How Do I Protect My Vegetable Garden From Squirrels?

“I need to protect my garden from squirrels. I want to do container gardening on my deck. I have problems with squirrels eating all my berries and some of my veggies. What is the best way to protect them?” Question from Melanie of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania

Answer: There are several useful ways that you can implement to keep squirrels from eating your prized fruits and vegetables. Take one or more of these approaches, and even the cleverest squirrels will be thwarted.

  1. Netting and/or caging will keep squirrels away from your berry and vegetable beds and containers.
  2. Motion-sensor water sprayers are an excellent method for repelling small animals, like rabbits and squirrels. The Orbit Yard Enforcer is one model with good reviews.
  3. Dogs and cats also help keep squirrels away, and it’s always nice to have pets.
  4. Most foul-smelling Repellents are a good option for protecting ornamental gardens from squirrels, but not vegetable beds. That’s because poor-smelling repellants can impact the flavor of your produce. Mint and chili pepper sprays, however,  reportedly turn squirrels off, so give these a try. They should not negatively impact your home produce unless you directly spray berries and fruits.

Please click here to read an article about succeeding with container vegetable gardens.

Have a great gardening season!

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

What Are Good Small-Space Garden Vegetables for Spring?

“What food crops can I plant in my vegetable plot this upcoming spring, if any?  I already dug out my summer plot and have limited land, so I would like to use it, if possible.” Question from Jennifer of Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania

Answer: There are so many wonderful cool-season spring vegetables that will grow well in your limited garden space. These can be started indoors as early as late January and planted outside in mid to late March in your area (Click here to learn more about seed starting). For smaller gardens, choose more compact varieties. Here are good spring vegetables to consider growing:

Cole crops (cabbage, cauliflower, collards, broccoli, kohlrabi, and kale), greens (arugula, endive, lettuce, mustard greens, radicchio, and spinach), spring root crops (radishes, potatoes, scallions, spring carrots, and turnips), and peas are all excellent spring vegetables. Most of these don’t need a lot of space. Some of the “larger” crops, like cabbage and peas, all have compact varieties available, if you search for them in seed catalogs. For example, the little ‘Farao’ cabbage and 2-3-foot ‘Sugar Daddy‘ snap peas are both small are space-saving.

Spring is also a great time to plant cool-season herbs, like chives, cilantro, and dill, as well as some fruits, like strawberries.

Below are some more articles and videos to consider reading/watching on the subject of spring edibles.

Happy gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

5 Fast Cool Season Vegetables for Instant Gratification

Can You Help Me Grow Better Root Vegetables?

What Potting Mix is Best for Planting Agastache in the Southwest?

Licorice mint is one of the best species for New Mexican gardens. (Image by Jessie Keith)

“I have rooted Agastache cuttings in perlite and seed starting mix, but now they are ready for real pots and soil. What would you suggest for the soil or soil mix?” Question from Melissa of El Prado, New Mexico

Answer: Hyssops or hummingbird mints (Agastache spp.) are fragrant perennials in the mint family with lovely flowers beloved by hummingbirds and bees. Like many mints, they grow best in soil that is well-drained and moderately fertile. Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Mix is a great organic option for potted perennials. It has excellent water-holding capacity to help them access ample moisture in your southwestern garden.

Enjoy your Agastache! They are certainly one of my favorite garden flowers for beautiful blooms, fragrance, and pollinator attraction. My favorite western species is drought-tolerant licorice mint (Agastache rupestris). It has fine, silvery leaves and clusters of hummingbird-attracting flowers in shades of rose, orange, and purple. It’s also native to your state! You won’t find a prettier species, in my opinion.

Happy gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist



Are There Outdoor Cactus Hardy to Minnesota?

Image by Jessie Keith

I see people in pictures with cactus gardens outside in my area. Are there any cactus that can stay outside for the winter in Minnesota? Question from Sandra of Cottage Grove, Minnesota

Answer: Yes! There are a couple of alpine cacti that exist at high altitudes along the Rocky Mountains that will survive in your winters. There are also other northerly prickly pears that you can grow. These will survive in your USDA Zone 4 garden, despite the harsh cold. Here are several good options to consider.

