I was so excited to harvest my potatoes this year – until, that is, I pulled the first massive tuber out of the ground.
That potato, a gorgeous Red Pontiac, must have weighed three pounds. Its heft was impressive and I was already salivating, just imagining all the delicious meals I could make with it.
I was absolutely thrilled – until I discovered all the bite marks on it. I had to throw it away, which as you likely know, is every gardener’s worst nightmare.
Rodents, including mice, rats, and voles, can do all kinds of damage to a vegetable or flower garden. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prevent and get rid of them.
Here’s what you need to know.
What’s Eating My Root Crops? Common Garden Pests
There are a few common enemies of the vegetable garden. If you notice damage above the ground, with plant parts like leaves and stems the primary targets, then it’s likely an insect pest. Common insect pests in the garden include aphids and leafhoppers.
These creatures target plant parts that grow above ground.
There are some insect pests that can go after roots and below-ground growth, too. These include root aphids, fungus gnat larvae, root weevils, root mealybugs, and root maggots.
However, if the damage is extensive and widespread, it’s probably not insects that are eating your crops, but instead, mammals like rodents.
You may be tipped off to their presence long before you notice any damage to your plants. In fact, many people notice nests or burrows before they see the pests (or the damages) themselves.
Here are some signs of common rodent infestations that may occur in the garden.
Rats, like other rodents, are nocturnal feeders. However, if you see them during the day, that’s a sign that there are lots of them – and they’re running out of food.
You might hear or smell rats before you see them. Their gnawing can be quite noisy and their droppings, which are about half an inch long, are quite smelly.
They dig burrows that are roughly two inches in diameter. These are usually found in mostly undisturbed areas. They may also produce smear marks where they move along wood, stone, or metal edges.
Rats will chew on just about everything. They don’t usually target root crops, but they can – so be on the lookout. Larger vegetables, like sweet corn, pumpkins, squash, and tomatoes are their favorite targets. They’ll eat plants while they’re in storage or even while they’re actively growing.
These rodents can cause more extensive damage in your garden, too, damaging building foundations and paths as they gnaw.
Mice and Voles
Mice and voles are common in gardens, too. If something has been nibbling your root crops, there is a good chance that mice and voles are to blame.
These creatures will eat a wide range of vegetables, including root vegetables like carrots, beets, parsnips, and potatoes. Fruits are common targets, too, even before they’re fully ripe.
They’ll also eat freshly-sown seeds and bulbs and corms. Voles often go after the bark of woody plants.
Both mice and voles construct systems of tunnels to live in. Voles tend to produce networks that are quite shallow, often making your garden soil look soft and uneven.
If these are the mammals gnawing on your root crops, you’ll likely notice small gnaw marks. You might also see bits of paper around the garden, as mice use this as nesting material and may deposit it as they’re passing through.
How to Protect Your Plants from Rodents
If you suspect that rodents are going after your root crops, you may want to take these steps to get rid of them.
1. Know Your Enemy
Before you can get rid of rodents in your garden, you need to know which specific pests are targeting your plants.
Usually, it’s mice and voles going after your plants, but that’s not always the case. Familiarize yourself with the various signs of rodent damage so you know exactly what pest you’re dealing with.
2. Eliminate Hiding Spots
One of the most important things you should do when you’re dealing with rodents in the garden is to eliminate any entry points.
Can you erect a fence around the garden that keeps the majority of pests out? Rats need only half an inch of space to gain entry, while mice need about a quarter of an inch. Good fencing is key!
Another option is to remove potential nesting sites. Keep your garden clean and tidy by removing old, rotting fruits and vegetables, disposing of garden clippings, and cutting back overgrown areas.
If you have a compost pile in the garden, make sure it’s covered. All lids to garbage cans should be closed and food shouldn’t be left outside for long periods of time.
Finally, if you feed birds, avoid scattering feed on the ground. Use a bird feeder instead.
3. Timing is Everything
It can be hard to find time to spend in your garden with all the other chores you have to do on your homestead on any given day! However, whenever you can, make it your goal to check in on the state of your garden regularly.
Checking in on the conditions will help you see if there are any problems that need to be addressed – such as rodent damage. While you might not know right away if rodents are chewing on your root crops, since you won’t pull the plants up until they are ready to harvest, you may be able to get a general idea by looking for other issues, like nesting sites.
4. Use Rodent Traps
For smaller populations of rodents, traps may be appropriate. Set these up near suspected entry points and check them frequently so they are always emptied.
5. Screen Them Out – Use Raised Beds
Building raised beds is another technique you can try to keep rodents away from your root vegetables. It doesn’t always work perfectly, since they can still get into the beds, but the higher you build them, the more effective they will be.
Some gardeners also use screens or soil netting to repel rodents. A piece of netting laid under the soil can help prevent voles and mice, though some determined rats will still chew through them. You can also place plastic mesh tubes around tender seedlings, though this method won’t really be possible for root vegetables.
6. Use Castor Oil Repellants
There are several repellents that can keep rodents away from your plants, too. Some of the best include peppermint oil, ultrasonic devices, and castor oil. Castor oil is a safe, all-natural rodent repellent that can be sprinkled anywhere in the garden where rodent damage is evident.
7. Build Screech Owl Nest Boxes
Whenever possible, consider attracting predators to the garden. They’ll help control rodent populations for you in a natural, ecologically-friendly way.
Of course, you probably shouldn’t rely on this method if you raise other livestock, like chickens. However, if you’re only concerned about the garden, consider building a few screech owl nest boxes near your plot. This will attract animals who are more than happy to take the rodents off your hands for you!
8. Plant Strategically
There are some plants that are just bound to attract more rodents – like most fruits and vegetables.
However, if you’re growing a vegetable garden, then you’re defeating the purpose by avoiding certain vegetables and fruits.
Instead, consider what you can add to your garden instead of taking it away.
Rodents aren’t fond of certain plants and herbs like marigolds, garlic, rosemary, onions, lavender, and daffodils. Consider growing these among your more desirable fruits and vegetables to keep rodents away.
Can You Eat Root Vegetables That Have Been Chewed On?
Although it can be frustrating to see all of your hard work go to waste, dealing with rodents in the vegetable garden is ultimately something that you just might have to come to expect.
In most cases, you can still eat the vegetables that have bite marks. Just be sure to thoroughly wash these and cut around any bad spots – rodents can spread a variety of diseases to people via their saliva. It’s often not worth the risk.
Also, don’t try to put these vegetables into long-term storage. If you usually store your carrots, parsnips, or potatoes in a root cellar, know that those with rodent damage probably won’t hold up.
While there’s not much you can do to salvage your chewed-on root crops, take solace in the fact that next year, you can implement the tips you read in this article!