Opportunity...or dilemma

lathyrus_odoratus(5A-IL)February 24, 2011

I've moved to a house from my 5th floor condo. I have a large deck and a small back yard. I was thinking that I'd do some raised beds instead of container gardening for some things.

Today, however, I watched in horror as the squirrels played on top of my containers, cavorting this way and that. (The movers just placed them on the deck; I'd not yet taken out last year's soil because I knew I was moving.)

I do not want my entire crop of tomatoes to go to a furry critter, whether they are in a raised bed or in a container.

I'd think that the raised bed might be easier to surround with fencing to keep them out, but maybe I'm deluded.

Does one way have a better chance of me getting some of my crop than another?

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Ah, the elusive tree rat... just another part of the wonderful world of growing in an area with trees and power lines. I'm not sure how city or suburban folk handle the intrusion of squirrels, but out here in rural America, we usually hunt them to keep them from digging up bulbs and destroying gardens.

Squirrel season is in September, but they are also considered a nuisance pest, and subject to the laws covering that area. They are edible, tasting a little like a cross between pork and chicken, but since they're rodents, we don't often eat them. The barn cats seem to enjoy it, though, and nothing goes to waste.

Squirrels did a great job of digging up a large container of annuals I had placed at the corner of the garage, as an entrance decoration. My husband usually hunts them when they get too numerous and begin to dig up my spring blooming bulbs.

I'm interested to know how city and suburban gardeners deal with these pests... rodents, really... since you can't exactly shoot them in a populated area.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 11:28AM
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Yeah, I think jail is the operative word if you're caught firing a gum within the Chicago city limits, lol. Of course, it happens regularly in some parts of the city, but my neighborhood is quiet. I think it would be noticed :-).

Poison is out - I'm not harming other species and it's usually an awful way to die. Besides, nature abhors a vacuum and the squirrels down the street would be over in a heartbeat.

I've done extensive reading and it seems that none of the things many people say work, really work. From mothballs (benzene if I remember correctly) to red pepper (which I read can cause blindness in the animals, but have not searched to see if that is true or no), most people say that long-term, these things don't work.

I'm hoping that someone here has tried and true methods - something that's worked over time.

When I lived in the country, I had so many trees on my property - nut trees - that the squirrels NEVER came into my garden. I did fence it to keep rabbits out, however. The deer didn't even bother it because there was so much other food available and the area wasn't terribly overpopulated with them.

My neighbors said that for 11 years they've been losing everything they plant...yikes.

I did learn that they do seem to like newly dug soil. Once it's hard and compacted, they ignore it. Some people do have luck with screening or similar material used at the top of plantings of bulbs and planting them very deep. Those things I'll try for sure.

It's the tomatoes that seem the most difficult to protect. Interestingly, people seemed to write here and other places that if the squirrels had never tried a tomato they would leave them alone. But once they'd had a taste of them (or any other fruit), they would knock them off (often green) and destroy pretty much your whole crop, including climbing up the plant and breaking off the branches.

One a completely different topic, I had a hawk in the yard yesterday! I can only hope he/she is going after squirrels :-). I'm quite close to the north branch of the Chicago River and there is a huge park not too far away, so I imagine I'll see more interesting wildlife here than I would have imagined.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 3:09PM
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Other pests are probably going to include rabbits, moles or voles or shrews, field mice, stray cats, birds, gophers or chipmunks, raccoons or opossums... and even though it sounds like a lot, they won't all be feasting from your gardens, and they won't all attack at the same time. They are all known to be within the northern Illinois area, though... so you know what to keep an eye out for.

The stray cats will use your larger pots and the looser soil of your gardens as their personal litter box... the birds will try to steal seed and fruits... the smaller tunneling rodents will be after your bulbs, and can actually push freshly planted items right out of the ground if they interfere with their tunneling... the raccoons and opossums will be after any grain or pet feeds you leave out, etc...

Chances are, however, with some neighborhood dogs and the human population being active in the area, you may not have as large of a problem as you think.

I don't like to use poisons, either... because I don't want to harm our barn cat family. I don't really want to use traps for the same reason. Repellents don't seem to be huge deterrents, but... aside from making it more difficult for them with wire baskets, mesh, fencing... I don't know how else to keep them away.

For us, rural as we are, hunting the pests seems to work the best. We can pick and choose the animal that lands in the gun sights, and my husband is an excellent shot, so there's rarely any need to chamber a second round.

Havaheart live traps are ok... though we can't really use them because we catch the barn cats more often than the raccoons or opossums.