Cold-Hardy Cactus for Northern Gardens

Devil’s Tongue (Opuntia humifusa): This tough prickly pear cactus naturally exists from southern Ontario, Canada all the way down to Florida and is hardy to Zone 4. It has low, spreading clumps that produce yellow, gold, or orangish flowers in spring. In summer, attractive purple-red fruits appear. The pads appear to deflate and shrivel in the winter months, but this is natural. They will green up and reinflate in spring. This cactus is native to your state.

Brittle prickly pear (Opuntia fragilis, Zones 4-9): With populations extending to the far reaches of Canada and western mountain ranges, this is little prickly pear is very hardy–surviving in Zone 4 or colder. The very low, spreading plant is prickly and has pretty, pale yellow flowers in spring. Its little roundish pads are “brittle” and tend to break off and root as they fall. This one is also a Minnesota wildflower.

Hardy Hybrid Pricklypear (Opuntia hybrids): There are loads of beautiful prickly pear hybrids with spring flowers in shades of red, orange, magenta, pink, and yellow. The best source for these is the Cold Hardy Cactus nursery. Have a look and check out the many options for your zone.

These are just a few of the hardier cacti for your area. All have beautiful flowers that attract bees. One note is that you really need to prepare the ground when growing hardy cacti. They require very well-drained soils in raised rock gardens or beds. I suggest amending their soil with Black Gold Cactus Mix in addition to fine pebbles, sand, and some additional organic matter (Black Gold Garden Compost Blend works well).

To get a better idea of how to prepare a rocky raised succulent bed, I encourage you to read my Black Gold article about succulent seascape gardening.

Happy cactus growing!

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

Cool Gardens: Designing for Summer Temperature Control

There are certain design and planting features that will greatly reduce summer heat in a garden, and they go way beyond just providing shade. By tapping into the power of the air, water, stones, shade, and cooling plants, you can create a pleasing outdoor garden space that will help temper the high heat of summer.

Here are some of the best tools in the design toolbox for creating cool (and cooling) garden spaces.

Increased Airflow

Leave open spaces along garden edges to encourage airflow.

Keeping areas of your garden open, to facilitate airflow and catch prevailing winds, will not only cool your garden but dissuade flying insect pests, like mosquitoes. Allowing for some open spaces around your garden for welcome breezes is also pleasing to the senses. You can even plant a few fragrant plants, such as gardenias (Gardenia jasminoides), pots of sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), jasmine tobacco (Nicotiana alata), and fragrant roses, upwind for the additional pleasure of natural aroma.

Cooling Walls

These outdoor standing planter walls offer airflow while also creating an herb-filled cooling enclosure for a patio.

If an enclosed garden is what you have (or want) then green walls and/or shaded stone walls don’t radiate heat. Trellised or clambering vines, like climbing roses, golden-flowered Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), scarlet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), or espaliered fruit trees, cool sun-drenched fences, or hardscaped walls because they don’t absorb and release heat. They also look lovely. (Click here to read more about great garden honeysuckles.)

Plantable green planter or pocket walls will also do the trick, and these can be filled with herbs and edibles for culinary gardeners. Water-permeable, felted wall pockets on a freestanding support make this very easy. Florafelt living wall systems are easy-care, quality options that help homeowners install plantable walls in no time. Tall, outdoor planter shelves or freestanding trellis walls are two other options. Both also facilitate airflow.

Shaded stone walls or patio stones are also greatly cooling because they hold the lower temperature of the night and emanate it during the day, which effectively reduces the temperature of any shaded patio.

Green Canopies

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a fast-growing vine for pergolas that turns brilliant red in fall.

Pergolas, arbors, or arbored tunnels covered with vines will stave off the summer heat because they don’t absorb heat, and they release cooling moisture into the air. Grapes (Vitis spp.) are one of the best vines for the job. Not only do they produce fruit, but they are long vining, tolerant of a wide array of weather conditions, and have very large leaves that provide good cover. Other good long-vined candidates include brewer’s hops (Humulus lupulus), if you make your own homebrew, as well as native Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), which both turn brilliant hot colors in fall.

