Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 25 years experience in radio, television, print

A few readers have written to express concern about my advice last month for deterring cats from using a reader's vegetable garden as a litter box. I suggested installing a motion-sensor sprinkler, planting the unpleasantly scented herb rue or sinking plastic forks into soil around plants.

DEAR JESSICA: Although I am not a gardener, I often read your column. I was horrified to read that you would advise harming an animal. Putting plastic forks tines-up in the ground is beyond cruel and could also be a danger to un unsuspecting child or adult (summer, flip-flops or barefoot). You owe animals and their owners an apology.  --Susanne Ruiz, Massapequa

DEAR JESSICA: I read your article about using rue in the garden to discourage cats and was thrilled that there was a plant that would keep them away. I started to research it online and read that a gardener had received burns from handling this plant. Do you have any other suggestions? -- Corinne, via email

DEAR JESSICA: A few months ago I became upset by your last-resort advice for handling moles with traps. You said, "It's not the most humane way, but it gets the job done." It shouldn't be an option if it is inhumane! I think that sort of mentality is a problem all over the place, and sends a really bad message to people who aren't compassionate. I didn't write to you about it because responding to every article that is insensitive to animals is futile.

But then I read your recent advice regarding cats. Many people already hate cats, and your article almost gives them permission to annihilate them without mercy for fear of disease and death. Can you remind your readers that if they hate every little critter that makes a bump in their grass, or a cat that passes through their dirt, then maybe outdoor gardening is not the hobby for them? We can't and shouldn't try to control everything. Gardening should be an enjoyable activity that no one (not even a mole) should be afraid of. -- Christine Pizzi, Baiting Hollow

DEAR CONCERNED READERS: I applaud your love of animals, which I share. Through the years, I've had three cats of my own, and they were the lights of my life. I currently share my home with a hedgehog and two dogs -- a 10-pound Havanese and a 70-pound mutt, and I would never place any of them in harm's way. If I thought the forks would deter the larger dog from trampling my seedlings (they wouldn't), I'd insert them in all my garden beds, without worry for the little guy, who is roughly the size of a cat.

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Forks and such: Animals typically paw at foreign objects or obstructions before proceeding, and if they don't like the feel of something, they back away, as my dogs do when they encounter the hedgehog. It would be impossible for cats to walk on the forks -- which should be sunk into the ground with their tines and about half of their handles visible -- and unlikely for any injury to occur. In fact, it's possible some cats might even enjoy rubbing up against the forks. Still, if it makes you uncomfortable, plastic spoons or Popsicle sticks might offer some level of protection. The goal is to provide an unpleasant obstacle, not to "annihilate" anything.

Tread lightly: To address concerns about bare feet and children, the reader was attempting to protect her tomato patch, and vegetable gardens typically aren't planted in the middle of the lawn or in areas where there is foot traffic. However, common sense should prevail: If you have small children who spend time unattended in the garden, this might not be a viable solution for you.

Food contamination from animal feces is a real threat. For this reason, excrement of carnivorous animals (dogs, cats, etc.) should never even be composted, as it can harbor parasites. Cow and horse manure, on the other hand, is fine, as those animals don't eat meat.

Use rue wisely: Concerning skin irritation from rue, it's true: some people experience an allergic reaction to the herb's essential oils. Called "photodermatitis," the blistery sunburn rash can result in susceptible people when the plant's sap comes into contact with skin and then is exposed to sunlight. Some gardeners harvest their rue after dusk to avoid the risk. In my experience, leaves must be wet, or crushed or broken to expose their sap, in order to cause any irritation, even in those who are susceptible, but everyone is different.

Wearing gloves when gardening is always advisable, and small children who might be inclined to pick or taste plants should be kept away. The plant, however, does not pose a threat to animals, which are so repelled by its scent they wouldn't likely chew on it or even approach it. I consulted with the ASPCA, and you'll be happy to know the herb is not included on its list of plants toxic to cats (or dogs.)

Mole management: On the mole front, it's important to point out that moles are not merely inconvenient. They can utterly obliterate entire lawns and gardens, costing homeowners countless hours and dollars in repairs and reconstruction, only to have the destruction repeated if the cause hasn't been eliminated. For perspective, a single mole can dig up to 100 feet in a day, detaching roots from plants and leaving soil mounds in its path. I have heard from numerous readers expressing nothing short of despair, and I mentioned traps as a last resort because, unfortunately, they are oftentimes the only truly effective method of control.

I am a proponent of integrated pest management, which is an environmentally sensitive approach that dictates implementing the most benign methods of control first (think physical barriers, not chemicals) and in some cases, escalating, but only when first-line defenses fail. Showering cats with a hose, planting an unpleasantly scented herb or placing obstacles in their paths are the first-line (and in this case, the only) options available to discourage them from visiting a particular spot. And each is harmless to the animal. The reality is that in other cases, more drastic measures may be necessary, such as in the event of true insect, mouse or, yes, mole infestation.

Assessing winter damage

Many of you have written to express concern about hydrangeas, butterfly bushes and fig trees. For the most part, these have been slow to break dormancy this year due to the brutal winter they've endured. Some, too, have died, as did my (uncovered) fig tree. I've been advising those who've asked to take a wait-and-see approach. But if branches are still bare now, it's a pretty safe assumption the above-ground portion of the plant, at least, has died off.

Breaking a branch will provide further clues: If the tissue within is fresh and green, it's alive; brown and dry indicates the branch is dead. If new growth has sprouted from the bottom of the plant, you're lucky. Cut away the dead branches and nurture your new plant.