What’s Eating My Outdoor Plants

In vegetable gardens, everyone eats the leaves or fruits of the plants. These signs include:

  • The plant had large portions bitten off.
  • Stems are cut; leaves are nibbled.
  • New growth is consistently removed by nipping.
  • Eaten to the ground are plants.
  • Fruits are harmed or taken out

Sprinkle a layer of finely crushed limestone around the harmed plants to help identify what vertebrate animal is responsible by looking for animal footprints the next day in the powder.

Foliage that has been nipped off sharply with no ragged edges can be attributed to rabbit damage. Seedlings may be grazed to the ground and have all of their new growth nipped off. Search the area for pea-sized droppings. Rabbits don’t venture far from their roosting or burrowing locations. They eat at sunset, through the night, and in the morning. They prefer soft vegetables including lettuce, peas, carrots, broccoli, and tender beans. Damage from deer can be mistaken for damage from rabbits, however deer damage typically involves huge portions of plants being nibbled off, and deer tracks will be seen in the soil.

Voles eat the leaves and stems of seedlings, causing damage. Because voles will proceed down a row of seedlings eating only the stems and toppling plants, vole damage can be confused with cutworm damage. Alternatively, they might solely eat the leaves. They typically eat at night. In the grassy areas near the garden’s margins, look for vole tunnels. Voles stay around their tunnels and may dig directly into the garden. When there are many of voles, issues are more likely to arise.

As they forage, woodchucks frequently walk through vegetation. Throughout the day, they eat nearby their burrows, particularly in the middle and late hours. Woodchucks, like rabbits, look for cover in weedy areas, stonewalls, brush piles, and underneath porches and barns. Although they may nibble on many tender garden veggies, they prefer maize, beans, and peas.

More frequently than the leaves of vegetables, fruits like strawberries or tomatoes may appeal to chipmunks and squirrels. Check your garden for rodent activity in the early morning and at dusk.

Management Options

Fencing or repellents can be employed to keep mammals away. With the exception of birds, a fence that is properly constructed and maintained will fend off many vertebrate pests. Different types and designs of fence are necessary for the success of various animals. For some animals, electric fencing—of varying heights and frequently used in conjunction with other types of fencing—may be necessary. Plan carefully in advance due to the effort and cost commitment required for fence. In general, the best approach to keep vertebrate species out of your garden is through good fence.

Repellants may be effective depending on the number of pest animals that frequent your garden as well as their habits and preferences. Apply repellents frequently, consistently, and after it has rained. Experiment with various repellents and switch up the one being used. Animals tend to become less sensitive to a particular repellent’s effects over time. Animal predator urine, blood meal, garlic, sulfur, and spicy pepper are a few examples of ingredients in repellents. Follow the instructions after carefully reading the labelling.

How can I identify the critter that is consuming my plants?

  • In the spring, the tips of the spruce’s new growth are trimmed off and left on the ground. Squirrels
  • branches with needles partially removed, or branches with shoots chopped and lying on the ground: Deer

Entire plant

  • Cut-off seedlings or little transplants that are nearly at ground level: Cutworms
  • Missing and cut off at ground level are little, delicate plants: Animal
  • Digging up and removing recently planted bulbs: Possum or skunk


  • missing the entire flower and perhaps the stem
  • missing flower bud and stem: animal
  • On chrysanthemums and mints, there are tiny, rounded, brown or black patches that appear thin and dried out: Insect
  • holes in petals that are little, ragged, or rounded: insect

Garden vegetables

  • There are holes in the tomatoes that are near to the ground: Birds
  • Fruit or vegetables that touch the ground are chewed on from the bottom: Slugs
  • It looks like someone mowed down the young green bean plants. Woodchucks
  • Late summer, drab, withered, and holey squash and pumpkin leaves: Squash bugs

There are two ways to deal with animal damage: either set up a fence or netting to keep the animal or bird out, or apply a repellant to deter animal eating (repellants do not work on birds, though). Compared to food plants, repellents for ornamental plants are much more prevalent. Always read the label.

Who or what is consuming my garden at night?

Rabbits, deer, squirrels, chipmunks, voles, woodchucks, groundhogs, and skunks are among the animals that feed at night. They cause a lot of harm. Insects also do this. Caterpillars, Mexican bean beetles, flea beetles, Japanese beetles, the tarnished plant bug, and slugs are some of the insects that feed at night.

Why do the leaves on my plants have holes in them?

