Age-Old Wisdom meets Modern Tools
How to Identify and Keep Away Squirrels in the Garden
A squirrel enjoys a snack.Photo by Pixabay
Here are tips on how to keep squirrels out of the garden, off the bird feeders, and out of the attic—especially when they are active in autumn.
Why Worry About Squirrels in the Garden?
With a fondness for fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers, the common squirrel has long spelled trouble for home gardeners. From Maine to Montana, these wily critters yank geraniums from window boxes, pluck cherry tomatoes from their vines, and strip apple trees like professional pickers. Though their foraging forays can happen at any time of year, a squirrel’s raid in autumn can drive a gardener nuts.
Squirrels are especially active in autumn as they stock up for winter. They do not hibernate (although they may “lie low” during cold spells), so their underground pantries are vitally important winter warehouses. They have a major instinct for hoarding food, which helps them to survive. Gray squirrels stash food by burying it in a scattered fashion around their territory.
Although North America is home to several species of squirrels, it is the suburb-savvy gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, that gives gardeners (and people who feed birds) the most grief. How do these clever critters find bulbs, anyway? Why do they ransack some borders and leave others alone? What do squirrels eat?
The average squirrel gathers acorns, pinecones, nuts, bark, fruit, berries, fungi, and insects, but is not above stealing bird eggs and bulbs. Sometimes they will even ruin your flowers just for the fun of it! Keep an eye out for these pesky visitors and try some of our tips below.
How to Identify Squirrels in your Garden
Weighing an average of 16 to 24 ounces, the type of squirrel that is probably causing damage in your garden is the common gray squirrel. Its color varies from gray, tan, or light brown to dark brown and black. Its belly is light, from white to gray. Its body is 8 to 11 inches in length, and its tail measures 8 to 10 inches. Its vocal call is a rapid CRRK CRRK or QUACK QUACK, similar to a duck. The famous feature of the gray squirrel is its bushy tail, a luxurious puff of fur used for warmth, communication, and balance.
Squirrels have a very keen sense of smell, which most gardeners blame for their bulb pilfering. The nose of these expert foragers is a tiny but powerful tool in the search for hidden nuts and berries. Gardeners aren’t sure whether the squirrels do actively seek out the spring bulbs or not, but the problem of bulb snatching is real and widespread.
- Spring bulbs snacked on? You’re probably dealing with squirrels or chipmunks. Squirrels love to dig up spring bulbs during their autumn foraging—both to eat the bulbs and to use the ready-made holes to store their nuts.
- Squirrels will not only attack your gardens, but your bird feeders as well. If you notice your bird food disappearing rather quickly, you may have a squirrel problem.
Control and Prevention
Is your yard covered in nuts, berries, and acorns from trees? If so, your place is squirrel heaven! Be sure to rake and remove their food so you’re not party central.
Also, make sure you have tight-fitting trash cans and never leave food sitting out.
Consider protecting your garden with a wire fence and make sure it is buried about a foot into the ground, so the squirrels can’t dig under it.
Natural Squirrel Repellents
- There are also many natural repellents on the market. Some are made with the urine of squirrels’ predators. These are meant to be sprayed around gardens to keep squirrels away.
- Try sprinkling cayenne pepper, pepper flakes, and/or garlic pepper on and around your plants when they are ready to bloom. Squirrels won’t eat anything with cayenne—which you can often buy in bulk. Birds don’t mind the taste.
- One reader claims blood meal sprinkled around the garden soil works.
- For edibles, you may wish to invest in some netting and put that over your plants—just as you would invest in bird netting for berry bushes.
- A dog or cat is a great squirrel chaser if that’s an option.
- Pots are easy to protect with a layer of netting across the top of the pot.
- Or, here’s an expensive pantry solution: Lay aluminum foil across the top of vegetable pots; poke holes for water. The squirrels do not like the shiny reflection.
- Scatter dog or human hair around your garden. One readers shares, “I used to have a problem with squirrels digging up my bulbs. Now, once in the spring and once in the fall, I ask my hairdresser to save a big bag of hair for me. I lightly dig this into the soil. Squirrels can not stand the smell of humans, so they leave the gardens alone.”
- Plant nasturtiums, marigolds, and mustard as a border around your vegetable garden; these plants have an unpleasant aroma.
- Don’t trap and relocate squirrels. This is a losing battle, since the population of squirrels is extremely high. Also, if the animal is a female, there is a high likelihood that you will remove her from babies that depend on her for survival.
