shade cloth to protect vegetables from the wind. Shade cloth can also be laid over sections of the top when some shade is needed, for lettuce in summer for instance, although she shades many of the vegetables year round.

Her enclosed beds are the closest thing I've seen to a backyard vegetable factory, though I might go one step further and keep a few small, seed-eating birds inside. The company would be fun and their droppings would enrich the garden.

Sounds like a place for a hammock too, under one of those panels of shade cloth. You could just lie back and watch the tomatoes ripen.

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