How to Garden Alongside Local Critters

There’s a reliable rhythm to growing things here in Texas: the wildflowers bloom before the tomatoes, the peppers before the figs. And just as predictable as a bluebonnet sighting in April or a completely crisp garden bed in July, something happens in between: perfect little fawns begin to find their footing in backyards across the state. It can be thrilling to behold, unless you’re a Texas gardener. This year, half a dozen deer took up residence at our backyard salad bar, the adults grazing on our sunflower and melon seedlings while their offspring snoozed and pranced nearby. Our vegetable plants were gone long before the heat had a chance to destroy them.

The squirrels arrive like clockwork, too. “I find that almost every backyard gardener has a big squirrel problem,” says Liz Cardinal, the founder of Austin Edible Gardens and a new community garden in town. In the summer, she says the critters wreak havoc while searching for food and water; in the fall, as any Texan with a flower bed can tell you, they make a mess while burying seeds, digging up everything in their path. Brace yourselves.

The arrival of caterpillars and hummingbirds is just as likely—but far more welcome. They generally fall into the category of acceptable critters to have around. “If I have a beautiful garden but there aren’t any butterflies there, it just seems like I might as well just have AstroTurf and plastic flowers,” says Kelly Conrad Simon, an urban wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife and author of the book Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife. The butterflies will be here soon: monarchs migrate across the Lone Star State in the fall, and you can create a healthy habitat for caterpillars to grow in your own backyard. 

If you’re new to Texas or gardening, it can be tricky to know which creatures are beneficial and which are not. The short answer is that it’s up to you. As Simon puts it, “we’re not trying to landscape for mountain lions.” She says that attracting the kinds of creatures you’d like to see is as simple as adding “a priority: that the landscape provides the things that some wildlife need to live, raise young, and shelter from weather and predators.” Below, she and Cardinal share their top tips for doing just that while also keeping out unwanted visitors.   

Incorporate elements that will support the creatures you want to attract.

“Whatever sorts of wildlife you like to see, you can attract to your wildscape,” Simon says. “They all require different types of foods, water-feature design, and shelter, and they might need different types of food at different times of the year.” So you’ll want to do your research first.

Butterflies, for example, need a combination of nectar plants for adults and host plants for caterpillars to munch on in any backyard habitat. In Texas, try flowering plants like goldenrod, autumn sage, Texas lantana, or varieties of mistflower or aster.

To attract bees and create food for the birds, Cardinal recommends installing large sunflowers. Some varieties to consider, which are on view in the community garden she started in Austin, are the red Moulin Rouge sunflower, the twelve-foot-tall mammoth sunflower, and the bright orange Mexican sunflower, which is technically a daisy. 

Opt for elements that do double duty.

Cardinal says that water reservoirs are great for frogs and handy for deterring squirrels. “There is a theory that squirrels and other rodents sometimes eat our melons and tomatoes in hopes of just finding some water. So why not add a birdbath or shallow bowls of water? Bees really need water sources too, so you can add some larger rocks or float corks on the water so bees can sip water, then climb out.” If you’re worried about attracting those thirsty rodents, keep the water source elevated.

Establish healthy boundaries.

“The standard wildlife fence is eight feet, which is really tall,” Cardinal says, “but with enough room to run and space to land, deer can jump over anything lower.” And you generally want to keep them out. A word of caution, though: “Airflow is important in a garden, so I don’t recommend fencing one in with cedar boards. Plus, you want to see and show off the garden, so a style with some openings is best.”

For smaller mammals that may nibble more than you’re willing to share, like bunnies, she suggests trying a shorter wire-panel fence around the perimeter.

Design to deter.

Cardinal recommends placing your garden beds where they’re not too far out of sight (it’s easier to intervene when you can actually see what kind of unwanted pests you’re dealing with) and not against the garden fence, which is essentially a squirrel superhighway.

And if you have a dog, Cardinal says they’re wonderful squirrel deterrents. “It’s my dog’s favorite job: chasing off squirrels.”

But don’t overuse deterrents.

“Using bird netting to protect your tomatoes from birds will have an unintended consequence of trapping and sometimes killing beneficial animals found in the garden,” such as reptiles and amphibians (which prey on undesirable rodents and insects), Simon cautions. Her simple solutions for safely keeping hungry birds: “Use reflective spinners to scare away birds, harvest the tomatoes just a bit early—and plant a few extra.”

Naturally eliminate the bad bugs from the veggie patch.

When we saw possums doing backflips into our exposed compost pile, we learned that we just needed to remove the “trash,” and the pesky possums would move onto more tempting backyards. A similar concept goes for insects: Cardinal says that if you keep a tidy garden free from weeds and dead or diseased plants and water it properly (“soil needs to dry out in between waterings to make healthy roots”), you’ll reduce your chances of a pest breakout—and be able to ditch “herbicides and insecticides that contain toxins that kill beneficial insects.” 

She says that once you learn which insects are friends and which are foes, you should “handpick and squish the bad ones as soon as you see them so they don’t have time to reproduce and become a big problem.”

Do some meal prep.

Fall is the best time to plant “the trees and shrubs that will give you and your area’s wildlife year after year of beautiful color and valuable food,” says Simon.

The rain and cooler temperatures give the plants a head start to get their roots established before the big flowering and fruiting seasons in spring and summer. Here are some of Simon’s favorite things to get in the ground before winter:

  • Turk’s cap has vibrant red and nectar-rich flowers that attract hummingbirds in summer. Its fall fruits are similar to tiny apples and are edible to humans, small mammals, and birds. 
  • American beautyberry has delicate pink flowers in spring that give way to clusters of sumptuous purple berries in the fall that many bird species relish. The berries taste about like how a rose smells, and they make a lovely jelly.
  • Flame acanthus tends to spread a bit and can be aggressive, but the small, fiery orange flowers are nectar powerhouses that can support hummingbirds during the hottest, driest summers.
  • Coral honeysuckle is nearly evergreen and drought hardy. The native vine with the lovely coral-colored flowers and matching berries is a favorite with hummingbirds and songbirds. Shade the roots and give the tops plenty of sun for the best shows.

Whatever you do, don’t forget to be the bigger person.

Once you’ve made the decision to welcome wildlife into your space (and put in all that hard work!), Simon says it’s helpful to remember to exercise tolerance. “Birds won’t know they’re not supposed to eat your tomatoes.” It can’t hurt to plant a little extra for them either.

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