- Some readers will feed the squirrels in a different part of the yard so that they don’t eat their garden vegetables or plants. We’ve never tried this approach!
- If you’re really going crazy, explore the idea of a raptor perch and owl nest box for natural predators who will eat them in no time.
Protecting Bulbs from Squirrels
- To protect spring bulbs, cover the surface of the bed with black plastic netting, which is invisible and inexpensive.
- Or, you can line the planting hole itself with wire mesh “hardware cloth.” Some gardeners have found that planting the bulbs in a handful of sharp, crushed gravel discourages the squirrels. This might help provide better drainage as well.
- If squirrels are especially challenging, try chicken wire. Plant beds with one inch chicken wire and place more wire on top of the bulbs. The plants can grow through the wires, but the squirrels can’t get to the bulbs. Also, consider planting bulbs that squirrels don’t like such as daffodils, ornamental onions (Allium), snowdrops (Galanthus), and grape hyacinths (Muscari). Plus, check out our list of rodent-proof bulbs.
- Don’t advertise your newly dug bulbs by leaving papery bits of bulb debris in or on the soil. Clean up your act, or better still, try not to lay your bulbs on the ground while you dig the holes to plant them—squirrels will smell their favorite and scamper over.
- If all else fails, just grow tulips in pots as squirrels aren’t attracted to tulips.
Keep Squirrels Off Bird Feeders
- Birdfood definitely attracts squirrels who love seeds and nuts and berries. Keep the area under your bird feeder as clean as possible.
- Keep in mind the jumping abilities of squirrels: Even if a squirrel can’t gain a foothold on the feeder, they can knock it to the ground.
- Place birdfeeders on isolated poles (not hanging from eaves or trees) at least 5 to 6 feet off the ground and 8 to 10 feet away from your house, trees, or structures. (Squirrels can leap that far and even farther.) Some folks use a pulley system.
- Attach to the feeder pole either an inverted cone with at least a 13-inch diameter, a special squirrel-deterring dish with a 15-inch diameter, or a PVC pipe or stovepipe that’s 6 inches in diameter and 18 inches long.
- Protect feeders suspended from a horizontal wire by threading old records, compact discs, or plastic soda bottles on the wire on each side.
- If squirrels are climbing up your birdhouse poles, try rubbing them with Crisco! It doesn’t hurt the birds, and the squirrels slither down!
- Try using safflower seeds. Birds are happy to eat these seeds, but squirrels find them bitter.
- Also, consider the type of birdfeeder. If you have the common tube feeder, metal ports around the seed dispensers will protect the feeder from nibbling squirrels and house sparrows.
- If you are buying a new feeder, the most successful feeder is an all-metal feeder with adjustable springs that regulate a counter-weighted door. When birds light on the platform, the door remains open, but under the heavier weight of a squirrel, the door drops down to conceal the food supply. These tend to be pricier, but you won’t have to replace them of account of squirrel damage.
Here are a couple more squirrel repellent suggestions that readers sent in:
- Try motion-activated sprinklers, primarily designed to keep cats and rabbits out of gardens, may help scare away squirrels, especially in small yards or at corners of front yards where damage is most likely to occur. However, the presence of numerous squirrels, stray animals, or children may result in overwatering and high water bills if they continually trigger this device.
- Get some mousetraps. Anchor them solidly to the ground in the area where the squirrels have been digging. Cover them with newspaper, and sprinkle a little dirt on top. When a squirrel comes to dig, it will set off the traps. As the mechanism snaps, it will scare and throw dirt at the squirrel. Once it’s scared enough times, it will find another digging area. Be sure to anchor the traps just in case the wind blows the newspaper off of them. If the trap is anchored, the squirrel will not get hurt.
Squirrels Inside the Home
In the autumn, many squirrels try to find shelter and may come inside your home. Avoid this by trimming branches that hang near your roof and place a mesh guard on your chimney. Close up all holes into your home.
If a squirrel does become trapped in your chimney or attic, you don’t want it to die inside. Make sure it has a way to get out. Hang a rope down through your chimney so it can climb back up to the roof. Or, buy a live trap to get the squirrel out of your house.
Call an animal control specialist if you’re desperate. Once a squirrel lives in your house for a few weeks, they and all their relatives will be attracted to your attic for at least a couple of years.
Do you have any tips for keeping squirrels away? Let us know below!