Q: I was stunned when I went out to start working on my garden beds. My neighbors cats must have been using them as litter boxes all winter. I've seen them around, but had no idea what was really going on.

We began talking about using chicken wire to discourage them. I mentioned that to a friend who told me you'd told her it was the best thing to do. So, we'll do it.

But, as always, your tips would be helpful.

CAROL, Pittsfield

A: Having tried it many years ago, I discovered that covering the soil between rows with chicken wire works.

There may be easier methods, however. Mulching soil with hemlock or pine cones, and creating a barrier with them 18 to 24 inches around the garden's perimeter may be sufficient. Smaller flower beds may be mulched with them or a commercial mulch.

Cats prefer dry soil, preferably dry and loose (cultivated) soil. Having an automatic sprayer keeping the soil moist, but not moist enough to drown the plants, may help. Even better is a motion activated sprayer that will (hopefully) be activated by the cat(s).

I'd check with Whitney's Farm Market in Lanesborough or Ward's Garden Center in Great Barrington, Carr Hardware in Pittsfield, or your favorite hardware or garden supply. They also may offer a commercial deterrent.

Do not use moth balls! The chemicals in moth balls are very toxic and do not break down easily in the environment. When used outdoors, the chemicals can mix with groundwater and will not be filtered out by water treatment plants.

Remember this when planning to scatter them around to discourage deer, skunks and the like. Their effectiveness is in doubt as far as I am concerned. Irish Spring bar soap may prove just as effective.

I have not looked into a plant called scaredy cats (Coleus canina), but have read that it is effective. Cats are said to dislike citrus, so chopped orange and lemon peel scattered among your rows or plants may also work. Q: What's up with these birds? We put up a bluebird box last fall in our small field. Sure enough at the beginning of March a pair of bluebirds seemed to be interested, sitting on top and going in while visiting it every few days at least.

Near the end of the month, they began building. Then tree swallows arrived and took it over. Or did they?

One day the swallows would be going in and out, the next day, it would be the bluebirds, then there would be a squabble. Now it appears the sparrows have chased both away.

What can I do to encourage the bluebirds?

GEORGE, Pittsfield

A: The very same drama is taking place at our home. You may try cleaning out the box every time you notice English sparrow activity. These pests are among the few birds our state and federal governments do not protect, so you can harass or even trap and dispatch them legally.

Questions and comments for Thom Smith: Email Naturewatch@live.com