Now that you've planted the vegetable garden, it's important to protect young transplants and seedlings. I've received questions from readers on problems with everything from slugs to groundhogs. In addition to common pest problems, it's also important to monitor low temperatures and soil moisture levels to insure healthy plants.
Frost and cold protection: When temperatures dip into the low 40s, some warm season plants such as peppers, eggplants and cucumbers can be damaged or stunted. It's wise to cover all warm-season vegetables on cold nights with a frost cap or large container. Tomatoes can withstand cooler temperatures than other similar vegetables, but will benefit from protection if temperatures reach the low 40s, and especially the 30s. If you have tomatoes or other transplants in cages, you can wrap clear plastic around the cages to protect them in cool temperatures.
Fences keep out large pests: I put up fencing immediately after planting the garden. It seems that all of the rabbits and groundhogs in the neighborhood know once the planting is done and they contact all of their friends to come over for an all-you-can-eat buffet. I learned after the first year that a fence was the most important protective step after planting.
Proper selection and installation of fence is important if you plan to keep out rabbits and groundhogs. I purchase a plastic-coated metal fence that has no more that a one-inch opening. The fence needs to be tall enough so that you can bury at least 8 to 12 inches in the ground and have at least 3 feet above the ground. I have seen large groundhogs easily jump over shorter fences in my back yard. It is important to bend the fence outward at a 45-degree angle at both the bottom and top of the fence. Secure the fence completely around the garden, preventing any gaps or areas where animals can push up and crawl under it. Keep fences taut with adequate posts. Some groundhogs will climb fences, but once they reach the top foot, the bent fence will fall backward and they will drop back to the ground.
In areas where you don't want to put up fencing, you can use dried blood or other repellents to keep animals out. Repellents must be reapplied after a rain and are not always effective. Repellents often provide mixed results in a garden setting. Some animals can become accustomed to them very quickly. The hot pepper sprays are often more effective against soft-bodied insects then larger mammalian pests.
Slug control: Slugs can be a problem in some vegetable gardens with young seedlings. You can use a shallow pan of beer to attract and drown slugs. In addition, you can place boards around the garden. Slugs will hide under boards during the day, and you can lift up the boards and crush them. You also can put a circle of coarse sand or diatomaceous earth around plant seedlings; slugs will get cut up and desiccate as they try to cross the rough surface.
Two newer, non-toxic baits used to control slugs are Sluggo and Escar-Go! Both are formulated with iron phosphate that is harmless to children and pets. Follow directions on the package and don't exceed recommended amounts or you may attract more slugs than you otherwise would have.
Cutworm collars: Cutworms often will crawl on young seedlings and devour them at the base. To control cutworms, create a plastic collar around plants to prevent damage. Coarse sand and diatomaceous earth also can be used to aid in cutworm control.
Flower gardens: For some of my flower gardens, I will erect fences early in the season to allow plants to establish. Once plants are more mature and local animals have developed their feeding habits, I take them down. This only works if the local animals have other sources of food and there are few or moderate numbers of pests. You also can use repellents after you have removed fences to continue to discourage feeding.
Trapping: If you decide that you must trap and remove animals, it's best to call an animal control expert and let them do the work. They have the necessary skill and permits for humane trapping procedures. Animals released many miles from their home can often find their way back home almost as quick as you can. Also, while animal control pros have the required permits, it is technically against the law for New Jersey homeowners to trap animals and release them elsewhere.