You take a walk through the garden and find branches trimmed, flowers missing or bark damaged.
Of course, the culprit is nowhere to be seen. You may have suspects in mind but a close look at the damage and surroundings can help you identify what's dining on your plants.
Knowing this can help you reduce the risk in the future. A bit of defensive action goes a long way in protecting your gardens and landscape from hungry critters this season.
Rabbits can be found year-round in the landscape. Their sharp teeth make a 45-degree clean cut much like your bypass pruners. Their damage usually occurs within their 3-foot reach.
Rabbits eat a variety of flowers and vegetables throughout the spring and summer. As these plants fade in fall, they begin dining on trees and shrubs. You may find bark gnawed and branches, stems and buds clipped off plants.
Deer will tear on vegetation, leaving a ragged tip on browsed plants. You may find damage on a variety of flowers, vegetables, trees, shrubs and plants pulled out of the ground with the distasteful ones left behind.
Then in the fall, the bucks rub trunks of young trees, damaging the tender tissue below that transports water and nutrients between the roots and leaves. Deer usually feed at dusk, but as they become comfortable around people they can often be spotted dining during the day.
Voles are brown rodents that look similar to field mice with small ears and short tails. These rodents are active year-round, going after seeds, plant roots and bulbs.
Squirrels are fun to watch — that is, until they eat all the birdseed and damage your plants. They dig bulbs and uproot other plants, eat and bury nuts in lawns and gardens and take bites out of tomatoes, strawberries and more.
They damage trees by ripping off the bark and clipping off branches. If that wasn't enough, they may gnaw on structures and furnishings. Treating the damaged area and the 1-foot radius around it with a repellent can help discourage more damage.
Chipmunks are active from spring through fall. You will find them digging in potted plants, hanging baskets and rock walls. They eat grains, nuts, berries, seeds, insects, mushrooms, carrion, young birds and bird eggs. Their tunnels can be 20 to 30 feet long and are well hidden. The openings are only 2 inches in diameter with no surrounding mounds of soil.
Commercial and homemade scare tactics are an option. Unfortunately, most of these critters have become accustomed to people and are not deterred. Motion-activated devices are a bit more effective, but make sure they are not annoying to you and your neighbors.
Fencing tight to the ground with a secure gate and at least 3 feet — preferably 4 feet — high is effective in preventing rabbit damage. Deer, on the other hand, need a much taller fence. Although they can jump 7 feet or higher, a 5- to 6-foot fence is often enough to keep them out of smaller gardens. Sink fencing 4 to 6 inches into the ground to protect plants from voles.
Repellents labeled for controlling the critter that is causing the damage are another option. Organic Plantskydd (plantskydd.com) is labeled for repelling, not harming, all of these critters, so you only need one product.
Since it is rain- and snow-resistant, you won't need to apply it as often. And last but not least, always read and follow label directions for the most effective control.
Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including "The Midwest Gardener's Handbook" and "Small Space Gardening." She hosts the Great Courses' "How to Grow Anything" DVD series and the syndicated "Melinda's Garden Moment" program on TV and radio.