Good riddance: Eco-friendly pest control

Collage by Kristófer Rabasca

Pests in the house

It was a cold winter, so when I heard the patter of little paws in my attic I felt glad to share my warm home with some chilly woodland creatures. But I wasn’t so happy when I heard many more paws and the loud, unmistakable squeaks of baby animals. When I peeked in to see several pair of bright, beady eyes staring from masked, faces I was horrified. I was harboring a family of raccoons!

Although they are cute, raccoons can be destructive to your house, vicious when encountering pets, and can spread smelly dirt and potentially serious diseases to your family and animals.

My ex-husband offered to bring a shotgun. Someone else offered to trap and kill them. But I had a “live and let live” philosophy. Tips from local animal experts stressed making them feel less comfortable. An on-line source suggested ammonia-soaked fabric. A plug-in device whose high-pitched sound was said to be splitting to little rodent ears had no effect. My vet, Michelle Jasny, recommended installing a bright light and a loud radio.

After several days and nights of raucous rock music and rowdy sports talk I was awakened by a cacophony of chirps and thumps as the mother raccoon enticed her adolescents to leap from the attic and then vacate the yard. For good.

Many Vineyarders, frustrated by years of trying to run pests off their property, maintain peaceful co-existence with them. But their attitude changes once skunks, raccoons, or squirrels start upending garbage cans, killing chickens, eating vegetables, spraying the dog, and moving into the attic. Then it’s time to get rid of the freeloaders, preferably in a way that is not harmful to other living things.

Oh, rats.

Rodents are all around and want to be our housemates, especially when temperatures drop and they need a nest for an expected litter. Sleep disruption is the least of the havoc they wreak.

Rodents (their very name derives from the word “gnaw”), especially squirrels, can chew on electrical wires, creating a serious fire hazard in your attic or walls. They leave disease-ridden waste and if one dies in the walls, floors, or in kitchen range or dryer insulation (favorite haunts for mice) the foul smell can require expensive carpentry or replacement of the infested appliance.

Poison can be effective but brings with it toxic hazards for children and other animals that may ingest it. And the rodent is likely to die in the walls, or leave behind a litter of heirs who will soon expire as well.

Using a humane trap and releasing the unwelcome critter a few blocks or even miles away is not recommended. With an apparently strong homing sense, the mouse or raccoon will be back in your home soon. And even if it does not return to its original location, it is likely to cause problems for another homeowner.

So, who you gonna call?

Walter Wlodyka of Chilmark has trapped hundreds of skunks and other four-legged pests in his many years removing nuisance animals. Although the problems they cause are most frequently inside the home, he traps the creatures outdoors.

Mr. Wlodyka’s website provides clear details. He will come to the client’s property, set up humane traps, and check them regularly (at least every 24 hours). Once the animal is caught he removes it, dispatching it to pest heaven. While some customers may be reluctant to have the creature killed, Mr. Wlodyka stresses that the animals are dangerous, can carry disease, and will continue to be troublesome if allowed to survive. He also emphasizes that homeowners should not release the animal themselves, because it will become wary of traps and difficult to capture in the future.

Mr. Wlodyka even offered a foolproof, cheap and natural formula for cleaning skunk spray off your dog: use a bath of half white vinegar, half water (using a washcloth on the face to protect eyes). Leave the solution on overnight; shampoo the next day.

Several locals recommended the tried and true technique recipe for humanely repelling skunks from their homes, sheds, and chicken yards: urinating around the periphery of the structure.

Many Islanders cram balls of steel wool tightly into any chinks, crevices, or holes in walls or foundations prevents small rodents from entering, as they will not chew through the metal.

But if they do get in, Milo D’Antonio’s Island Mouse Patrol is there to make your home rodent-free and ensure it stays that way. Mr. D’Antonio does a careful periphery search for mouse access points and then blocks them permanently. “Mice can get in through a dime-sized hole,” he said, adding they nest in insulation or other warm places, leaving foul odors and waste, and can reproduce rapidly.

He sets snap traps baited with peanut butter to capture any rodents that may remain in the building and checks traps regularly, removing the dead animals. He uses no poisons.

Mr. D’Antonio also will capture raccoons and squirrels with a humane trap and remove them from the customer’s property, releasing them elsewhere. He provides various services to keep homes pest-free, such as installing wire barriers around decks and porches so skunks will not nest underneath, securing attic vents, and trimming overhanging tree limbs to deter squirrels and raccoons.

