In the Garden:
New England
June, 2012
Regional Report

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He may be cute, but this woodchuck would like nothing better than to snack on your seedlings! (Image courtesy of, c. 2002)

Disappearing Seedlings

I have a friend who got up early one summer morning and strolled out to her vegetable garden. She was dismayed to see that an entire row of young bean seedlings had disappeared in the night. The reason for their disappearance was not a mystery, however. For there at the end of the chomped-down row lay a woodchuck, its belly full of garden goodies, sleeping peacefully in the morning sunshine.

My friend shouted. She stomped her feet. She clapped her hands. The woodchuck slept on. Finally she walked up and prodded the slumbering rodent with her toe. He opened his eyes, stretched, shot her a "Geez, can't a guy get any sleep around here?" look, and slowly waddled off. I'm sure he thought the garden had been planted solely for his benefit!

If you've gone out your garden and found some of your plants missing in action, a number of culprits, big and small, may be responsible for the loss. Deer can be terrible garden pests, although I've been fortunate in my current garden in that regard. As far as large hoofed browsers, I've only had a moose walk through on a couple of occasions! But here I'll deal with the depredations caused by some of the smaller, but no less frustrating, creatures.

Birds, especially crows, blackbirds and grackles, will pull up and eat entire seedlings just as they are emerging from the ground. They seem to be especially fond of young corn plants. Although you can hang shiny aluminum pie tins or fluttery strips of mylar (available in garden stores) in an attempt to scare the birds off, they usually get accustomed to these deterrents pretty quickly. The most reliable way to protect seedlings is with a cover of some sort. Row cover fabric laid down or stretched over hoops works well. Or you can make a tented structure out of hardware cloth or small mesh chicken wire. You can remove the protection once the seedlings are 6 to 8 inches tall and well enough rooted that the birds can't pull them out of the ground easily.

When all that's left of a seedling is a stump -- the entire top is gone -- rabbits and woodchucks are usually to blame. They regard your garden as an all-you-can-eat buffet and, as in my friend's garden, will move down an entire row of plants, scarfing up the top of each one. If rabbits or woodchucks are a big problem in your area, the best option is to fence them out. Rabbits are the easiest to exclude. Construct a fence of small gauge chicken wire (no larger than 1 inch) with 2 feet extending above ground and with another foot buried underground. Extend 6 inches of fencing straight down into the ground, then bend the remaining 6 inches outward at a 90 degree angle, so these voracious nibblers can't dig their way under. Woodchuck protection requires a 3 foot high woven wire fence with the top 18 inches left unattached to supports, so it will bend back if the critter tries to scale the fence; it, too, should extend underground.

Slugs and snails can devour tender seedlings. Control them by sprinkling a non-toxic (to all but the slugs!) iron phosphate-based bait such as Sluggo. You can also lure them to their demise with shallow saucers of beer placed in the garden, which they'll crawl into and drown.

Does it look like a miniature Paul Bunyan went through the garden and felled seedlings with his tiny ax? This is the work of cutworms, caterpillars that come out at night to chew through the tender stems of young plants at ground level. Protect seedlings when you set them out with cutworm collars made from strips of aluminum foil or 6-8 layers of newspaper 2-3 inches wide. Wrap the strips around the main stem of the seedling before setting the plant in the ground with the collar extending an inch down into the soil.

Sometimes there's another explanation for what looks like creature damage. Maybe your bean seeds sprouted, but there's no evidence of any leaves, just a bare stalk. This is a condition known as baldhead, where the seedlings fail to develop properly. Sometimes it occurs when the seed is damaged before planting, but often it happens when bean seedlings are injured as they attempt to push their way through a hard surface crust on heavy, clay soils. To reduce the likelihood of this problem, plant beans in loose soil and cover the seeds with loose material like vermiculite to prevent a crust from forming.

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