Large-Leaved Tropical Plants

This decked outdoor room has the benefits of a partially open border of large-leaved tropical plants and a shading umbrella.

Whether grown in pots or the garden, invite a few very large-leaved tropical plants into your outdoor space. The best are rainforest plants that take up and release moisture in high amounts, which makes them perfect for hot patios or deck sides. Tender varieties for large pots or garden spaces are elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta), giant elephant ear (Alocasia spp.), and false banana (Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’). The hardy to semi-hardy Sichuan hardy banana (Musa basjoo, USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10), which can reach 20 feet, is an in-ground option that will live from year to year in southern zones. For potted specimens, choose a potting soil that holds extra water, such as Black Gold® Moisture Supreme Container Mix and Black Gold® Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Mix.

UV Blocking Patio Umbrellas

Obvious cooling features in the garden are umbrellas and canopies that provide cooling shade, but they are even more effective if they block UV rays. Those designed for UV protection are more reflective. Light-colored canopies also absorb less heat, which increases their cooling ability.

Airy Green Borders

Tall, airy borders of switchgrass allow breezes to pass and pair well with other tall garden plants like this sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale).

Some shrubs and tall, airy plants are less dense, allowing them to facilitate more airflow, while also providing pleasing garden borders. Low, airy shrubs, like the 4-foot Longwood Blue bluebeard (Caryopteris cladonensis ‘Longwood Blue’ (expect it to self-sow)) and Grand Cascade butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii ‘Grand Cascade’), with its 6-foot habit and large purple flowers that lure butterflies, are ideal.

Tall grassy garden borders are also pleasingly airy and attractive. Three excellent options include the plumy, 6-foot Cloud Nine switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine) with its blue-green foliage, or the 5-foot ‘Northwind’ with its large seedheads and olive-green blades. The impressive 6-foot Windwalker® Big Bluestem is another beauty with linear clumps of blue-grey foliage, maroon floral plumes, and maroon fall foliage. It’s a real showstopper that flows in the breeze.

Effective Tree Cover

This garden design has multiple cooling features such as open, freestanding trellis walls, partial tree cover, and a pergola just waiting for ample ornamental vines.

High tree canopies make for breezier shaded spaces, but trees offer far more than just shade. They are also natural air conditioners because trees draw up water from the soil and release it from their leaves as fine mist. This process is called transpiration. Broad-leaved, deciduous trees with larger leaves transpire more for more cooling power. During a growing season, a leaf will transpire many times more water than its own weight. In fact, a large oak tree can transpire up to 40,000 gallons (151,000 liters) of water per year!

Water Features

Small fountains are soothing and cooling and have too much movement for mosquito development.

Moving water in the garden is pleasing to the senses and really cools garden spaces. Whether you install a small fountain, a bubbling pool, or a small fish pond, these serene features will improve your outdoor living space. One key consideration is to only install features with moving water or fish to avoid creating mosquito breeding ground.

Mosquito Control

This koi pond is a perfect water feature that won’t invite developing mosquitoes because it has a constant flow of moving water and fish to eat the larvae.

Some of the cooling options mentioned can invite mosquitoes due to increased moisture and shade cover. Here are some solutions that can really help.

If you add a water feature to your garden, remember that still or stagnant water creates the perfect mosquito breeding ground. Moving water does not. Fish ponds, however, are acceptable because fish consume mosquito larvae. You also need to beware of birdbaths–refreshing their water every few days will wash away any developing mosquitoes.

Full sun is not favored by mosquitoes, but shaded gardens invite them. Several non-chemical means of keeping mosquitoes away include the use of citronella candles and burning tikis. Newer options include electronic mosquito repellers, which create a 15-foot deet-free cloud of repellent across an area. Several plants also help to repel mosquitoes. Those for more shaded locations include lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), which emits a lemony scent and will grow in partial shade. The equally citrusy lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora) will tolerate light shade. (Click here to discover more mosquito repelling plants.)

A mix of these garden design features will help naturally cool your favorite garden enclaves and outdoor spaces, even on the hottest days.