T. J. Hegarty of the Dukes County Integrated Pest Management Program offers snap or glue traps and consultation to property owners with rats or mice. He stressed the need to discover why rodents are attracted to the area and how they are getting inside. He follows up with customers to make sure preventive work is done.

Mr. Hegarty also uses poison, but said the product is not seriously toxic to humans and animals in small quantity. He cited recent stringent government regulations calling for poison to be locked in a tamper-proof box and other safety requirements.

Mr. Hegarty offers a “green” spray for spider infestations. He said the vinegar-based product is effective in basements and crawl spaces that can become choked with spider webs, and is not harmful to pets or humans.

Home remedies for what’s bugging you

For detailed information on pesky animals and insects, Felix Neck director Suzan Bellincampi recommended a visit to the “Living with Wildlife” section, which details the habits of many troublesome creatures and lists suggestions for controlling or removing them.

Many Islanders simply accept the occasional influx of insects, knowing the infestations are cyclical. Ants come and go with the seasons; flies, too. Many of us scoop up spiders and urge them outdoors.

In mid-summer the ceilings in my house are adorned with curly strips of super-sticky flypaper. They may not be a pretty sight, but are very effective at catching those flies that refuse to leave peaceably.

One of the most unwelcome household pests is one of the smallest. Fleas can make life miserable for your pets and for your family once they get out of hand. Surprisingly, a pet moving from the home can trigger a flea population explosion. Fleas accustomed to having a dog or cat to feast on soon resort to seeking humans. Years ago a toxic (and highly inconvenient) “flea bomb” was considered the best remedy.

Lynne Irons of Vineyard Haven offers a totally natural alternative, harmful only to fleas. She reported excellent results from carefully suspending a bare light bulb (such as a shop light) a few inches above a good-sized pan filed with soapy water overnight. The warmth draws the fleas, which climb in and drown in the suds. “It looks like you sprinkled pepper in the water,” said Ms. Irons.

Holly Bellebuono of Vineyard Herbs, Teas, and Apothecary in West Tisbury swears by a combination of tea tree and eucalyptus oils mixed with water in a spray bottle for flea control.

Spray the aromatic blend on your dog’s coat, working it down towards the skin. Spray animal beds, blankets, and other sleeping areas too. The spray can also be used on human skin to help keep biting fleas away, and sprayed on rugs and carpets, or wherever fleas may be lurking. She said the oils may also be mixed into cornstarch, baby powder, or flour for application to dogs and fabrics.

Washing the dog, bedding, and other fabrics, furniture covers, and floors is often necessary to completely eradicate remaining fleas from the house, she said.

Ms. Bellebuono said that those essential oils as well as peppermint oil are helpful deterrents to a variety of kitchen pests including ants and pantry moths. Soak cotton balls with the oil and tuck them in cabinets, on counters, and on edges of the kitchen floor. Cucumber slices placed on counter-tops may repel ants, she added.

Rebecca Gilbert sprinkles cinnamon on her Chilmark kitchen counters to discourage ants and notes that if it happens to spill into her coffee cup it tastes great. She, like many Islanders, recommend the soapy water remedy for household fleas, along with frequent vacuuming. She mops often during highest flea season, mixing essential oils such as pine or citrus with the water to add a pleasing scent.

“Tick Off,” a spray product made on the Vineyard combines apple cider vinegar and water, with lavender, citronella, geranium, lemongrass, eucalyptus, and Manuka oils to repel ticks and mosquitoes. Sold at SBS and elsewhere, the product is safe for dogs and humans.

But what about mothballs?

Mothballs can be used fairly safely as a deterrent for rodents, but only outside and under certain conditions. There is, however, nothing environmentally friendly about this chemical product.

Pests outside

They are waiting everywhere, ready to turn your dreams of idyllic and productive outdoor living into nightmares of fighting them off.

Deer will decimate your tomatoes, strip bark off trees, eat your apples, and carry health-hazardous ticks into your yard. Common garden pests like slugs, aphids, various beetles and worms can ruin a whole season’s crop of vegetables. Birds will devour blueberries just as they turn blue. Rodents will snack on your produce.

Bug off!

