Most of the time, the squirrels in my vegetable and flower gardens are not a bother. (Their birdfeeder banditry is another story entirely.) They live in the spruce trees above my deck, and it's fun to watch them run back and forth on the railing, sending my excited cats into hopeful but futile crouches. The score is inevitably: squirrels 1, cats 0.
Then harvest season arrives, and suddenly those cute and clown-like mammals go on looting sprees in my vegetable garden. There's nothing more frustrating as a gardener than keeping an eye on a ripening crop, only to come out and find it either gone, or worse, discarded with only a bite or two taken out of it.
While I like squirrels, I don't garden for their benefit. I can put up with the walnuts buried in my window boxes and flowerbeds, and their scolding chatters when the cats or I get too close, but eating my heirloom tomatoes is where I draw the line.
Squirrels are omnivores, and besides nuts and seeds will eat fruits, flowers, mushrooms, insects, and even small animals. The average squirrel eats about a pound of food a week. A female squirrel can have multiple yearly litters of two to eight babies each. Since they pretty much stay within two miles of where they are born, dozens of squirrels might live in the vicinity of our gardens.
There are a number of deterrents to keep squirrels away from the fruits of our labors. Here are some ideas. Remember that a combination of tactics is more effective than one alone:
Location: When is the last time you saw a squirrel in the middle of a field? Squirrels usually avoid open areas with no shelter because it leaves them exposed to predators. If it's possible, site your garden in an open area as far away from trees and other hiding places as feasible. A vegetable garden with trees above is an invitation for squirrels to drop in.
Predators: A cat or a dog is the best, most effective deterrent. Their presence is usually enough to keep squirrels at a distance; killing them is not the objective. The squirrels love to tease my cats, but they know better than to get too close.
Birds, including hawks and owls, will prey on squirrels. Setting up roosting boxes can attract owls to your garden. Some sources recommend using predator urine from wolves or coyotes around your plants, but the way it's obtained is inhumane, plus it's not anything you would want near food crops.
Cages: Set chicken wire cages or bird netting around your plants. Wrap almost-ripe fruits or vegetables individually in bird netting that's either tied shut or secured with a clothespin.
Repellents: You can buy animal repellent sprays, which smell and taste awful to squirrels. Brands include Bobbex and Plantskydd.
There are also recipes for sprays you can make at home. Squirrels don't seem to appreciate spicy flavors. Some people sprinkle red pepper flakes or garlic powder around plants, or apply peppermint oil or cayenne pepper spray on foliage. These usually need to be reapplied after rain. Don't spray the actual food if you can avoid it.
Surround: Surround is a harmless kaolin clay spray that's used on apples, peaches, and other fruits. It prevents diseases and insects from getting to the fruit, and some say it discourages squirrels, too. Here's a link that explains how it works: https://www.gardensalive.com/product/surround-crop-protectant.
Moving objects: Motion activated sprinklers, pinwheels, hanging cds, or streamers will startle squirrels for a while. They can get used to them, however, so they need to be used in rotation.
Sanitation: Keep the vegetable garden clean; don't advertise that there's food. Promptly remove fallen and rotted vegetables and fruit.
Water: Sometimes what squirrels really want isn't food, but water, which is why they'll eat part of a juicy tomato and leave the rest, especially during times of drought. Supply a water source at the opposite end of the garden from your edibles.
Bribes: Feed them something they really like, such as peanuts or corn, as far away as possible from your crops.
While others might have the stomach – and be frustrated enough – to kill their squirrel marauders, I can't recommend it. Trapping, shooting or poisoning come with risks. Even humane trapping, where a squirrel is caught live and relocated, is cruel, because it takes the animal out of its territory and into an unfamiliar area. Squirrels are known to fight to the death to defend their territory. Plus it can just relocate the problem near someone else's garden. Other animals, including pets, can eat poisoned bait by accident. And unless your garden is your primary food source, shooting seems a harsh way to deal with what is primarily a nuisance.
There are many squirrel-control options worth trying before resorting to drastic measures. The final one is an attitude adjustment. When a squirrel takes a bite out of one of my tomatoes, I remind myself that while they can be a royal pain, squirrels need to eat, too, and they are just doing what animals do.
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By Delilah Onofrey, Suntory Flowers
Photographs courtesy of Suntory Flowers
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