Slugs are the most frequent culprits of holes in leaves, yet because they feed at night, they frequently go unnoticed. Small slugs produce uneven holes inside leaves, as shown in the chard leaf on the right in the image above, whereas larger slugs occasionally eat leaves from the edge inward. Edges of slug holes are always rounded and green.

Chewing Damage

Beetles, caterpillars, earwigs, or slugs may be to blame if you notice holes or ragged portions of leaves missing and the damage has been happening gradually with a little feeding each night. Look for any remnants of these four to help you identify between them.

Caterpillars deposit their waste under the leaves or close to the damage. Droppings like tiny “pellets.” Certain caterpillars produce webbing. Damage can range from a few small holes in the leaves to the elimination of substantial amounts of the leaf. Cutworm caterpillars consume stems and leaves at night. Look for the curled-up caterpillars among plant stems close below the soil’s surface throughout the day.

Beetles frequently evade detection by falling to the ground and are less likely to leave droppings. As you search for them, they fall in reaction to the shifting of the leaves. Keep a close eye out for signals like egg clusters and small larvae under the leaves. Look for information on the plant that is being chewed to find out what insect pests are frequently linked with it. Caterpillars and beetles of many different varieties and sizes can be found in gardens.

The European earwig, which is common in New England gardens, can harm fragile fruit, corn silk, and young vegetables. The leaves of several varieties of vegetable plants will have numerous holes chewed in them. Older leaves typically have bitten edges, but younger leaves may have holes all over the leaf. Earwigs frequently gnaw on leaves that appear ragged.

As they feed, slugs exude a layer of slime that dries into a glossy trail. The slime aids in preventing their bodies from drying up, and it frequently leaves a deposit where the slug has crawled.

Look for pests at dusk or at night using a flashlight to conduct further research. Numerous earwigs, slugs, and beetles, in particular, feed at night and conceal during the day. In home vegetable gardens, handpicking caterpillars, beetles, and slugs and dumping them into soapy water can be helpful. Use shallow cans baited with fish oil or a dab of bacon grease in vegetable oil to catch earwigs.

Damage Caused by Piercing-sucking Insects

Look closely for tiny, soft-bodied insects in groups along the stems or under the foliage of plants with wilted, drooping leaves or small yellow patches. Squash bugs, whiteflies, and aphids all have mouthparts that resemble miniature straws. They take in nourishing plant liquids by sticking their mouthparts into a leaf or stem. This procedure leaves behind yellow flecks or patches. Whiteflies and aphids don’t get much bigger than 1/8 in length. Seek out a sticky substance known as “honeydew” on plants beneath or nearby where they feed. This residue frequently turns sooty from mold.

Squash bugs hatch from clusters of bronze-colored eggs that are typically placed on the underside of squash leaves. At first just about 1/8 long, grey, and soft, they develop into approximately 3/4-sized, brown, hard-shelled adults. While squash bugs travel around on the plant, frequently under the leaves, aphids and whiteflies feed primarily in one location.

Leaf-mining, Root-feeding and Stem-feeding Damage

Leaf miners are visible as winding, tan-colored spots on the leaves of Swiss chard, beets, and spinach. These minuscule fly larvae burrow between the leaf’s surfaces and form the splotchy tracks known as “mines. If a mine is still active, you can remove the top layer and find the tiny white maggot. The adult fly lays its eggs on a leaf’s surface, and the eggs hatch into larvae that burrow into the leaf’s inner tissue to feed.

Do the cabbage seedlings you have wilt? The cabbage root maggot fly lays its eggs close to the host plant (or seed), and its larvae emerge from the soil and burrow into the roots or seeds. It is closely related to onion and seed corn maggot flies. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, radishes, and other cabbage family members are among the plants that are impacted, along with onions, vine crops (cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, melons, and gourds), and corn, pea, and bean seeds. The adults resemble tiny houseflies in size. The harm is caused by the larvae, or maggots, as they feed and burrow. Damage can result in wilting, poor germination, unattractive radishes, and rotting onions.

When cucumber seedlings wilt, become yellow, and maybe die, they may have Erwinia tracheiphila, a bacterial wilt disease that is spread by cucumber beetles. Look for small, 1/4-long beetles with yellow and black stripes or black spots that are eating the tender leaves of vine crops (cucurbits). Massachusetts is home to both the striped and the spotted cucumber beetle. Their harm includes spreading the wilt illness and feasting on stems, leaves, and roots. Most at risk are seedlings with less than five leaves.

