High-Altitude Cold-Climate Gardening: Overcoming Wildlife Challenges
Guest Post by Willowcreekfarm Part 4 of 5
This is our 4th post in this series. Click these links to read the previous posts.
Now we will discuss wildlife. Living in the high-altitude Rockies gives us plenty of beautiful wildlife to view. Not a day goes by without some sort of wildlife moving through our property. It is such a blessing. But it also presents a challenge for our garden. The specific critters that can cause problems in our garden are deer, elk, rabbits, rodents of all sizes and kinds, raccoons, and bears.
So let’s break it down into categories by animals.
Elk and Deer
Both elk and mule deer are prevalent in our area. We have herds of up to 200, although most of the time the elk are in groups of about 20-30 and the deer are in groups of 5-7 when they come through the property. They are happy to graze on anything and everything, from plants and veggies to berry bushes and fruit trees. They also will rub their antlers on trees, sometimes aggressively, and can break and kill a small tree easily when they do. And they are very acclimated to humans, so they don’t mind coming right up to the house and in human areas to get what they want to eat. They are the biggest wildlife challenge we face in the garden.
The answer for these animals is easy – fencing. Anything they like to eat MUST be inside of a 6 foot+ fence (they can jump 5 foot fences). They don’t care much for onions and garlic, so we plant those outside of the fence. And we have also gotten away with planting squash and pumpkins outside of the fence, as long as we keep a close eye on them as the fruit begins to ripen because elk and deer will happily eat a ripe squash or pumpkin. But they wont eat the leaves and the plant itself
Because we love the views up here and don’t want to have 6+ foot tall fences blocking our views everywhere, we chose what are sometimes referred to as “invisible fences.” They are made of a black mesh that pretty much disappears from view when you back away from it and doesn’t take away from the beautiful mountain views.
Here is a picture of the garden area. The far edges have the fence going along them, but you can’t barely see it there. Click on the pic and examine it. Look to the right side of the photo where there is a metal trough in the background…now look at the mountain to the left of that. You can kind of see the black mesh, but it doesn’t really take away from anything. And can you see those skinny black posts?
There is one right in the center back of the photo, in the back corner of the garden, and there is one to the left of it before the power pole. Those are what hold the fencing up.
And speaking of those posts…they add another benefit to this type of fencing. Living in the high-altitude Rockies means rocky terrain which makes it near impossible to dig fence post holes. And even if you can dig one or two, by the time you get to the third you can’t get it dug where you want it and if you want to put it in you have to move it 2-3 feet right or left and you end up with a zigzag fence line.
The posts on this type of fencing are super-easy to install. They come with receivers that you pound into the ground and then you just slide the post into the receiver. The receivers are narrow enough that we haven’t had a problem getting a pretty straight fence in as we run into rocks during the process.
The fencing is 7 feet high, which is enough to keep the elk and deer from jumping it. But there is a downfall to the black plastic mesh…
…rabbits and rodents can chew through it. Which brings us to our next wildlife challenge.
Rabbits and Rodents
We have plenty of cottontail rabbits around, as well as mice, voles, moles, chipmunks, ground squirrels, gophers, grey squirrels, and pack rats. Any and all of them would love to have a meal in our garden.
Our first line of defense against the rodents is the barn cats. They keep the property pretty cleaned out of mice, chipmunks, ground squirrels, gophers, and pack rats. But the cats are not allowed in the garden area, since they think the soil makes a perfect litterbox, so occasionally a rodent eludes them and makes it to the garden. So we keep mouse traps set around the garden here and there to take care of that, and also a couple of the bigger rat traps set in carefully chosen locations to be sure the kids don’t get hurt by them. Also, if we find that we have a visitor munching on the garden we look for tracks and signs of what size and type it is and we set live traps over night to catch them.
To keep the rabbits out we use chicken wire attached to the bottom foot of the plastic mesh fence and then buried out another foot from the fence. This keeps them from chewing the mesh and also keeps them from being able to dig in too. You can see it in this picture here.
The rabbits are also happy to squeeze under gates or in the gaps between the gate and the fence. We use wood on the bottom part of the gates that closes all those gaps enough that rabbits can’t fit through.
(farmgal comment, I adore how her farm cats also clearly follow her around, farm cats often act far more like cat-dogs, we go with you everywhere!)
Voles and moles have on occasion made their way into our garden beds. We have tried many different traps and methods of dealing with them with no success. The only way we have gotten rid of them is to let the barn cats into the garden at night and they have been able to catch them and kill them. It does risk some damage to the garden in the process, but the moles and voles do a ton of damage themselves so it is worth it. Thankfully, they rarely show up.
Raccoons and Bears
Thankfully, raccoons and bears have caused us very little trouble in our garden (the barn and coops are another story – but the gardens not so much). We have never had a raccoon problem, but we know other people who have. A live trap left out at night is a good option, but that always includes the risk of catching a skunk by accident.
We have had one bear try to munch on our squash, but apparently he was not happy with how unripe it was so he left it after chewing on it.
We are pretty lucky that the local bears are not very interested in garden fare, because there is very little that can be done to keep a bear out of the garden. The 7-foot fences are a deterrent, but if a bear wanted to he could easily chew and rip through the fence. If they posed a big problem we would likely invest in some electric fencing to keep them out. But with kids running around the homestead, that is not an ideal scenario. So far, we have not had to face this issue, and I hope it stays that way.
If you aren’t interested in sharing your garden produce with wildlife, proper fencing and trap management is a must-have for a high-altitude cold-climate garden.
Overcoming Wildlife Challenges in a High-Altitude Cold-Climate Garden:
- Install 6+ foot high poly deer fence (invisible fence) around garden areas.
- Use the type with pound-in receivers to make post installation easier in the rocky terrain.
- Plant onions and garlic outside of fenced areas to make use of all fenced space for fruits and veggies that wildlife likes to eat.
- Attach chicken wire to bottom 1.5 feet of fence and bury out from fence another 1.5 feet to keep rabbits out. And reinforce the bottom of gates with wood that closes the gaps on each side of the gate.
- Keep mouse and rat traps set inside the garden to catch rodents. Be safe about where to put them to protect human gardeners from getting hurt. Set specialty traps if you find you have a specific type of rodent visiting the garden.