Rusty Gordon of Ghost Island Farm and Nip ‘n’ Tuck Farm Stand in West Tisbury uses entirely natural methods to control pests in the field. Mr. Gordon said he relies strongly on covering with Reemay or other lightweight plant blankets when vegetable plants are young and vulnerable. Later when plants are sturdier and better able to withstand an attack, he walks through the rows, picks insects off the leaves, collects them in a jar or can, and deposits them far from the garden.

He counts on beneficial insects which he orders online to keep order in his garden by driving off or killing harmful pests. He noted that it’s necessary to carefully research and assess what specific pest needs to be eradicated before importing a predator and learning everything that predator will do.

Among his tried and true tips: sprinkle crushed powdered what bran on wet foliage of potato plants. Potato bugs will eat the bran, not the leaves. Powdered lime on the leaves works to discourage the bugs too.

Mr. Gordon cited two company websites: Green Methods and Gardens Alive, which together offer a fascinating and eye-opening introduction to and products for environmentally friendly crop protection.

Enlist a fowl brigade

Times columnist Abigail Higgins of West Tisbury is an experienced home gardener and also operates a landscaping business. Ms. Higgins also keeps chickens and said that along with providing fresh eggs, the hens do a fine job of keeping the tick population under control. The hens also eat slugs and probably some other garden pests, she said.

“Be observant,” said Ms. Higgins, explaining that people often automatically want to kill an insect without discovering what it is and whether it is harmful or useful in the garden and environment.

Ms. Higgins is dedicated to using natural, non-toxic methods in her gardens. She stressed that soil analysis is an important step for a healthy garden often overlooked by home gardeners. She explained that if the soil is improperly balanced and deficient in certain elements, plants will reflect that and suffer imbalances too, making them frail and more vulnerable to insect damage.

In her home garden Ms. Higgins sprays Bacillus thuringiensis, a natural bacterium-based product that eliminates pests including certain worms, caterpillars, and moths. She noted that using chemical pesticides is not only hazardous to other living things but also causes the pests themselves to become resistant. The result: stronger pesticides doing more environmental damage. She also uses Liquid Fence to discourage deer. When spraying any product she mixes in a non-toxic spreader sticker, a substance that makes the product more waterproof and better adhering.

Rebecca Gilbert who owns Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark strongly advocates guinea hens for truly effective tick control, but warns that the big, fluffy birds are noisy and not suited to densely populated residential neighborhoods. In the garden Ms. Gilbert uses no pesticides, natural or otherwise. She does pluck potato beetles from foliage and drops them into a can of soapy water. “I plant things that will attract good bugs and let the bugs fight it out,” she said.

Like many Islanders, Ms. Gilbert keeps chickens, and has a homemade remedy for chicken mites, which bite the birds and eat their feathers. She mixes up a slurry of wood ash, diatomaceous earth, and water, using it to paint the roosts and walls inside the hen house. (Caution should be used when handling diatomaceous earth as it can irritate lungs.)

Deer, deer

Luckily for those growing an herb garden, deer and rabbits do not like most herbs, according to the Vineyard Gardens website. Lavender, chives, thyme, rosemary and mint are rarely eaten, a post on the site states. Parsley, though, should be protected from rabbits and deer with a fence.

A tall (at least 8-foot) fence, preferably electrified, is the best weapon in the battle against deer. Remedies that we have seen fail include playing a portable radio amidst the vegetables all night and encouraging the dog or random visitors to urinate around the garden. A professional flower grower we know attests that deer blood is a sure deterrent and will drive the animals away in fear for their lives. Another home gardener is confident that hanging chunks of Irish Spring soap on the fence discourages deer from entering. Jingling bells may work too.

An innovative suggestion for deer control credited to the Farm Institute is establishing a “three dimensional” fence. Put in two sets of fence posts, one set a foot or so inside the other. Run two lines around the outside set at top and bottom. Run a single line around the middle of the inside posts. The variation in closeness of the ropes or wires confuses the deer, which have poor depth perception, making them afraid to approach or jump over.

Slugging it out

One backyard gardener recommended a border of crushed eggshells to keep slugs from entering the garden, as they cannot tolerate the rough texture. Diatomaceous earth can serve the same purpose, but not for cat owners as it can cut and irritate the feline’s delicate paws.

Many prefer the beer cure for sticky slugs: fill low dishes or saucers with beer and slugs will crawl in, drink, and die. Raise a glass to a slug-free garden with the remaining beer.

