Gardening How-to Articles

Keep Rats Out of Your Garden

Many gardeners have had at least one encounter with rats; the typical urban gardener has probably had many. There is only one species of rat in New York City—the Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus). The Norway rat is a commensal rodent, meaning it lives in close association (literally, “shares the table”) with humans. Urban gardens are particularly hospitable to rats because they provide food, water, and safety.

Rats will burrow into any available earthen space within close proximity to food but prefer fresh, fertile soil to make their nests—a garden is prime real estate to them. A rat burrow can be anywhere from one to six feet deep and will have an entrance, an exit, and maybe even an escape hole. A typical burrow will house a family of approximately eight rats. By counting the burrow holes gardeners can estimate the number of rats living in their garden.

Read More: Deer-Resistant Plants: Shrubs and Trees for the Deer-Plagued Gardener

Gardeners are usually left up to their own devices when it comes to pest control. Some people want to maintain a pesticide-free environment; others are desperate to get a bad situation under control and will try any remedy. Rats can usually be managed effectively without relying on toxic pesticides. In fact, a good rat management program focuses primarily on prevention.

Learn What Rats Need and Eliminate It

Recognizing how to make your space less hospitable can help you to devise a rodent-reducing plan. Rats must eat one to two ounces of food a day and have daily access to water. Rats will eat everything that humans eat and many things that we would never eat. They are not vegetarian; like most mammals, rats (especially reproducing females) need animal protein, fat, and carbohydrates in their diet.

Rats will eat the vegetables and fruits in a garden, but if that is truly their only food source, they will eventually move on to a site that meets their animal protein and fat needs. A compost pile with only garden scraps will not sustain a rat colony. But if table scraps including meats, grains, oils, or other fats are added into the compost pile, it will become highly attractive to them. And the warmth generated by decomposing waste creates a hospitable rat environment in cold weather. Compost areas must be monitored carefully, and if possible, kept in hard plastic or metal containers with tight-fitting lids.

Bags of trash placed near a garden offer an all-you-can-eat buffet to a colony of rats. Like compost, trash should be kept only in sturdy cans with tight-fitting lids. Gardeners should always clean up after picnics and make sure food waste is removed at night.

Food intended for pigeons, cats, dogs, chickens, or rabbits placed in or near a garden may also end up feeding rats. Animal waste such as dog feces can also provide nourishment. Some gardeners feed feral cats in the belief that they will scare away rats. The reality is that most cats are quickly overwhelmed. A healthy breeding female rat can have litters of up to 12 pups several times a year, while the average cat may only take down a rat once every couple of days. In areas where lots of rats are present, it’s best to avoid feeding other animals.

For shelter, rats seek out areas where they feel protected from predators. Dense plantings, tall weeds, and piles of lumber, rocks, or other kinds of clutter provide safe harbor to a rat. Ivy and bushes close to the ground and around buildings are particularly attractive. Rats have very poor eyesight and use their whiskers (or vibrissae) to navigate their environment; as a result, they prefer to travel along straight lines and use curbs, walls, and foundations to get around. Gardeners battling a rat infestation can cut back vegetation at least 18 inches from building walls, remove ivy or other vines from sides of buildings and nearby trees, and trim back tree branches that touch or rub against buildings. Deprived of cover, rats will be less confident traversing these exposed zones and may move on to safer places.

A gardener can figure out where rats are traveling by looking along straight lines for the greasy rub marks that rats leave behind. These rub or smudge marks contain pheromones from the rat’s skin and fur that they use to communicate with other rats. Washing the rub marks away with vinegar or biodegradable soap can help interrupt their established pathways to food sources and home. Hardware cloth (half-inch mesh) can be installed along the base of walls or fences to deter burrowing. The cloth should extend 8 to 12 inches underground. Even though rats can burrow deeper than this, many rats are deterred from spending so much energy to create a nest.

A Rat Reduction Plan

  • Move compost into rodent-resistant containers with tight-fitting lids.
  • Store seed and pet food in rodent-proof containers.
  • Remove fallen fruit or nuts.
  • Remove all fecal matter (dogs, cats, rodents, birds) and/or food waste every day.
  • Eliminate standing water and improve drainage, so water doesn’t pool or settle.
  • Remove clutter from storage sheds and garages.
  • Cut grass or weeds and trim back plants around buildings and walls.

