How & Why to Avoid Growing Rat Ladders in the Garden

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
How & Why to Avoid Growing Rat Ladders in the Garden

In early February, I presented a seminar at the famed Northwest Flower & Garden Show illustrating ways gardeners can easily avoid my top ten garden maintenance nightmares.

Rat Ladders, as I call them, were high on my list of gardening flubs to avoid.

Here’s the thing: gardening wildlife – whether a rat, mouse, squirrel, possum, raccoon or other climbing critter – looks for protected ways to move through the garden. They also seek shelter. And what better shelter than the attic of our homes? Attics are protected from harsh weather, usually heated and quite often rarely visited by the humans living in lower stories – until we hear scratching and scrambling from above or begin to smell rodent waste. Or worse yet, we see something scurry by out of the corner of our eye. So, best we do everything in the garden to make it as difficult as possible for those critters to gain access to our homes in the first place.

First things first: don’t install large, inappropriate plants right next to your house. Instead, take care to select locations further from your foundation for bigger trees and shrubs. Yes, softening a foundation or the corner of the house with a tall Juniper accent or airy Japanese Maple may look lovely early on, but as those trees grow, they become increasingly difficult to keep pruned away from the home. Instead, try planting bigger things well away from the house.

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If you already have a large plant right beside the house, know that most plants can be pruned from the interior to remove branches growing toward the house. Be sure to use your bypass shears or handsaw to remove the entire branch headed toward the house rather than just lopping it off at some random length. (See image at the beginning of the article, which illustrates where to cut.) Leaving a stub, which contains buds, only means you will get several more branches growing toward the house.

Whatever you do, don’t lop the top off the tree. Chopping the top off of a tree in an effort to waylay any climbing critters simply won’t do the trick. First, topping a tree in this way will create an unhealthy tree. If it doesn’t kill the tree outright, what you’ll likely see is an ugly tree with loads of new, ugly, climbable shoots erupting from all of your topping cuts. Not only will the critters have a new, well hidden route to the top of your house, but you’ll have an ugly and potentially hazardous tree to manage going forward. And, once you’ve created this kind of chopped up mess, it’s much harder and can take many years to prune your tree back into a healthy and somewhat visually appealing shape.

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If your plant is too big for a space right beside the house, consider removing it completely. Plants that create these ladders can also cause other problems for homeowners. They may rub on siding and paint, ruining the exterior. They may unload buckets of material into gutters, clogging and even breaking them. They may send out exploring roots that damage foundations, too. And, if they’re in front of a window, they may break your view and block sunlight into your home.

If you do dig out a plant installed to close to the house, try to recycle it elsewhere in the garden. Depending on the type of plant, its age, time of year and how large it is, you may be able to successfully dig it out and replant it in a more appropriate space in the garden.