Eastern gray squirrel: Photo by Steve Chandler
Friday, June 28, 2013
By Steve Chandler
Gardeners find great pleasure in nurturing plants to bestow their unique beauty. We love a bountiful harvest that we can enjoy and share with others. Watching over our gardens brings us happiness, but it also attracts other creatures that take an interest in what we grow. Pests and disease that threaten our efforts often give us our greatest challenges. When we confront fungus on a tomato plant or aphids on a shrub, we can usually control them fairly easily with some of the many products that have been developed to fight such threats. But when we come to garden pests, squirrels bring us to a whole new level of challenge.
When confronted with overturned pots or dug up plants, our first thoughts often run to how we can rid our garden and property of squirrels altogether. We try to scare them off or fence them out only to find them up and gone earlier than us, having eaten our buds and dug their holes sometime when we were asleep or gone. We next look to our neighbor’s bird feeder as a convenient attractant for squirrels, but after a brief friendly conversation over the fence we find the neighbor has given up the battle after trying every trick they could think of to keep the squirrels out of their bird seed. After a climb up on the roof to get a squirrel’s eye-view of our garden, we eventually realize that squirrels are unstoppable. We come to see them as wily little creatures that were living here before we came to garden – that they have adapted to the urban landscape as well as cats or dogs, only they have no master or a house that claims them. We realize people have moved in and run off most of the squirrel’s natural enemies and planted all sorts of tasty treats for them to munch. All the squirrels have to do is best a slow-footed, earth bound annoyance that usually only comes outside for a few hours at a time each day.
Once a gardener begins to see they can’t beat squirrels, you can get down to the serious business of appreciating the agility and grace of this animal. You can laugh at squirrels taking joy rides and spinning off the neighbor’s squirrel-proof bird feeder – until half the seeds sling to the ground so they can eat them there. You can get a kick out of the other neighbor’s dog chasing a squirrel up one side of a tree then staring up the trunk while the squirrel ascends the back side of the tree, crosses a limb or two and comes back down in the next yard over. The gardener can come to grin at the tales of how squirrels blew out a transformer that put the lights out in a whole neighborhood or how they chewed through the battery cable to someone’s car or had a nest of babies up in an attic.
When it comes to squirrels, it’s a matter of doing everything you can to keep them out, then just enjoying their antics when they creep back in. If you do more, you should come to love the feeling of frustration because squirrels have a lot more time than most of us do to play in the garden. When putting in a garden, try covering newly planted seeds under a ¼ inch screen wire mesh with a thin layer of mulch over that. The wire may prevent the squirrels from reaching the seeds before they come up through the wire. You can also try a commercial squirrel repellant around the edges of your garden – like methyhonyl ketone crystals or fox urine crystals. Both of these need to be renewed after a rain shower. You can also try cayenne pepper or garlic directly on your plants to help dissuade squirrels from nibbling. Be sure to wash this off before you harvest the plants!
Some people turn to trapping squirrels to remove them. If you do, you may remove the parents of nesting babies that will then starve. You will also be moving the squirrel to someone else’s garden where you let it out and you will probably invite new squirrels into your yard once they realize the territory is vacant.
If you decide to join them when you can’t beat them, squirrels like peanuts and sunflower seeds better than garden vegetables. They also like running water better than chewing through your sprinkler system…and they are fun to watch.
Steve Chandler is a Master Gardener volunteer with the Leon County Cooperative Extension Service and a member of the Leon County/UF IFAS Extension Urban Forestry/Horticulture Advisory Committee. For more information about gardening in our area, visit the UF/ IFAS Leon County Extension website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov