Question. Mike: We live in a rural area and have had our sweet corn completely destroyed by raccoons on multiple occasions. Is there anything we can do to deter them?
- ---John in Southern Illinois
- ---Amy in Northern Wisconsin
Answer. Ah yes—raccoons and sweet corn; the Ph. D. level of gardening! Years ago, I learned to my experimental delight that sweet corn wasn't much of a sun hog—its basic needs were a lot more in the food and water department—and so I was able to grow a nice little patch in one of my slightly shaded raised beds. No varmint problems at all that year. In fact, the only 'trouble' I had was worrying about hitting the perfect picking window, because as all of us who have been lucky enough to achieve it know, fresh homegrown sweet corn—harvested minutes before the actual eating at the peak of its sugary sweetness—is an unparalleled treat.
But I also learned that sweet corn prefers to grow in flat ground; it's shockingly shallow rooted and has a tendency to fall over in the loose soil of a raised bed. (Yes, I grew prostrate sweet corn.) So the second year, I moved my patch to the back of the garden...with a forest full of trees just behind. I did not have to wonder about when that corn was ripe, as the local raccoons were kind enough to leave a note indicating that the ears were now at the perfect stage of sugary-ness—in the form of empty cobs scattered all over the ground.
And that was pretty much the end of my sweet corn days for awhile. The next few times I tried, the raccoons were waiting with saltshakers and sticks of butter.
Then, years later, we ran an article in ORGANIC GARDENING magazine in which we quoted a Pennsylvania extension agent who swore that he always saw the worst raccoon damage on sweet corn varieties that produced their succulent ears close to the ground, and that plants that were extremely tall AND that produced their ears higher up often escaped raccoon attention. Avoid the space-saving four to five foot high types often promoted for home gardens, he said, and instead grow varieties like eight-foot tall Silver Queen, which also happens to be the standard against which all sweet corn will forever be judged.
Also identified as fitting the taller-than-your-average-stalk bill in that article were Kandy Korn, Delectable, Lancelot, Double Gem, Pilot, Argent, Incredible, and my personal all-time favorite, Platinum Lady. I gave this advice a try and still had some predation, but also got to eat a fair amount myself.
Question. Mike: I have a family of three raccoons living in the neighborhood. I am a novice who will soon be planting her first vegetable garden and don't need any intruders messing me up. Any suggestions on how to keep them at bay? Thanks,
- ---Gail in Wilmington, DE
Raccoons are a well-known vector for rabies, and raccoons living in crowded urban areas will eventually encounter wandering children or pets. People who've never seen one up close and personal tend not to understand how physically large raccoons can get or how powerful they are. They are extremely dangerous creatures when cornered and frightened, rabid or not.
Raccoons in densely populated areas also tear up garbage and trash bags scavenging for food; they can even open metal cans that have supposedly locking lids with those scary little hands of theirs. This makes a mess, and the spilled trash attracts mice and rats. Raccoons belong in the country, not the city, and urban animals should be removed.
Otherwise, the only real defense against these omnivorous food appreciators is an electric fence. Repellants don't work unless they're sprayed on the actual crops, where they will unfortunately repel YOU as well. And every expert I've ever consulted agrees that the raccoon's legendary combination of intelligence, physical agility and sheer determination insures that they will easily triumph over any regular fencing system that isn't an actual cage, complete with fixed roof.
Luckily, an electric fence designed to keep out raccoons is much smaller and less obvious than the kind you need for deer: just two wires, one at six inches and another at a foot off the ground. If you choose this option, stay away from household current; it's much stronger and more dangerous than you need. Instead, juice your system with a solar powered charger (widely available this days—and Al Gore approved!) or a 12-volt car battery.
These provide a harmless shock—something you'll appreciate if you become forgetful one day. (As I did twice in one day while helping a local farmer out a few years back. Luckily, the shock just made me bark like a dog. But it worked—I didn't steal a single ear of sweet corn.)
One of our favorite experts on these matters, Bill Quarles, director of the BIRC—the Bio Integral Resource Center—in Berkeley, California, adds that since raccoons only do their dirty work at night, you can save juice and increase the safety factor by turning the fence off in the morning and back on again at dusk. Still, make sure you have bright flags with little lightning bolts on the fence and good warning signs all around. You never know when I might come wandering by to bark hello.