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The Vine: May 6, 2015

Submitted by on May 6, 2015 – 10:09 AM40 Comments


Hello, Nation! It's me, Sarah, with a garden question.

Here's the sitch. I just finished my spring planting last weekend, but in my backyard, April showers bring May squirrels, who dig in my pots and mess up the little seedlings. The squirrels also like to leave a single peanut shell on the deck railing, right where I can see it while I'm gathering up the ripped-up plantlets, to show me who's boss.

Them. The squirrels. They're boss. Just so we're clear. And I'm over it. Get your own butterhead lettuce, dicks!

So: little help here? I need a way to keep the squirrels out of the plants that does not involve 1) building a structure or 2) harming the squirrels. Is there a natural smell or substance I can sprinkle or drizzle around the plants that repels the rodents? Do they hate tinfoil the way felines do? Or do I have to sit out there with a large iced coffee and the hose? Thoughts, suggestions, and sympathies all welcome.

…The peanut shells, you guys. SO VERY RESENTFUL OVER HERE.


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  • Laurie says:

    My guy's mom puts plastic forks (tines up) around her plants to deter the squirrels… apparently they get poked with the tines and that keeps them from getting close enough to actually dig in. So, it's a bit of a structure, but basically a 100-pack from the dollar store and an hour of sticking a fork in it…

    (On a I can relate note… my guy used to feed the squirrels on the balcony at my old apartment. When he wasn't there, they used to crawl up the screen door and bang on the windows to get fed. One even ripped apart a tupperware container holding Nanaimo bars that we had put outside to keep cold (it was winter in Canada, colder than the fridge ;) )

  • Deanna says:

    This list of pest-repelling plants was helpful in ridding my mom's garden of the local bunny population.

    I've also heard from my friends who sell oils that peppermint oil can repel squirrels, but those folks think oils can do everything so YMMV.

  • Jess says:

    Cayenne pepper worked reasonably well for me back in the days when I had a container garden. Just sprinkle it liberally all over the dirt. Squirrels are really not fans of the stuff.

  • Stella says:

    Laurie, how deep do you stick the forks in, like all the way up the handle or just enough to keep them upright? I am intrigued.

    My mom swears by sprinkling cayenne pepper around the beds regularly to keep out pests. You can buy it pretty cheap in bulk, but you have to keep doing it for a while until they form a negative association, and after any time it rains. I've also heard it called "cruel", since it makes their eyes water, but I have a hard time generating sympathy since the little turds are pretty flagrant (e.g. the single peanut shell)

    Cat or dog hair allegedly also works as sort of a territory marker, but I've never had luck with that.

  • Faux McCoy says:

    My mom used to mix up a batch of diluted Murphy's Oil soap with a liberal dose of cayenne pepper and spray it on her plants. It didn't hurt the plants, but the squirrels definitely didn't like it. It repels some insects as well.

    As for squirrels sending a message, our neighbors used to grow tomatoes in clay pots due to lack of yard space. The squirrels would pick small green tomatoes and leave them half-eaten on the front steps. Bastards.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Okay, sending Mr. S to Costco for a gallon of cayenne with a shaker top. hee.

  • Jaybird says:

    Dittoes on the cayenne.

  • Jennie says:

    They hate peppermint (like most rodents) so you can either grow peppermint plants at the edges of your garden or put peppermint oil on cotton balls and drop them around your plants. Cayenne or chili powder is also a deterrent. I plant bulbs in netting with it to try to minimize crocus-poaching, but some years the luck is better than others.

    My mom used to use dried blood (sometimes called bloodmeal, I know, gross) mostly for rabbits, but supposedly it'll deter anything that has a life goal of not getting eaten by something with bigger teeth. It's also good for the soil, apparently, just don't put it ON the plant. I know she used to grow other things not for their own value but because something liked them more than they'd like whatever was in the garden: marigolds for something, and something else to keep something away from the roses, or maybe the beans? Her dad had all these tricks for planting things together, but I don't know them and I'm not having a lot of luck googling there. It may have been mostly for bugs, or it may have been complete bullshit. In any case, squirrels seem like the kind of pest where gambling that they'll be so much more interested in something else that they'll leave your garden completely alone isn't necessarily going to be a win. (I'm just guessing, based on the peanut-shell provocation. Obviously they're getting the good stuff somewhere, but it's clearly not more fun than fucking with you.)

  • cayenne says:

    +1 on the cayenne, because: heh.

    Seriously, cayenne pepper is like radioactive cobalt for garden rodents. I've used the stuff on numerous occasions: squirrels vs. basil, raccoons vs. lawn, skunk vs. BBQ cover (…long story), with great success.