I wish you luck with your growing... I'm sure everything will work out. I'm a little surprised at the lack of suggestions, though. Others must have the same issues... at least, I'd think they would.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 4:37PM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

I do two things that my neighbors in my small college town hate. I know I am not being PC, but it seems to work. I keep a hopper full of ears of corn just for the squirrels on the opposite side of my yard from my container garden. That and the many so-called squirrel proof bird feeders keep them occupied. (I believe they are very smart and prone to boredom.) The other thing I do is give my cats the run of the yard. They are excellent hunters and each succeed in catching a couple squirrels per season. In more than 20 years of gardening here, I've only lost a couple house plants to squirrels. But, they are very good at planting black walnuts in all my larger containers.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 9:42PM
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red_chucks(5 (Chicago))

I don't do anything to protect my tomatoes in my Chicago garden and I lose about 10 percent to squirrels. Yikes! indeed for your neighbors--11 years of losing everything.

I can't keep squirrels and rabbits out. I had a rabbit living in the garden one year. Live and let live--I had no choice. Someone gave me a ceramic skunk to stand guard. Don't think it helped. I do better when the nearby neighbors don't have fierce dogs that chase the squirrels here.

I have tried growing different things. Animals don't eat the spicy lettuce, arugula, sorrel, turnip greens, and so on. Sweet bell pepper plants, however, are gone the first night. Peas do okay. One year squirrels took one bite from every cucumber. I hate them. Never tried marigolds or other smelly plants to keep them away.

My garden does better than my containers. Can't guess why. The tip about giving them something else to eat elsewhere may work. Last year the squirrels got all my green gage plums and left the vegetables more or less alone.

My uncle downstate regularly hunted the squirrels living in his black walnut trees. They were delicious.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 10:29PM
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A couple of Rottweilers. Worked perfectly!


    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 11:54PM
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Dogs are out as are cats. I wish I could, but that won't happen with my erratic work schedule and a highly allergic hubby.

I've seen others who also feed them. It works, but, man, I hate to do that!

They LOVE my containers at the moment, even though it's just old dirt in them. That's what has me concerned - I have a feeling they'll take out whatever I put in. That's what the neighbors say they do - they just dig and play and remove things.

Since Red_Chucks find they take less for in ground plantings, I'm leaning toward a raised bed with maybe a cover on it so it doesn't look like newly dug dirt.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2011 at 3:20AM
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Definitely not politically correct, but... as long as you don't get caught, you could scare them away with an air rifle BB gun. Another idea would be using a sling shot to deter digging... a few well aimed hits and they won't want to play in your yard! You wouldn't even have to hurt them... just deter them from playing in your yard.

We have dogs... there are plenty of dogs here... but they're contained inside a fence, and the animals know this. The gardens and the garden pests are both on the exterior of the fence.

I have heard of placing screening on top of large pots, around the plant stem, to deter digging... decorative rocks on top might also work.

Yesterday afternoon, I watched a small herd of about 10 deer walking through our horse pasture... does and yearlings. They stayed until the coast was clear, then headed for thick cover across the road. A large pack of coydogs were not too far behind... maybe a mile, or so. Squirrels aren't the only nuisance animal we deal with, so count yourself lucky if they're the only pest you encounter.

Not a week ago, I caught a large opossum in the feed room of the horse barn, stealing shell corn and making a mess. Luckily, my husband was with me at the time... and weasels are constantly trying to get inside the aviary to grab a duck or peafowl.

I think the worst garden pest I've encountered has been the moles and shrews... they tunnel right through my new rose beds, and I've actually found freshly planted roses pushed up out of the ground. This is the only pest I will poison... because I can use a poison worm stuffed down into their tunnels, and no other animal is harmed by it.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2011 at 8:50AM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

If you put up a fence to keep them out, you will need to put a top on it and also make sure it goes deep enough into the ground that they can't burrow under it. Mike McGrath of You Bet Your Garden calls squirrels the terrorists of the animal kingdom. He is adamantly against giving them anything to eat because he says it just encourages them. You can see some of his advice on the Gardens Alive web site. I haven't tried this because they've generally left my vegetables alone, but it might work for you. See the link below, and good luck.

Here is a link that might be useful: The Ultimate Squerrel Solution

    Bookmark   February 26, 2011 at 9:09AM
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Ohiofem, thanks for the link. I haven't read it yet, but will do so soon. I figured if I did a fence it would have to be an all encomassing thing...if I didn't like gardening so much and love fresh grown heirloom variety produce? I'd just plain give up before I started!

    Bookmark   February 26, 2011 at 11:30PM
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I agree with Ohiofem... if you offer feed of any kind, it just encourages them.

The only type of feeder I have in the entire garden is a thistle seed feeder for the finches... we get beautiful goldfinches and other tiny birds in blues and purples... and I plant various flowers to encourage hummingbirds, of which there are many.

But I won't put up any feeders that use mixed bird seed or corn, because this does encourage squirrels to come and feast. It also makes a mess beneath, and any seed that falls usually sprouts.

Maybe you'll get lucky and your neighbors will feed the squirrels, thus keeping them out of your yard! :-)

To be honest, though, I wouldn't let a few furry raiders discourage me from growing vegetables, fruits, or keep me from other gardening endeavors. It's just too enjoyable!

    Bookmark   February 27, 2011 at 11:00AM
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