The leaves of squash plants may start to wilt when they start to bear fruit. Look for excrement, also known as feces, along the stem from the wilted leaf “Frass is the sawdust-like residue that the insect feasting inside the stem left behind. Make a lengthwise slit in the stem close to the frass and look inside to find the huge, cream-colored caterpillar. After removing the caterpillar, add several inches of soil to the damaged area of the stem to promote roots. On squash plants during the day, keep an eye out for the orange and black adult moth, which soars like a little hummingbird. The moth deposits minuscule, rust-colored eggs on leaves and along stems.

After determining the source of the damage, think about how you will handle the situation. You can either let natural enemies control the insect population or manually wash or remove the pests off the plants, depending on the extent of the damage. To protect crops from insects like flies, beetles, butterflies, and moths that lay eggs for caterpillars, consider using lightweight row coverings. For vine crops and seedlings of plants in the cabbage family, row coverings used at planting time frequently offer the best protection.

Products derived from natural components that contain Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), neem (azadarachtin), or spinosad can be used to control some insects and caterpillars in vegetable gardens. Neem, various oil products, and insecticidal soaps may work well as both pesticides and/or deterrents for soft-bodied insects. Insects in their early, immature stages are always more susceptible to treatment than those in their later stages. Choose a product that is labeled for both the insect and the crop after carefully reading the labels.

Dusk is a good time to treat for active pests if you choose to apply a pesticide for three reasons:

  • Pollinators and helpful insects are less likely to be active.
  • Organic insecticides’ active components deteriorate more slowly in the absence of sunshine.
  • At dusk, the wind frequently slows down, reducing spray drift.

How can I prevent wildlife from consuming my plants?

But attempting to drive the invaders away can be just as annoying as having Bambi and his pals destroy your carefully constructed landscaping. Deer are bright, extremely adaptive animals that will push the boundaries of almost any safety precaution if they become sufficiently hungry. Because of this, experts advise implementing a “integrated management strategy,” or a combination of strategies.

Put in a barrier fence.

Physical obstructions like fences are among the most reliable deterrents. Because deer are adept jumpers, fences must be high—usually around 8 feet. It is relatively simple to build black propylene deer fence with a 2-inch net, which costs $2 to $4 per foot. Metal sleeves are pounded into the ground every 15 feet, and thin metal posts are then installed in the sleeves. The netting is stretched tightly after being fastened to the poles.

Of course, it’s not always possible or ideal to fence your entire property, and motivated deer will use whatever opening they can find, like the road. However, a vegetable or cutting garden adjacent to the house can be efficiently enclosed by a fence.

Spray them away.

Any spray, whether commercial or homemade, must be applied repeatedly as plants enlarge or the effects of rain wash it away. A deer that is starving will eat anything, no matter what you spray on it, as Roger points out, therefore severely overpopulated deer herds won’t be deterred.

Plant their least-favorite foods.

Overall, experts concur that planting your home with plants that are repulsive to deer is the best defense. According to Jensen, many plants have their own natural repellant. Deer will often avoid plants with fuzzy leaves and those that are strongly scented or poisonous (like foxglove); for more detailed advice, scroll to page 2.

According to Roger Cook of TOH, “If you have a deer problem, always try to plant from deerresistant lists.” At least it provides you a chance to succeed.

When TOH design director Amy Rosenfeld constructed a home in Ulster County, New York, she was terrified by the numerous tales of how deer would destroy the neighborhood’s gardens. Then her herbalist neighbor Barbara Fornal sent Rosenfeld this concoction for “deer juice,” which she diligently uses. She says, “It definitely works.” “When visitors arrive, they constantly ask how I can have hostas,”

Here’s how to make your own batch:

  • Fels Naptha soap, 1 bar
  • two bunches of roughly chopped onions
  • 2 heads of garlic, separated cloves
  • 4 eggs
  • a plenty of chili powder
  • 5 gallons of hot water should be filled to the half.
  • To dissolve soap, shave it into the bucket.
  • Put eggs, scallions, garlic, chili powder, and a sizable piece of doubled cheesecloth in a strainer. Use a wooden spoon to crack the eggs and firmly tie up the cloth’s ends. Bucket the pouch in.
  • Add more water to the bucket and secure the lid. Put there in a shady spot. Leave for one week.
  • Batch-transfer to a pump sprayer. Apply every two weeks or after each downpour.