    I'd just suggest buying several gallons because it does blow away in the wind or drain off in rain, so multiple applications are necessary. And if you have leftovers once your squirdles give up, it helps make for good kebobs.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    You know you're going to have to TELL that skunk story, right?

  • Nanc in Ashland says:

    Adding my voice to Cayenne pepper chorus. Nature, bah humbug!

    I don't have a skunk story but I do have a story about my late Aunt Lou vs. the bunnies. Aunt Lou always had a beautiful veggie garden and the only want to keep the bunnies out was a fence with some sort of tight weave garden fabric because she didn't want a chain link fence. The problem: she couldn't see all the pretty veggies growing from her living room window. One year she found a new type of netting fence that had very tight weave at the bottom and gradually had larger holes as it went up so it kept the ground critters out but let you see the garden. She and my cousins set it up and a few weeks later, the first veggies made their appearance. One morning Aunt Lou took her coffee into the living room and settled at the window to sip, work the crossword and occasionally glance at the garden. At first glance she sees a bunny approach the fence and hollers for my cousins to come look. They all watch as Bunny gets right up to the fence, rises up on its hind legs, reaches up and proceeds to climb the fence until it reaches a hole big enough to wiggle through into the garden. Next year my cousins put up a chain link fence.

  • Loree says:

    For the sake of whomever owns the house next, don't plant peppermint. It's notorious for taking over (every year I dream of finding the previous owners of my house and beating them with sticks).

    I've heard from multiple sources that the cayenne trick works. Chili oil might be more likely to stick around after wind or rain, but if you go that route you'll probably want to make sure you wash your veggies well before eating.

  • Leigh in CO says:

    "And if you have leftovers once your squirdles give up, it helps make for good kebobs"

    A) Squirdles is now my word for the day, as I feel it has the potential for many applications
    B) Initially, my mind interpreted that statement as an endorsement of squirrel kabobs

  • ferretrick says:

    Agreed on the cayenne. I put it directly on my hostas, because apparently hostas = Beluga caviar to deer. You also do have to keep reapplying so buying at Sam's or Costco is advised.

  • LG says:

    My Dad also told me to sprinkle bulbs with cayenne when planting them, to deter squirrels from digging them up. At some point I ran out and used curry powder, which I don't think is as successful, but did make the garden smell weirdly like curry. I have seemed to have general good luck sprinkling the cayenne on the ground around plants to keep bunnies, squirrels, and cute but diggy dogs away. Hope you can wrest control back from the squirrels, Sarah!

  • MizShrew says:

    Ah, the squirrels with their taunting! We've had them not only leave a single walnut inside the tomato plant they were thieving from, but THEN the leave the tomatoes with ONE bite taken out of them on the ground for me to see. I have since been told that the squirrels really only want the liquid from inside the tomato, and basically treat them like little squirrel juice boxes. The bastards.

    Applied with due diligence and frequency, the cayenne trick does work. But now I want to try the fork trick on my flowers, because the cayenne seems more effective on stuff they want to eat, rather than the flowers, which they just want to dig up because they're jerks.

  • Laurie says:

    @Stella, Plant them about 3/4 of the way in, far enough that they'll stay upright, but enough that it exposes a small piece of the handle, and the whole 'fork' part – the spoon-ey part, and the tines. It might look a little funny, but it actually works. :)

  • cayenne says:

    @Sarah, the skunk story isn't so thrilling or stinky, just long (seemed even longer at the time).

    Basically, one evening while I still lived at my folks', I had chuck something into the recycling bin, which was situated by the BBQ. I missed my pitch from the door and had to go outside to retrieve it.

    We lived very close to a ravine with lots of wildlife; it was not unheard of to see deer and foxes in the neighbourhood, not to mention the herds of lawn- and roof-destroying raccoons. Also skunks – one of which moseyed into the yard where I was chasing wayward recyclables. While I stayed still and tried not to breathe too loudly, it came closer and closer…and disappeared under the BBQ cover less than two feet from where I was standing. I waited a few minutes until it became apparent the skunk was tucked away for the night, then escaped [slowly] back inside.

    The next morning, I warned the household of our unexpected guest and advised against grilling for a while. I then called wildlife control, who suggested the use of cayenne pepper. We went through a few pounds before we were confident the critter had vacated.

    tl:dr – skunks dig BBQs, not so much the meat rub :)

  • Jo says:

    I don't have a garden, but I have a dog. Who is obsessed with squirrels. We took him to a fun event where they let dogs play in the wading pool and make a temporary dog park. Every dog in town running and splashing and having the time of its life and MY dog sat under a tree, staring intently at a squirrel that was happy to spend an hour taunting a neurotic Brittany. The dog doesn't intentionally move — just trembles uncontrollably. He behaves the same way in our yard, but the squirrels in the yard know him, so they climb just far enough down the telephone pole that he can't get them and sit there chattering at him. It would be funny as hell if he didn't desperately demand to go outside when I'm trying to get my baby to sleep.

