Growth in gardening: Squirrel problems

Squirrels, like all rodents, are defined by their continuously growing teeth. Rodents are constantly driven to chew things in order to keep their incisors chiseled and to prevent them from growing to unwieldy lengths. Unfortunately for homeowners, squirrels sometimes decide that a wooden deck, garden structure or house makes the perfect chew toy. FREE USE PHOTO

Although you may enjoy watching the antics of these little aerial acrobats, you probably don’t want squirrels snacking in your backyard. Unlike some other garden pests, squirrels are diurnal, like humans, meaning they are wakeful and feeding during the day and sleep at night. Therefore, if you have a squirrel problem it is very likely you have seen active squirrels in your yard. Even if you haven’t yet caught them in the act, there are a number of clues you can look for to tip you off to a squirrel’s presence in your yard.

Squirrels are rodents and rodents are defined by their continuously growing teeth. Rodents are constantly driven to chew things in order to keep their incisors chiseled and to prevent them from growing to unwieldy lengths. Unfortunately for the homeowner, squirrels sometimes decide that a wooden deck, garden structure or house makes a nice chew toy. Particularly when squirrels do not have access to nuts or other hard food sources to keep their growing teeth in check, they will resort to chewing whatever they can get their little mouths on. Squirrels have also been known to chew through plastic garbage bins and will chew the bark off an unsuspecting tree.

Squirrels are driven by instinct to store nuts for the winter. During pecan harvest season a single squirrel can bury over a hundred nuts every single day! It’s a rather clever reciprocal relationship between the squirrel and the nut tree. The tree provides food and in turn, the squirrel plants trees for the future because there is no way those little guys will remember to dig up every single nut they planted each year.

If you see squirrels digging in your yard they are most likely either burying food for the winter or digging up food they previously buried – or perhaps just trying to remember where they hid their stash.

Okay, but how do you keep squirrels out of the garden…

One thing you can do is modify the habitat. There are several strategies one can use. If you have large trees around your yard, you might need to prune back a few branches to reduce squirrel’s access to your home and garden. If you are concerned they may get inside your house, cutting back the branches they use to get to your roof might ease your worries. But, keep in mind that squirrels can leap distances of up to 10 feet and some species will nest in trees. In order to prevent squirrels from making their home in your house or shed you’ll need to make sure they cannot access your buildings, even from the roof or chimney.

You’ll also want to make sure your garbage cans are securely closed to avoid attracting squirrels and other animals. Metal bins will be more secure than plastic if squirrel chewing is a problem in your yard.

The next issue to discuss is bird feeders. I know how much we all want to see those wonderful winged beauties in our yards but if you have a serious squirrel problem, removing the bird feeders is a must. Remove bird feeders if squirrels are able to access them or if the birds tend to drop seeds on the ground. If you simply must feed the birds, then you may want to invest in a squirrel-proof feeder, but squirrels have been known to outsmart some of the cleverest designs.

Using safflower seeds in your feeders may help, as squirrels don’t favor them or mix cayenne pepper with your birdseed – apparently it doesn’t bother the birds. Bird enthusiasts may have to learn to compromise, either take down the feeders to reduce squirrel and bird activity in your yard or keep them up and tolerate the furry critters along with the feathered ones.

Some suggest a squirrel feeder near the garden to distract squirrels from digging in or nibbling on the garden, but this tactic is likely to backfire. If you start deliberately feeding them you’ll only invite more squirrels to your yard. In the absence of other food sources, squirrels may also feed at dishes of dog or cat kibble left outside, so keep these indoors or well protected.

Squirrels most commonly feed on nuts and seeds. Consequently, the more you can keep your yard free of these, the less attractive it will be to squirrels. If you have nut trees, keep your yard raked and free of fallen nuts. Cut back any plants that are about to go to seed or cover seed heads with paper bags if you are saving seeds. If you have berries you’ll want to stay on top of picking them as soon as they are ripe, or cover them with netting.

If you have a container garden on your patio you might find signs that squirrels have been digging and feeding. Many of the tactics discussed below will work well with containers. The simplest solution may be to just keep squirrel resistant plants in your patio garden.

But if that’s not enough, or if you really want those tasty cherry tomatoes right outside your door, then try a wire mesh barrier or some of the deterrents listed below.

Wire mesh works well. If squirrels have been chewing on your house, deck or trees they will often return to chew at the same spot. Prevent further damage by covering the affected area with wire mesh.

During nut harvest time, wire mesh can be laid on top of the soil in a garden bed plagued by squirrel digging. Wire mesh can also be used to make cages for garden beds or containers to protect your most valued plants. Quarter inch galvanized mesh will keep squirrels out effectively, but keep in mind that squirrels do dig, so you may need to bury your mesh at least a few inches if you’re using it to cage a bed that doesn’t already have a frame.

However, some gardeners swear by a simple fence made from very fine plastic mesh. It is so flimsy that squirrels seem to have great difficulty climbing up it. For best results, dig it into the ground at least a few inches to prevent them from squeezing under the fence. However, squirrels can chew through plastic, so this may or may not be effective in your yard.

Alternatively, if you already have a sturdier fence in place and the area is not too large, you could try covering the top of the fenced area with netting. Secure the netting along the edge of the fence to prevent squirrels from squeezing through. Just make sure you leave yourself enough head space so you can get in to do your weeding, watering and harvesting.

Another option to think about is mulch. Applying a thick layer of leaf mulch or other organic materials on top of your garden soil will not only insulate the soil from moisture loss, it may also discourage squirrels from digging. But some gardeners find mulching has the opposite effect and squirrels seem to relish digging in their mulch. By experimenting with different types of mulch you may find one that keeps the critters at bay. Adding a sprinkle of cayenne pepper on top of your mulch may also help. Alternatively, a layer of wire mesh underneath will keep them from getting too far into the soil. This could be a good way to protect your bulbs over winter when squirrels go digging for nuts.

Ideally, you will find the right combination of the techniques above that will help to keep your squirrel problems manageable. Good luck!

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Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

San Marcos Daily Record

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