Henry Homeyer: Skunks – the good, the bad, and the stinky

By Henry Homeyer
© 2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Most New Englanders have had an interaction with a skunk at some point in their lives. That includes my almost 2-year old Golden Retriever-Irish Setter mix, Rowan. He met his first skunk recently, and while avoiding a direct hit, did get a little “eau de skunk,” which persists lightly, especially when he gets wet.

But skunks are not all bad. They are omnivores, but survive mainly on grubs. Japanese beetles pass through the grub stage in lawns, and skunks will dig them out – sometimes making a mess of the lawn. They will also eat tomato hornworms and other grubs.

Our dog Rowan had an encounter with a skunk recently.

Skunks seem oblivious to the stings of those pernicious ground hornets. Friends of mine had lots of ground hornets in their meadow this summer – until the skunks came and dug them out.

But skunks will also eat remnants of McDonald’s burgers or Colonel Sanders if they find them alongside the road. One winter I discovered a skunk den in a big pile of rocks, and the area around it was littered with fast-food wrappers. So they have eclectic tastes.

What can you do to reduce your skunk population? They are mainly nocturnal, and I’ve read that a motion sensor on a flood light will deter them, but have not tried it.

A castor oil solution – something I know works well to repel moles – is said to work on skunks, too. Here’s what I do for moles: In a blender, a quarter cup of old-fashioned castor oil (not the new, improved scentless castor oil) and one half cup of liquid soap (not dish detergent). Run the blender until the mix is stiff like shaving cream, and add 3 cups of water. Blend. Then add one ounce of the mixture per gallon of water in a watering can. Sprinkle the lawn. Obviously, this can be a lot of work if you have a big lawn. Or you can try it where skunks are doing most of their digging.

The internet, full of advice (both good and bad) tells me that skunks don’t like citrus, so it was suggested that you cut up your lemon peels and toss them around. Not my first choice. Predator urine is another likely deterrent. Coyote urine is sold in garden centers to repel deer and is said to work on skunks. Me? I had hope my dog would be a deterrent, but he is not. Huh.

There are organic methods for reducing the grub population in your lawn, and if you do get rid of the grubs not only will you have fewer Japanese beetles, you should have fewer skunks.

There are beneficial nematodes (unsegmented worms) called Hb nematodes that will attack Japanese beetle larvae and are said to be 96% effective in eliminating Japanese beetle and rose chafer larvae if applied properly. The best time to apply these nematodes is July and August when the grubs are feeding in your lawn. If you buy them, follow the directions carefully: they need to be applied to moist lawn at dusk, and then watered in. These are live worms, and as such need to be used soon after purchasing them. They are not generally available at garden centers, but are available on -line.

Then there is milky spore, which is a bacterium that comes as a powder that can be suspended in water and sprayed on lawns. It is not a miracle cure, and is quite expensive. Not all entomologists believe that milky spore is an effective cure, at least not in New England where cold winters can kill the bacterium.

Skunks dig small holes in the lawn to find grubs.

Not only that, those darn Japanese beetles fly. So you can treat your lawn with milky spore only to have your neighbor’s beetles fly over the fence to attack your roses. I did talk to an enterprising gardener once who convinced her neighbors to treat, too, and she feels it made a significant reduction in beetle numbers.

One thing is for sure: Japanese beetles cannot be eliminated using those bags sold in hardware stores that attract them with odors of sex hormones. The beetles come in vast numbers, more than end up in the bags. Maybe give those to your neighbors at Christmas, and they will all go away.

I had dinner recently with friends, including a woman who spent many years in Alaska. She noted that Rowan smelled good to her. Apparently skunks do not live in Alaska and she missed the signs of spring: the smell of skunks waking up and letting the neighbors know they are around.

There are many home remedies for skunk smell on dogs including washing them in tomato juice, or making a solution of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, dish soap and water. I just bought some “Nature’s Miracle” brand enzyme-based solution at the pet store, which seemed a better choice. Rowan will get rinsed with that, as baby shampoo did not do the job.

We all need to consider sharing our spaces with the critters who live near us, even weeds, bugs and skunks. I’ll just put Rowan on a leash at night, and bring a flashlight.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeHenry Homeyer's Notes from the Garden

About the Author: Henry Homeyer is a lifetime organic gardener living in Cornish Flat, N.H. He is the author of four gardening books including The Vermont Gardener's Companion. You may reach him by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or by snail mail at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, N.H. 03746. Please include a SASE if you wish an answer to a question by mail.

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