Monitor for Rats

The early spring prior to planting is the best time to start watching for rats. Gardeners should carefully check garden areas before planting seeds as well as later when vegetables and flowers are actively growing. Look for burrow holes, smudge marks, signs of gnawing, worn pathways, and droppings, all of which indicate an active rat infestation. Check around the garden perimeter a few times each week for any new rat activity and take steps to stop it.

In short, think like a rat. Where do I like to live? What am I eating? What pathways do I travel between my food and nest?

Know When to Call in the Pros

If things get really bad, the best thing to do is hire a pest professional. In New York, they should be certified by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Tamper-resistant bait stations with EPA-registered rodenticide bait can be installed by a professional and monitored over time. They should be checked and replenished every week or month depending on the severity of the infestation. Make sure you walk the area with your professional and discuss the treatment plan together.

Snap traps work also work very well, but they must be installed in boxes to prevent birds, dogs, cats, and even children from encountering them. They should be checked daily, emptied, and then reset.

Poison dusts to sprinkle or blow into rat burrows are illegal for gardens and must never be used—not even by a certified professional. They are not only poisonous to rats but could also be harmful to other animals and children if ingested.

Finally, beware that some commercially available devices don’t work and are essentially a waste of time and money. These include sonic devices that claim to scare away rats; there’s no scientific proof that they actually work. Nor have mothballs, pepper sprays, peppermint, or other smelly chemicals been proven to deter rats. Cat, dog, or human hair or urine sprinkled in a garden also appears to have no impact on rats. Beware of anyone claiming they have a secret weapon or chemical that will get rid of rats. There is none.

Caroline Bragdon is a Research Scientist with the New York City Department of Health’s Division of Veterinary and Pest Control Services. Ms. Bragdon has a Masters of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University and is certified by the New York State DEC in structural and rodent control. She serves as the Outreach and Education coordinator for the Bronx and Manhattan Rat Initiative and manages the NYC Rat Information Portal at


  • Victoria Nelson July 3, 2022

    I had huge rat droppings on my patio. First, I cleaned up the area and covered some of the access points. Then I mopped the patio floor. That didn’t work so I again clean and mopped and put out bait traps. Also, I have storage cabinets on the patio that have legs on them. Apparently rats love to hide under these, so I took the legs off and limited the hiding places as well as put out bigger bait traps. Now no big rat droppings. I am hoping this means the rats are taking the bait home, not staying on my patio, and also dying but I won’t know for another week or so.

  • Pat aitchison May 23, 2022

    Someone saying brown rats don’t climb: but all rats climb. I had one in my wheely bin, it had chewed through the lid. and i’ve seen brown rats climb up brick buildings.

  • pat aitchison April 17, 2022

    I was told by a friend rats don’t like white vinegar, we have problems with rats all the time as there is a river not too far away and there are rats in there all the time, but i used white vinegar behind my bins and the following morning i had a half dead rat in the garden and later the day it was stone dead.

  • Maria March 4, 2022

    Instant potato flakes!!! Buy cheap stuff,  for added enticement I look for the butter flavored. Dump a 4 cup pile into every hole you find. Repeat every time you have a dry week coming up to keep on top of the strays you missed the first time. So far it’s worked here in East Tennessee!

  • Sharon January 25, 2022

    We have rats that get into our garage. The 1960 southern home was built with a garage with enough holes in it to let thieves in. We fight them every winter. Can’t even keep plastic bottles of drinks there. But one place we have never seen signs of them is the laundry room which is open to the garage. Even had wheat grains and lentils on a shelf (think protein) and over 3 years they never got into them. We wonder if it could be the smell of the detergent.

  • Stuart December 24, 2021

    In Africa we mix a bit of dry cement powder with dry white maize (corn, grits in USA) and place it close to where the rats / mice are active. We also place a low container (like a bottle lid) with water in it nearby. The pests eat the maize meal and then drink the water. The cement gets them totally bunged up (major constipation) and the vermin get tickets to the afterlife.

