Got squirrel problems in the yard, garden, and attic? Sure, they’re entertaining to watch and we’re fond of these furry critters, but if they keep stealing your tomatoes and your spring bulbs, it can be very frustrating. So what’s a gardener to do? You can co-exist! Try these top tips for repelling squirrels naturally.
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 nearly ripe 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 late summer and early autumn can drive a gardener nuts.
Squirrels are especially active in late summer and autumn, when 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 did the clever critters find those flower bulbs, anyway? Why do they ransack some borders and leave others alone?
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.
Is That A Squirrel I See?
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 CRRKCRRK or QUACKQUACK, 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.
How to Identify Squirrel Damage in the Garden
Spring bulbs snacked on? You’re probably dealing with squirrels, chipmunks, or groundhogs. 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 foraged nuts.
Missing or damaged crops in the garden is also a key sign of squirrels. Often, squirrels will steal ripening fruits and vegetables to snack on, especially soft and juicy produce such as squash, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and melons. Frustratingly, they often don’t even eat the entire thing!
If you’re growing flowers or vegetables in containers, you may also notice that someone’s been digging around in the container soil. Squirrels and chipmunks are known to look for insects or other goodies in containers, and may uproot plants in the process. If conditions have been especially dry, they may also be digging to access the moist soil.
Squirrels will not only attack your gardens, but your bird feeders as well. If you notice your bird food disappearing rather quickly or piling up beneath your feeder, you may have a squirrel problem.
Caught in the act!
Control and Prevention
Preventing Squirrel Damage
Try to avoid attracting squirrels to your property in the first place. Make sure you have tight-fitting trash cans and never leave food or compost scraps sitting out. Bird seed is a big one, too; keep it indoors or in a chew-proof container in a sheltered location.
Don’t bother trapping and relocating squirrels. This is a losing battle, since the population of squirrels is extremely high in most areas, and moving one will just make room for another! 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. Additionally, the relocation of wildlife (yes, even squirrels) may be illegal in your area.
If the season has been particularly hot and dry, squirrels may steal tomatoes, cucumbers, or other juicy produce from the vine because they’re thirsty. Some readers have reported that placing a dish of water (or bird bath) nearby commonly eaten crops can discourage snacking.
Unfortunately, growing extra vegetables to “feed” the squirrels does not usually work; squirrels will simply plow through your produce and bring their friends!
Is your yard covered in nuts and acorns from trees? If so, your place is squirrel heaven! Just accept that your yard will be party central or you’ll need to pick up and move the nuts to a different part of the yard or grow/select different types of trees.
Fencing, Netting, and Covers
It’s best to use physical barriers, which can usually get the job done as long as the material is right. Squirrels and other rodents are capable of squeezing through extremely tight spaces, so holes in the fencing or netting must be very small. Look specifically for netting or fencing that’s rated for rats or squirrels.
Consider protecting your vegetable garden with a wire fence and make sure it is buried about at least 6 inches into the ground, so the squirrels can’t easily dig under it. Materials like 1/4-inch hardware cloth will do the trick. (Standard chicken wire has holes that a determined squirrel can squeeze through.)
You may also wish to invest in some chew-proof netting and put that over your plants—just as you would invest in bird netting for berry bushes. Row covers made of heavier materials can also be used, depending on the season.
Pots are easy to protect with a layer of netting or hardware cloth across the top of the pot, too. A layer of gravel or stones can also discourage digging.
Or, here’s a more-expensive pantry solution: Lay aluminum foil across the top of vegetable pots, poking holes in it to allow for water exchange. The squirrels do not like the shiny reflection.
Dogs are Natural Squirrel Deterrents!
A dog is a great squirrel chaser, if that’s an option in your backyard! Squirrels can’t stand those pesky dogs! Save the dog’s hair when you brush or groom it, and use it to mulch around your garden beds. The squirrels won’t go near it!
Human hair helps a well, according to one reader who 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.”
Natural Squirrel Repellents
There are also many natural repellents on the market:
Spread predator urine around your garden. Garden nurseries will carry repellents that are made with the urine of squirrels’ predators such as foxes or coyotes. These are meant to be sprayed around gardens to keep squirrels away, but will likely need to be reapplied regularly.
Try sprinkling cayenne pepper, ground chili peppers, pepper flakes, and/or garlic pepper on and around your plants when they are ready to bloom. After getting a taste, squirrels won’t dare eat anything with cayenne—which you can often buy in bulk.
Birds can’t taste capsaicin, so add some cayenne pepper to those bird feeders to deter squirrels.
One reader claims blood meal sprinkled around the garden soil works against squirrels.
Plant nasturtiums, marigolds, and mustard as a border around your vegetable garden; these plants have a strong aroma.
If you’re really going crazy due to squirrels, explore the idea of installing a raptor perch or owl nest box to invite natural predators who will prey on squirrels.
A fake owl may also frighten squirrels away; move it around the garden on a regular basis so that the squirrels don’t become wise to the trick.
Protecting Bulbs from Squirrels
Bulbs that squirrels (and other rodents) do not like include daffodils, fritillaria, snowdrops (Galanthus), grape hyacinths(Muscari), and ornamental alliums. These flowers are also disliked by rabbits and deer because of their unpalatable taste and fragrant odor. You can also try these flowers in pots, planters, and containers. Check out our list of rodent-proof bulbs.
For more protection, 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.
Gardeners lay down chicken wire if they’re planting many bulbs. Look for one-inch mesh and place below and on top of the bulbs. The plants can grow through the wires, but the squirrels can’t get to the bulbs.
As an added layer of protection, cover the surface of the bed with black plastic netting, which is invisible and inexpensive.
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.
Image: Allium. Credit: C. Boeckmann
Keeping Squirrels Off Bird Feeders
Bird food definitely attracts squirrels, who love seeds, 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 may be able to jump to it from any nearby perches.
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 bird feeder poles, try rubbing them with Crisco (the poles—not the squirrels)! It doesn’t hurt the birds, and the squirrels won’t be able to get a grip.
Try using safflower seeds. Birds are happy to eat these seeds, but squirrels find them bitter.
Also, consider the type of bird feeder. 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 on account of squirrel damage. Just make sure that they are hung securely and can’t be knocked down.
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, to help scare away squirrels 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.
Dealing with Squirrels Inside the Home
In the autumn, many squirrels try to find shelter and may come inside your home. Make this more difficult for them to do by trimming branches that hang near your roof and placing 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!