With their acrobatic maneuvers and feisty chattering, squirrels often inspire smiles and laughter. But for gardeners who find beds dug up and tomatoes chewed, these bushy tailed critters aren't a source of anything except frustration and a fervent desire to figure out ways of keeping squirrels out of the garden. Known for nibbling nuts and gobbling birdseed, squirrels also like feasting on garden seedlings, fruits, berries, flowers, leaves, and tree buds. Like other rodents, squirrels have long incisor teeth that never stop growing, so they tend to gnaw on all sorts of materials to keep those teeth on the short side.
Signs of Squirrel Activity
Squirrels can create all kinds of damage in the garden. With the exception of flying squirrels (found in various areas around the country, including the East Coast and Pacific Northwest) these rodents are active during daylight hours. Watch for these signs that squirrels are visiting your garden:
- Shallow digging spots in planting beds. These sites aren't large—you're looking for golf ball-size or smaller holes. Freshly planted seedbeds are a big squirrel target, as they enjoy unearthing and eating the seeds.
- Bite marks and/or missing fruit. Squirrels sometimes eat part of a tomato and leave the rest behind; other times, they eat the entire fruit. Other squirrel favorites include beans, squash, cucumbers, and eggplants.
- Missing plants. You might find remnants of seedlings lying on the soil, or they may completely disappear. Ditto for leaves of perennials.
- Nibbled seedheads. Squirrels nibble flat, ripening seedheads from the outside edges in, and are especially drawn to sunflowers.
Container digging. If your pots of veggies, herbs, and flowers are constantly being dug into, that's likely a squirrel's nut-hiding handiwork (although chipmunks do the same thing). Occasionally squirrels will unearth young potted plants in their quest to bury nuts.
- Partially eaten flowers. Squirrels seem to be fond of daisy blooms, but sometimes eat other flowers, too. Half-eaten daisies, with half the petals and most of the center disk missing, are a pretty good clue that squirrels are feasting in your garden.
Of course, the best way to be certain you're dealing with a squirrel is to catch the little varmint in the act. If you're spotting any of these signs, try to keep an eye on the garden when you're home.
Protecting Your Garden Against Squirrels
In many areas, squirrels are as common in the landscape as trees. So while you can try to keep them out of your yard, it's usually better (and more practical) to outsmart them. Try some of these strategies to keep squirrels from destroying your garden, but remember that what works for some squirrels, may not work for others. Use a combination of tactics for the best results.
Remove what attracts them
The sight and smell of fallen fruit, nuts, and seeds can lure squirrels to your yard for feeding. Clean up these items beneath trees and birdfeeders. Make sure trash can lids fit securely to keep squirrels from discovering treats in the garbage.
Search online and you'll find many recipes for repelling squirrels. Some feature capsaicin, the compound that gives hot peppers their heat. Others include peppermint oil or vinegar—or a combination of these ingredients. Gardeners report varying success with these home brews. Reapply these sprays after rain, and don't spray plant parts you intend to eat. Commercial repellent granules and sprays are also available.
Set up decoy food stations featuring treats squirrels love (such as sunflower seeds, peanuts, and feed corn) in an isolated corner of your yard, well away from planting beds and edible crops. Some gardeners even plant a few extra tomatoes near these areas to feed the squirrels. Be sure to include water in your squirrel pit-stop. A note of caution: you may attract other critters when you put out food and water, so weigh the risks before taking the plunge.
A dog or cat in the yard scares squirrels and keeps them from settling down in your yard. Train your dog to chase squirrels, and you'll have few problems with these pesky critters. Don't have a pet? Then purchase vials of predator pee (like wolf or tiger) to place in your garden. The scent terrifies all kinds of animals, including squirrels, rabbits, and deer. With spray-on urine, you'll have to reapply after rain. Motion-activated sprinklers may work for awhile, but don't rely on them exclusively to keep squirrels at bay. For newly planted areas, insert pinwheels or hang old compact disks or recycled aluminum pie tins from stakes to add noise and movement to the garden. It may work until plants have grown past the seedling stage, which is when many, though not all, squirrels typically lose interest (unless you're growing tomatoes).
To keep squirrels from plants or beds, install a cage or cover. Hardware cloth, plastic bird netting, chicken wire, and summer weight row covers all provide effective protection. To guard an individual plant, create a cage using hardware cloth or chicken wire topped with plastic bird netting; use clothespins to hold netting in place.
Protect your harvest
Wrap individual fruits on tomato, eggplant, or other vegetable plants in small pieces of bird netting. Squirrels seem to be most interested in stealing tomatoes just as they ripen, so wrap the mature fruits and ignore the green ones.
Cover bare soil
Many gardeners try to discourage squirrels from digging by mulching bare soil in seed beds and around newly planted seedlings.
Hawks and several owl species prey on squirrels. Research which types are found in your area and learn what you can do to attract them.
What You Should Know About Trapping Squirrels
Many gardeners like to trap and release squirrels. While this may momentarily decrease the population, the fact is that new squirrels will soon move into the unoccupied territory. Also, in many parts of the country, squirrels are considered a game species and protected by law. This means that live trapping can get you into trouble, so check with your state's Department of Fish and Wildlife or Game before trying it.
Illustration by Steve Asbell of therainforestgarden.com.