  • DC rats April 21, 2021

    We have had serious alley infestation for a couple of years now. Terrible trash behavior of neighbors has them thriving (rats, not neighbors, or maybe neighbors too). At any rate, we use the black plastic rat snap traps, with some screws put through the top for good measure as larger rats will get get out. Occasionally they get caught by the foot and don’t die; especially small ones. A bucket of water solves that. Once a whole trap disappeared never to be seen again.  None of it is pleasant but the rat droppings everywhere and general nuisance is too much and the calls to the city can’t keep up. Oddly, the small ones are caught just walking through; no bait required. A hawk or falcon has been coming by, so we don’t use poison. I guess suburban people battle squirrels we get rats. I feel like if rats made maps like old seafarers our small yard would be the place marked “here be monsters”...

  • [email protected] March 13, 2021

    I had a raised bed in my old house.  I found something that had eaten the collard leaves. I thought it was moles.  I surounded the bed with chicken wire (6
    inches down and 1 foot up.  That stopped the problem.

  • Mandy September 12, 2020

    I discovered our rat problem during Covid19 lockdown. Our tiny yard has thick ivy on 3 sides and we have a small man made creek. FYI, this is exactly what rats love. Perfect environment to grow their huge families. We had no idea our private paradise could turn against us! I haven’t been able to spend any time outdoors there since discovering our infestation. Not wanting to kill them I hoped they’d leave if we were less hospitable. I liberally sprinkled chili and cayenne, onions and ground dried chilis.

    I purchased expensive peppermint oils.I used ammonia on old rags. Nothing worked. Then I decided I’d have to get serious . I made a mixture of baking soda, flour and white sugar 1💯1. Put in SHALLOW lids near their holes. They ate a lot of it. But was it enough to do the job? No. I’ve moved on to plaster of Paris, peanut butter, baking soda mixed into rat balls, 3 per little lid so I could see if they were being eaten and control to an extent WHO was eating them. They loved the balls. Most gone in full daylight hours btw, in 10 minutes. Success yet? Don’t know. Saw a crow eating one on neighbour’s roof, a dead rat. But I think we have hundreds. And I don’t want to hurt crows.

    One item that I feel I might have had success with as I had 5 rat-free days last week was straight up instant potato flakes. They eat them like we eat chips, they get thirsty, drink water you leave in small dish nearby and the flakes expand in their tiny bellies causing death in a few days apparently. I will testify to their pigging out on the dry potato flakes. They literally swarmed the container I put out for them. But did they just have an amazing meal or did it work ? I’m not sure. I saw 4 in the yard again today and a NEW HUGE BURROW about a foot across. Horrified by this. Ivy is way too good of a cover for them. Do not plant this for your own protection. I have become at one with the eat this summer. They have overtaken my brain. How do we get them out of here??? Pest control is $200 per month. And even pros probably won’t get them all.

  • Tgarcia August 11, 2020

    Moth balls worked for me under my home - although I would never use this poison in my food producing garden.

    I had rats under my house (pier & beam); I crawled the perimeter under the house placing moth balls about every 5 feet. I blocked the entrance/exits with traps, waited about an hour, collected the moth balls and trapped rats. Of course afterwords, I tried to block all rat access points with wire mesh and steel wool.

  • Irv Molotsky April 23, 2020

    Is there a shade-tolerant plant that might deter rats? I have planted some peppermint. I also have some plain old mint that is thriving (not peppermint) and wondered if that was an effective anti-rat plant as well.

  • Terri Chevalier April 11, 2020

    I’ve had a rat problem in my garden for the second year. Completely devouring the cucumbers in one night. I’ve been using a homemade recipe of baking soda and peanut butter that causes intestinal bloating and will kill the rats.

  • Rachel Brak January 12, 2020

    I cannot imagine there is a non toxic dust that can only kill one mammal but does no damage to others.  Do be careful.
    I also have a rat problem as it is the first year I have chickens and grow vegetables. They’ve had all my peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, even all the apples. I’m only left with below the ground radishes and carrots. I’ve begun my research!