Tick Talk

Vegetable and flower gardens are not the only places where pests destroy our harmonious outdoor lifestyle. Many a gathering has been thrown into chaos by a squadron of hungry mosquitoes arriving at dusk.

Citronella candles and torches seldom do the trick, leaving cookout guests wrapped in jackets and scarves, their exposed skin doused with chemical repellent. And ticks are a serious menace to pets and humans year ’round, at their worst in the summertime.

At least two local landscapers have begun offering non-toxic, environmentally friendly solutions for controlling these most troublesome pests.

Longtime West Tisbury landscaper Jon Fragosa enthusiastically described his new line of Bee Safe Organic Land Care and pest control products. He said that he had been increasingly concerned about the negative impact on the environment of many products used in land care work. After an extensive search for environmentally friendly products to safely eliminate mosquitoes, ticks, and other insect pests he discovered this New Hampshire-based company. Along with using its pest control products he is also using organic herbicides and fertilizers. Impressed by the safety of the company’s products he and staff members went through its training program.

Mr. Fragosa said the plant-based substance is sprayed on lawns and around the periphery of a property, protecting it from tick and mosquito invasion for several weeks. Additional applications are usually necessary to cover the entire season in areas where infestation is high.

Jude Villa’s Working Earth Landscape Company in Edgartown also offers a safe mosquito and tick-spraying program. Ms. Villa purchased M.V. Mosquito & Tick, formerly Chappy Mosquito & Tick, three years ago. She said the program was in high demand and effective on Chappaquiddick where mosquitoes are thick all summer.

Ms. Villa has used organic materials and methods in her landscaping business for years. She said this organic pest control product is from chrysanthemums. It is applied by backpack sprayers to the lawn area and around the perimeters a short distance into brushy borders. It lasts for about seven days before re-application is necessary. She said the environmentally friendly substance kills mosquitoes and ticks on contact, dries quickly, and is safe for children and pets. She cautions that it should not be sprayed around bees or fish, as it could be harmful to them while wet.

Short lasting but effective, the product is a boon for those planning an outdoor wedding or event, for summer renters who want to be outdoors on their vacation, homeowners wishing to enjoy the back yard, and for those living near still water where mosquito control is a necessity.

As an alternative method to keep ticks out of the yard, Ms. Villa suggested laying a 10-foot woodchip border around the periphery since ticks do not like walking across the rough surface.

SBS keeps it natural

SBS in Vineyard Haven boasts an array of natural, non-toxic remedies to discourage a variety of pests that will tempt any health-minded gardener.

— Sluggo is a non-toxic granular substance to eradicate slugs, earwigs, potato or sow bugs, snails, and cutworms.

— Neem Oil is an anti-fungal plant spray

— Bobbex, Deer Off, and Liquid Fence are all variations of a vile smelling but all-natural repellent incorporating rotten eggs, garlic, and cayenne. (Effective, but it must be re-sprayed when new growth appears, which is often.)— Bird Scare humming wire, if suspended across your garden plot, is said to “emit an ever-varying sound that birds won’t go near.”— Holographic Scare Tape, when hung on fences, sparkles and shines, frightening away deer, birds, and more.— Netting is a reliable shield for driving birds and other pests away from berries whether growing on bushes or the ground. Less fine plastic netting can also be useful in the garden, tossed over tomatoes, squash, or other plants to discourage hungry visitors from taking a bite out of ripening vegetables, while fine mesh is useful for smaller plants. Super-lightweight insect barrier made of translucent polypropylene fabric transmits sunlight while protecting seedlings and small tender plants from pests.

Your best pest resources

Inside pests

Walter Wlodyka Skunk & Raccoon Removal
Walter Wlodyka

Island Mouse Patrol
Milo D’Antonio

Dukes County Integrated Pest Management
T.J. Hegarty

Vineyard Herbs, Teas & Apothecary
Holly Bellebuono

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary
Suzan Bellincampi, director
508-627-4850 “Living with Wildlife”

Outside pests

Ghost Island Farm
Rusty Gordon

Abigail Higgins Garden Services
Abigail Higgins

Fragosa Landscapes
Jon Fragosa

Native Earth Teaching Farm
Rebecca Gilbert

Smith Bodfish & Swift (SBS)

Vineyard Gardens
508-693-8511, 8512

M.V. Tick & Mosquito
Judith Villa