By Irene Virag
It wasn’t until I moved into my own home and became a gardener that I saw squirrels for what they are—anything but the cutie-pie nut-eaters so fetchingly portrayed in cartoons and children’s books. Show me a squirrel with a crocus bulb in its mouth, and I’ll show you a dirty little rat. In my book squirrels are public enemies.
My property, especially the backyard, is practically a squirrel resort, with plenty of tall trees for climbing and nesting, and split-rail fences for further courting and cavorting.
We knew we were sharing our place with squirrels—one even tried to take up residence in the garage—when we moved in. It was spring when the bushy-tailed rodents emerged from their winter naps in tree cavities (they really don’t hibernate; they just nod off into a state of torpor) and started chasing each other. Considering that the average female is in heat for just a single day, the competition among males is close to frenzy. They’re animals.
But it wasn’t until I started planting bulbs in fall that I realized they were also horticultural horrors. Squirrels don’t just gobble up nuts and acorns. They’re gluttons for most bulbs, especially the tulips, crocuses and hyacinths that highlight spring.
And therein lies my greatest garden challenge: how to protect my spring-blooming bulbs from the furry menaces.
Over the first several seasons I tried a potpourri of strategies: cayenne pepper, hyena urine, fox urine, even lion urine. I asked every gardener I knew for their secret weapons. Tabasco sauce. Chili powder. Rotten eggs. Blood meal. Crushed skunk cabbage leaves. Human hair. Used kitty litter.
My favorite came from a colleague who said he staked out his garden the way male animals have been marking their territory for ages. He claimed it worked; no squirrels devoured his tulips, no raccoons ravaged his corn, no rabbits chomped his lettuce. I’ll never know. My husband balked.
Defeated, I simply gave up tulips. Crocuses and hyacinths too.
I planted daffodils because squirrels don’t like them; hundreds and hundreds of daffodils. In beds and borders and nooks and crannies. A host of daffodils.
And not just golden ones. I planted pure white Misty Glen and ivory Thalia and orange Copper Queen and amber Ambergate. I planted daffodils with green eyes and coral cups and apricot trumpets. Daffodils that look like daylilies and peonies and camellias, and daffodils that smell like vanilla and roses and gardenias.
And I moved on to other bulbs that are less than culinary treats for those furry freeloaders: Leucojum, commonly called snowflakes; and Galanthus, a.k.a. snowdrops, both white-flowered members of the amaryllis family.
And alliums, which come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors; from caeruleum, with azure flowers the size of quarters, to Globemaster, with purple blooms as big as soccer balls.
My favorite is Allium schubertii. Its spidery, rose-colored flowers look like space aliens.
And I like frittilarias, especially the stately Crown Imperial, which comes in yellow, orange and red and has a skunklike scent that sends squirrels packing.
But I missed tulips. A couple of years ago I tried again. I planted more tulips than a hungry squirrel—or two or 10— could possibly devour. I soaked each bulb with an organic pepper spray, then doused the beds and covered them with chicken wire. Of course I made sure to clean up afterward; papery tunics scattered about call to squirrels the way ice cream calls to me.
The pepper-spray-and-chicken-wire treatment has been successful. For the last several years there’s been relatively little damage.
It’s not like the squirrels in my yard are starving. They’ve discovered the bird feeders in the backyard. But that’s another story.
What’s your biggest garden challenge?