  • Lor July 15, 2019

    Rats have moved into my parents’ neighborhood as the city has grown up around them. We stopped planting a vegetable garden the past two years in part because of this. This year we decided to try tomato plants again and the rats were taking ALL of them. We decided to use the snap traps and had a completely horrifying experience. The trap killed the larger one, which we found dead BESIDE the trap; and there was a little one caught in the trap, but not dead. Not having witnessed the actual event, we can only surmise what happened from their positions. We believe that the mom was killed and her offspring tried to save her by pushing her free, only to be caught by the trap which in its already sprung condition was not forceful enough to kill the small one, but did injure it. We could not just leave it to suffer and so had the traumatizing experience of killing it ourselves. Also, the last mouse that I killed with a snap trap was caught by its nose instead of snapping its neck so I am not really loving the snap traps now. Frankly, if rats and mice didn’t multiply so much, I would just leave them be, so how about someone invent some rodent birth control that I can use instead. Please.

  • Laurie April 18, 2019

    I am surprised and disappointed that you are recommending the use of rodenticides to combat rat infestation. The use of poison puts our birds of prey, foxes, coyotes and pet dogs and cats at risk of secondary poisoning. Poison is beyond cruel. Please do not use it!

  • NYC Compost Project at BBG December 12, 2018

    Hi, Agata:
    We’ve heard a lot about rats in the last year or two. We think with so much construction and development, they are finding shelter in nearby community gardens. The dry ice and other burrow disturbances are good ideas to prevent them from coming back. Look around and make sure to eliminate any other possible places for shelter, food, and water. Also declutter, especially along walls or behind garden sheds. The more open space, the better since rats like to hide while traveling. Since rats like greasy, oily, protein- and carbohydrate-rich foods, do not leave any open food in the garden or sidewalk. One garden was behind a church that left easily accessible piles of trash bags with food after events. Talk to school neighbors and make sure trash bags aren’t sitting out for too long before being picked up, or even better, urge neighbors to use the Organics brown bins for their food waste. Lastly, don’t leave out any containers or vessels that hold water. Hopefully, cutting off any water, food, or shelter sources will eliminate the rats. It takes some work and is hard to do if any neighbors are enabling the problem. Putting out rat traps, like the black boxes, is effective. Since it is a garden, we would not recommend sprinkling poisoned bait anywhere on site.

  • Agata November 13, 2018

    I am a parent at a local public school and we have had a gardening program for many years. Recently the gardens have been overrun with rats. The garden beds are surrounded by planks and about 10inches raised off the ground. The rats are burrowing underneath and through the garden beds. We have tried to kill them off with dry ice and had custodians try to drown them and other methods. The rats keep coming back. We are desperate and very sad. Is there advice for how we can re-build our beds to keep them out. I have heard about putting cinder blocks around the perimeter and keeping the height of the bed low to the ground so it’s not a “mound” that is attractive to them. Please do you have advice on how we can build it. Thank you.

  • Lucy Rasmussen August 12, 2018

    I have a bird feeder that closes automatically when an animal heavier than a large bird attempts to perch.  They are great.  The squirrels are frustrated and so are the rats.  So I can still enjoy my wild birds! 

  • Pat Kaye May 18, 2018

    We live in a suburban area near open space and marshlands in the North San Francisco Bay Area. We occasionally have rat issues and I tried a number of things to eradicate them. We used to feed the birds but stopped that when I heard sounds in the garden at night, turned on a light and discovered a large Norway rat hanging on our bird feeder enjoying a meal. We also tried one of the guillotine traps that worked at first to snare a couple of them but then caught and killed a curious skunk who in his attempts to get free sprayed the entire side of our house! I had used some poisons but really didn’t want to do that because the raptors and other animals eat the dead rats. Finally, when a large family of rats had moved into our garage (separate from our house), I purchased and electronic trap that proved to be the ticket. Powered by 4 C-cell batteries, it has a capacitor that builds the charge inside it. The bait—a small dab of peanut butter—is put in from an inaccessible end. You set the trap, unarmed at first to draw them to it, then energize it. In the matter of one week we had killed 7 large rats and 4 young ones, and the rat issue was over. When there is a kill, a red LED flashes on the top. You simply pick the whole trap up and carry it to the trash, tilt it, and the rat falls out. You put it back in place, turn it off and on again to reenergize it, a green light indicates it is armed then goes off, and it is set! It has now protected my garage for over a year with no more issues. It is a black plastic trap that is small and light enough to handle easily, and I moved it to different parts of the garage until I wiped out the invaders!

  • Eunice Haas March 18, 2018

    I placed an orchid plant in between mint plants, and a rat still ate the leaves of the orchid. Any advice, please.

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