How to Build a Scarecrow
These guardians of the garden may not deter wildlife as much as you'd think—but they're fun to have around says scarecrow expert and HGTV contributor Felder Rushing.
Photo by Felder Rushing
Humans have been planting crops for thousands of years. Food historians think figs were probably grown in ancient Jericho some 11,400 years ago, and wheat—the first cultivated cereal—has been traced back to 8000 B.C.
Since then, we’ve probably also been waving our arms, stomping our feet and shouting at the birds, deer, and other wildlife that have invaded our gardens and stolen our food.
Of course, we can’t stay out in our gardens and protect them all the time, even though some of us would like to, so today we use scarecrows to stand in our place and keep watch over our flowers or corn, tomatoes and other edibles.
We're following in the footsteps of our farming forebears, says Felder Rushing, garden expert, author of Scarecrows: Making Harvest Figures and Other Yard Folks and a frequent contributor to HGTV.com.
“Both scarecrows, erected for crop protection, and harvest figures for giving thanks have been used for thousands of years,” he says.
Rushing has explored the uses of scarecrows throughout the ages, and he’s found and photographed these intriguing figures guarding gardens across the U.S. and on five continents.
Yum Kaax, Rushing says, was a youthful god of the Mayan cornfields depicted as holding flowers. In Japan, Sohodo-no-kami protected Shinto fields, his long cloth arms flapping in the wind.
“For centuries, farmers have employed people, especially children and other seasonal workers, to rove from field to field, shouting and clapping pieces of wood together to repel birds from crops, and when Europeans first started coming to North America they noted how Native Americans built little raised huts around fields for children to stay in until they needed to run out to scare birds and deer.”
Today, most scarecrows are humorous, Rushing says, and unfortunately, they don’t really work. Rushing once snapped a picture of a crow perched on top of a realistic scarecrow’s head, and he notes that even the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz movie nearly lost his straw stuffings to a flock of fearless birds.
“Crows, deer, and raccoons are incredibly smart and quickly get used to them,” he says. He’s found that repellents like human hair, scented soap, pepper sprays and urine from predator animals don’t do much good in the garden, either.
"Battery-powered motion-detecting devices that flap arms or even shoot water work pretty well, but are expensive and not practical on a large scale. The very best protection from deer, rabbits and raccoons remains a fence, electric or otherwise. Nothing else works very well.”
That explains why the human figures in Rushing’s own garden, which include a statue of St. Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners, and four “artful” pieces, are there primarily for looks.
To do the real work of scaring critters out of the crops, Rushing hangs aluminum pie plates and strands of tin foil, using fishing strung from poles. As they sparkle and sway in the breeze, they help keep the birds out of his small vegetable patch—but “that’s about it,” he admits.
Does that mean you shouldn’t bother making a scarecrow for your own yard? Not all all. But you should have realistic expectations about the usefulness of figures made out of stuffing and sticks.
Rushing says that one of the most creative scarecrows, is also the easiest to make. Use “a post with a cross arm, draped with a long-sleeved shirt, with ribbons tied from the ends of the arms to move in the wind.” You can add any sort of head, such as “a face-painted soccer ball, gourd, plastic milk jug, pantyhose stuffed with newspaper, or wooden cut-out or inexpensive Halloween mask. Often just a hat will do!”
“Farmers in England often put several of these figures in each field, which has a better effect than one lone sentinel,” Rushing adds.
Your worst garden enemies, Rushing says, apart from slugs and insects? "Deer are hands-down the most damaging, even in suburbia – and getting worse. They are followed closely by squirrels (both tree and ground), rabbits, and raccoons. And if there were any good solutions, I—and all my friends who work at botanical gardens— would love to hear them!”
The most important thing, Rushing says, is that scarecrows, yard folk, and autumn harvest figures are fun and easy to make, even for children, and they let you play and be creative. They can also help if you want to get rid of that lawn you’re tired of mowing.
"(They're) one of the most acceptable ways to do something interesting in your garden without raising the ire of neighbors," Rushing says. "By setting one out in your front yard you can ‘get away’ with planting a stand of corn, sunflowers and other ornamental plants right out in the open—the human figure will help interpret it as fun, not just work!”