    My favorite squirrel story is one I read in some country living magazine a while back. A woman wrote in to say she had been putting mixed nuts in the shell out for the squirrels for a long time. And they eventually stopped taking the walnuts but ate everything else. She realized they couldn't open the walnuts, so one day cracked a bunch of them and left them out. The day after that, the squirrels brought back all the stockpiled walnuts they couldn't open before.

    Damn things are evil geniuses, is what I'm saying.

  • Nee in Germany says:

    Totally off topic, but I saw a picture of Jimmy Fallon on a girl's bike and squealed so hard I almost ruptured something. Of course I thought of you. (Getty Images, with Bono, also on a bike, but not a girl's bike, alas.)

  • Susan says:

    If you can, figure out why the squirrels are doing what they're doing, and then give them an alternative. My local squirrels were loping of the heads of just-about-to-bloom spring flowers. Turns out they were thirsty. I made sure they had water, and now all my flowers survive. Crocus and tulip bulbs are tasty, and hungry squirrels will dig them up. Squirrels that aren't hungry won't bother to dig. I figured out that the giant economy size bag of feed the squirrel peanuts was cheaper than a tiny bag of flower bulbs. I dole out 4-5 peanuts per day – enough to keep them fed, but not enough to make them feel they have to stash them somewhere safe.

    That said, I had some flower planters they Could Not Leave Alone. (They were using them to bury food for later – nice light easily digable soil, you know?) I wound up covering them in hardware mesh and planting the flowers through small holes I'd cut in the mesh. Problem solved.

  • Lisa says:

    Oh, Jo. Your Brittany just treed that squirrel and is waiting for you to kill it! :) He's probably shaking wondering what in the heck is taking you so long. IT'S RIGHT THERE. SHOOT IT! :) #huntingdog

  • Erin Withans says:

    We had a squirrel who, whenever annoyed with us (generally for cleaning up a bag of chips left out on the porch post-party or something), would grab the nearest-to-perfectly-ripe tomato off the bush, run with it up onto the roof of the garage, and then scream at us until we were looking. Once we were, he'd take a single bite out of it, and then fling it onto the deck. Asshole.

  • Cat_slave says:

    @Jo I don't know if that squirrel story is the funniest or most scary thing I've ever read about animal behaviour…

  • Lisa M. says:

    I was also going to suggest having a water source for them. The squirrels come to my bird bath (I don't mind) and seem to be leaving the plants alone (aside from burying acorns in the planters, but that doesn't come around again until fall.)

  • John Athayde says:

    After the peanut shell incident, I would feel like the Cobra Kai sensei in The Karate Kid.


    Since hand to hand combatives with Squirrels isn't on the docket here, there's some things that have worked for us.

    1.) outside dogs. Not doable in many places, especially suburbs, but this has been the most effective critter repellent ever. We have a pair of great pyrenees and they keep the squirrels and deer out towards the perimeter of the property

    2.) Provide forage for them away from your garden. Susan's comments are spot on. Anything from a bird feeder to peanuts to some other kind of squirrel centric food source.

    3.) Quasi-structure: You can get a 2' x 50' roll of hardware cloth (metal wire in a 1/4" square pattern) and make tubes pretty quickly. Put one around each of your seedlings and push down into the ground a little bit. You could leave them all season, but once they're established you can remove them. If you start with your tomato cages in the ground, wrap it around the outside for ease of removal. You can also do the "cover the whole bed in it" as Susan mentioned, but I find this difficult to remove in the fall. I did it with chicken wire over garlic and that was a difficult time when it came to trying to weed the beds.

    4.) Automatic waterers like the Scarecrow. This works pretty well for deer, but I'm not sure the sensor will trip for squirrels. It may or may not deter them.

    5.) Pie plates, old AOL CDs, etc. on fishing line to make noise/reflect light. Scares them for a week, tops.

    6.) Give up and ascribe to the adage that you get 1/3 out of everything your garden produces and be okay with that.

    We've tried things that are pepper based (e.g. Deer Scram brand) and they all work for a time. But with almost daily thunderstorms in the summer here in Virginia, I could install an incredible fence structure while dictating to a crew whilst getting a massage for less than I'd spend on that for our garden size (40' x 100').

