Don’t Feed the Squirrels

For the first few years that I grew vegetables, my plot served as a smorgasbord for squirrels. They were merciless and stupid. Merciless because they destroyed and consumed little baby seedlings. Stupid because they would raze an entire garden bed, including whole tomato plants, so there were no plants left to produce yummy tomatoes–for me or them.

If you’ve ever had problems with critter pests–squirrels, rabbits, gophers, rats, mice–in your garden, I feel you. I’ve done everything to protect my plants from being eaten.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve done and what’s worked, to save you some time, energy and humiliation.

The Repellent Phase

“We can all just get along,” I thought to myself, fancying myself to be some kind of Snow White peacefully coexisting with all of the woodland creatures. I figured I’d just use repellent to let them know gently where they should not go in the garden. I can’t remember all of the repellents I used, but some smelled really bad. And they worked zero percent.

Then there was this ultrasonic gopher repellent that you stake into the ground. Apparently it emits a sound that tells gophers to back off. Ours did the opposite, emitting an irresistible siren song. Suddenly we experienced an influx of gophers in the garden, chewing their way through rows of veggies.

Critters: 1, Bentons: 0

The Netting Phase

My husband built three amazing structures that perfectly fit our 4 x 8 raised beds. They formed an arch that could hold all types of covers or netting. We bought bird netting, which is very tangly, and draped it over the structures. A week or so later we discovered gopher or ground squirrel holes inside the beds. We knew they didn’t climb up from the bottom because we had a ton of welded wire lining the bottom. We discovered they had gotten under the netting and started living inside their cozy new home, complete with yummy treats whenever they felt hungry.

As an added bonus, bird netting is so tangly that we often got caught in it. I also had to rescue a gopher snake caught in the netting. While I’m proud that I was brave enough to pick up that snake behind the head and cut away the netting binding him, this outcome was far from what we intended with our beautiful netting structure.

Critters: 2, Bentons: 0

The Natural Predators Phase

Next, I opted to try an owl box. Feeling clever and efficient, I turned this into a Boy Scout project for Aiden and a friend’s son. They both built owl boxes (and got some sort of badge or credit for it!). That was the fun part. The not-so-fun part was hanging it. We wanted it to be near our vegetable garden because if not, what’s the point. The best location was high up in one of our old oaks. We got our hands on the tallest ladder we could find and my husband spent some time, with me stabilizing the ladder, alternately working on hanging the box and screaming expletives. Below, the squirrels looked on quizzically.

That was seven years ago. No owl has ever called that box home. It still hangs in the tree.

Critters: 3, Bentons: 0

The Desperate Phase

At one point, desperate, I bought a squirrelinator. It’s basically a cage trap and it can catch multiple squirrels in one go. It’s a great device, except that once you capture the squirrels you have to kill and dispose of them. We thought we’d buy the cage and do a catch-and-release program so we wouldn’t have to kill them. The problem was, there aren’t any good places to release them.

There were other problems. First, the local coyote population felt like we’d packaged up a neat little snack for them, a bunch of squirrels in a cage that they could work on like a dog eating peanut butter out of a Kong toy. The coyotes actually walked off with an entire cage of squirrels. With each cage costing around $65, this wasn’t cool. On the next one, I put one of those Tile chips that act as an RFID-type locator device. Didn’t work. We couldn’t find it. That’s $130 stolen by coyotes. We got smart and fixed the next cage to the ground with rebar. Guess what. The coyotes didn’t mind eating squirrels right there. The next day I came out to find a dead squirrel head rattling around the cage. O.M.G. We put the squirrelinator away. Yes, it worked really well, but I couldn’t take the trauma.

Critters: 3, (Traumatized) Bentons: 1

The Physical Relocation Phase

Next, we did something that is legitimately smart, though it took some work. We changed the entire location of the vegetable garden. Now our vegetable garden sits on the east side of our home (the previous one was on the south side, and it’s now the cut-flower garden). Our veggies grow steps from the dog door, where two pups who both have shown squirrel-killing capabilities walk in and out all day long. Our pups Angie and Sophie use that dog door a hundred times a day, making it a very bad location to be a squirrel and a very good location to be a growing vegetable.

Critters: 3, (Triumphant) Bentons: 2

Voila! A re-located garden. I know not everyone has the space to move your veggies, but this and the rat traps proved the most effective in keeping our veggies safe.

The Rat-catching Phase

Well, we took care of our squirrel issue, as they deemed it best not to try and hang out next to a dog door. Instead, they sit in our white sapote trees and eat dozens of sweet fruit all year long, no longer bothering themselves with vegetables.

Meanwhile, the rats came to the vegetable garden feast. But this was a pretty easy problem to solve: we bought snap traps that kill the rats immediately. This is kind of gross, but it works. We’d come to the garden in the morning and find the dead rat in the trap and toss it over the fence (into another part of our yard), on a highly trafficked coyote trail. Hours later the dead rat would be gone, a clean kill and a nice snack for coyotes.

Critters: 3, Bentons: 3

Good for now

It took all of this work just to give ourselves a chance to grow vegetables. I can honestly say, if you’re having trouble or have had trouble with critters, I totally feel you. Just be persistent. There’s a solution out there. And I didn’t even resort to buying a rifle.