Gardening is all about experimentation and adaptability. You can try and lock down a “method” but nature has its own ideas. Every gardening season is different for one reason or another. Often times it’s large and subtle differences in the weather. Some years it’s a freak plague of aphids from the sky, a raccoon that has decided to obliterate the corn, or like this year, a family of baby squirrels.
About a month ago we discovered baby squirrels nesting underneath the roof of our building. My first reaction was “aww cute” followed by the realization that I was going to be providing the cuteness with their own personal cafeteria! I get the odd squirrels visitor every spring and over time I’ve learned to deal with their ways. They are generally most interested in digging in the fresh soil, likely looking for that peanut they buried last fall (I did in fact find a whole peanut this year). I put homemade water bottle cloches on the young seedlings and chicken wire cloches over larger plants to prevent digging damage and the occasional nibble. Both barriers work well and stave off a lot of potential damage. By the time the plants have grown too large for the cloches, the squirrels have moved on. While they often come back in the late summer to take bites out of the tomatoes, the number lost to the squirrels is minimal. A certain amount of crop loss to critters is an accepted part of sharing space with living beings.
I suppose this year isn’t any different, it’s just that I’m feeding a family of squirrels instead of one rogue squirrel so the damage is greater. And since this group have clearly found Eden, they aren’t planning on leaving anytime soon. Their tastes are so bizarre and varied I can’t predict which plants to protect and which to leave. They have no interest in the lettuce but have chewed off all the flowers in my succulent window box. They can’t be bothered with basil, but ate an entire eggplant (my ‘Turkish Orange’ no less!) seedling and a pepper plant.
I started two types of peas back in April: a snow variety with pretty purple flowers called ‘Carouby de Maussane’ and a dwarf variety I have grown several times called ‘Tom Thumb’.
The ‘Tom Thumb’ plants have been thriving and providing me with lots of tasty snacks. The other variety would be thriving if not for the squirrels! When I first noticed the nibbling I thought perhaps it was my cat. She has an appetite for strange vegetables (radishes and edamame) and the container was propped up against the railing where she often sits and surveys “her kingdom.” I noticed that the nibbling started once the plants had grown tall enough to reach the rim of the railing. So I moved the container and still the nibbling continued. A month has passed and the ‘Carouby de Maussane’ peas are incredibly haggard and sad. They produced one flower, which produced one tiny pea that was promptly nibbled and left to hang on the vine.
Meanwhile the succulent lettuce plants growing underneath remains untouched! And the ‘Tom Thumb’ peas are left untouched! They dug up and destroyed an entire dwarf cucumber plant, and left containers of swiss chard. I don’t get it!
Well today I confirmed the culprits are definitely the squirrels and not my cat. I caught one using a deck chair as a prop to reach the tops of the peas. Thankfully I am also growing ‘Carouby de Maussane’ peas at my community plot where they are in a spot a little shadier than they would like, but are growing without interference from critters. It’s interesting, but I have far less critter issues at my community plot where plants are growing in an area heavily populated by all sorts of wildlife than my rooftop deck that is stuck in a typically urban landscape without even a single tree nearby.
What to do about squirrels is probably one of the most popular questions I get when I am out giving talks or demonstrations. My answer is often that barriers methods are the best bet since they keep critters off your plants without hurting them in the process. The city is often accussed of being a place uninhabitable for wildlife. Growing an organic garden is one way to encourage wildlife and combat that assumption. So when I think about it, would I rather a critterless world or a few damaged plants?