    Let us know what works! Science! :D

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    My only experience in this is reading Rabbit Hill repeatedly as a child, so I suggest setting out a bountiful repast under a statue of St. Francis.

  • MizShrew says:

    One note on the idea of offering them forage… it kinds depends on your space. On my tiny city lot, all that does is bring MORE squirrels into my yard, (plus raccoons, possums and mice), and they still steal the tomatoes. Providing enough forage would mean unloading a dump truck of peanuts on the lot. So I suspect this approach works better for bigger spaces/yards.

  • Jenny V says:

    Squirrels are dicks. I'm currently engaged in a battle over a small strawberry plant with the squirrels in my yard and I'm losing. Bastards take one bit out of each strawberry and then leave them. I may have to try the cayenne trick once the rain stops because a wire enclosure hasn't stopped them.

    My neighborhood and back yard are filled with giant pecan and oak trees, so we have the fattest squirrels in town. But I probably only get about half of the pecan crop each year because the squirrels will crack open hundreds, take one bite and then throw them down into my yard. Seriously, they're dicks.

  • Meg says:

    Does using all that cayenne pepper affect the taste of, say, strawberries? Because bunnies really like strawberries.

  • D says:

    My mom puts mesh netting over her plants and it works well.

    My great grandfather used to walk around the garden and pee along the perimeter. This was to combat deer, though, and, um, I don't know how effective it was except for creating horrified looks from his neighbors.

  • Claire says:

    Fox pee might work! (A sentence and exclamation point I never thought I'd write…) My parents bought some to get rid of deer that ate their tomato plants. You can buy little vials of it online and set them up around the perimeter. If it worked on deer, which are a lot bigger than foxes, presumably it would also scare off squirrels.

    The only bad thing is that it might also scare off you. It does not smell great. But it's effective!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    For reference, I'm in a city backyard — decent size, but still Brooklyn. All the plants are containered and on a deck.

    As of this writing, I've done two rounds of peppering. There was some digging between Rounds 1 and 2, but it seemed kind of half-hearted? Maybe that's just wishful thinking.

  • But clearly your niece need a copy of Those Darn Squirrels (a hilarious picture book, which I am not affiliated with in any way, all about the evil genius of squirrels). There's an good sample picture of it on my blog, because it is a family favorite:

  • Faux McCoy says:

    There are some videos out there of the lengths to which squirrels will go to get to the seed in a bird feeder. Pretty sure they're the inspiration for the stunt coordinators on "Mission Impossible"…or the choreographers for "Cirque du Soleil". Seriously, squirrels are crafty bastards.

  • AyKayEss says:

    Finally, a question I can answer, and I'm days late! Oh well. I've been growing my own veggies and herbs in my yard (no more lawn left!) for 12 years now. I live in a city, and I know about squirrels. I do the fork thing. It's more about protecting the plant (and its roots) from the squirrel's digging than about poking squirrels with the tines. And you can re-use the forks. I stick forks all around the plant, tines out, and I keep the forks close together (close enough so that the squirrel can't get his head and front paws in between forks—they don't really reach a paw in, they stick their head and front paws and crouch and dig from there). This works pretty well. That said, my husband and I did built some wire mesh cloches for some of the greens that the squirrels really, really wanted, and that works even better but I know you said you didn't want to have to built something (and I don't blame you—also the forks store away for next year in a shoe box; the big wire cloches, not so much).

    I've tried the pepper, but eh. I mean, it washes away in the rain, it blows away in the wind, it's a pain in the ass to have to reapply it all the time. And my garden is HUGE, so it's not realistic for me. For a smaller garden, it might work out fine. And as mentioned, blood meal works, too. It's gross but it does work for a while.

    At this time, early in the season, squirrels are digging away and disturbing root systems. But later in the summer—when it's really hot—they'll start eating things, leaves and even some veggies, but they're mostly doing that to get water, like Susan said. If you get a birdbath and put fresh water in it every day, the squirrels will discover that it's easier just to take a drink from that.

  • Courtney says:

    This works with rabbits, I don't know about squirrels. I brush my cat, put the fur into several knee highs(several brushings, but tis the season) and stake them at the corners of the garden with a bamboo skewer.

  • silence says:

    I have no advice on saving the plants but lilith saintcrow has a hilarious book on run ins with squirrels

  • Jo says:

    Lisa: I'm sure that's what the dog thinks he did!

    Cat_slave: I think it's both hilarious and terrifying.

  • maria says:

    I buy green plastic chicken fencing at the hardware store and cut it to make little collars for the planters. It still looks nice especially if you intersperse veg with flowers (some people think squirrels are put off by marigolds).

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