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What’s Eating My Garden Plants?

I have received several calls recently from frustrated gardeners asking what chewed up their otherwise healthy vegetable plants. After planting, weeding, nurturing and hoping for a bountiful harvest, one can certainly appreciate this frustration. It’s sometimes hard to do a “post-mortem” on plants that are damaged, but let’s explore some of the more typical suspects based on the type of damage you see.

For many animal pests, some type of fencing (physical fence or electric) may be warranted to help prevent access to garden vegetables. For others, trapping may be the best answer.

If you find that entire tops or significant stem and leaf portions are eaten, some of the more likely suspects are rabbits, deer, or woodchucks (groundhogs).

Rabbits are described as opportunistic feeders, feeding almost exclusively on whatever vegetation that is available. Besides garden plants, they like grasses, clovers and other plants, which is why they also look quite happy in our lawns.

For gardens, fencing is probably your best option to exclude rabbits. Rabbits do not require heavy fencing – chicken wire supported by stakes is usually sufficient. Bury the fencing 2-3 inches in the soil when constructing your barrier.

A favored food source of deer is newly established tree or shrub seedlings, but they may also feed on garden plants. Deer usually require fencing about 7 feet high or more. At minimum, a lattice-style snow fence around a small garden plot may do the trick. If you have a larger garden plot, consider brightly colored polytape electric fence, smeared with peanut butter in a few places to train the deer. Tree tubes, wire cages, electrified fences, and repellant sprays can all effectively deter deer browse.

Woodchucks, a.k.a. groundhogs, are the largest member of the squirrel family. They can chew a number of garden plants to the ground in a hurry. As mostly a vegetarian, they especially like beans, but will eat other tender green plants. They may also be destructive to gardens when they dig up and eat bulbs and seeds or attack garden fruits. Trapping is probably your best option with woodchucks.

Other animals may be after seeds, nuts, or berries. Among these are chipmunks, squirrels and birds. Trapping is probably the best option for chipmunks and squirrels, while birds will require netting for exclusion.

Ripened vegetables or fruits may be attractive to a number of animals, including rabbits, woodchucks, raccoons (especially in sweet corn), skunks, squirrels, chipmunks and birds. Although omnivorous, raccoons deserve special mention with sweet corn. They are masters at knowing the best time to ravage plants, which is usually the night before you intend to pick the corn for yourself. Electric fencing with wire strands at 6 and 12 inches is pretty effective in managing raccoons in a planting of sweet corn.

Another thing to consider is insect damage. The Japanese beetle is perhaps the most notorious mimicker of animal damage on plants, especially on leaves. These insects will leave a skeletonized appearance to leaves after feeding, sometimes with the leaf veins alone remaining. Bean leaf beetles will chew holes in leaves and pods of green beans. Squash vine borer larvae will tunnel into pumpkin and squash vines and cause vine collapse. Tomato fruitworms may leave tomatoes with the appearance that someone took a bite out of the fruit (except a worm is probably still there feeding). A number of other insects can inflict damage on plants in various ways. Consult Purdue Extension publications for possible control methods.

Before attempting any type of animal control, see if there are regulations you need to follow. For many animals that cause damage on your property, you have the right to deal with it. However, there are exceptions. For example, you may fence out rabbits, but if you want to trap or shoot rabbits, you will need a nuisance wild animal control permit from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), or you will need take them during the rabbit season with a valid license. See Indiana DNR’s site on living with wildlife at: Note that there are also licensed animal control operators that will perform these services for a fee.

In addition to the Indiana DNR website, search for additional information on wildlife at Purdue Extension’s Education Store,, or at Purdue Extension’s Got Nature? Blog,

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