Has this ever happened to you? When you go to the garden to pick that plump tomato you thought needed one more day to ripen from a bright pink to fire-engine-red perfection you found it:
You don’t need a degree in horticulture to figure out what happened. A squirrel beat you to it. The sneaky little thieves are the bane of backyard gardeners everywhere.
If you think you’ve tried every trick in the book to keep them from raiding your tomatoes but failed more times than not, here are a few tricks you may not have thought of. These tips come from a question we posed to home gardeners through social media and to an agriculture extension service. We asked them about the combat tactics they’ve used, no matter how crazy, in the ongoing Squirrel Wars.
Here are the answers (at least the ones we could publish!). And we’d like your feedback, too. In the comments section below, tell us what you’re doing to make sure your tomatoes end up between two pieces of white bread with plenty of mayo, instead of feeding that nattering nuisance that mocks you from a nearby tree. And share photos if you have them — especially any that show squirrels in humiliating defeat ... for a change!
Check out the following tips to keep those hungry squirrels at bay:
Get cagey with the little critters
They’re resourceful little scoundrels, right? You can be shrewd, too. Try caging them out. If you're feeling ambitious you can create a setup like this one shown at right, with framed chicken wire. Or you can erect a simple wire cage with a bird-netting roof. This is an easy, do-it-yourself project virtually any home gardener can install. Depending on the layout of your garden and the number of tomato plants you are growing, you can build single cages to protect individual plants or you can build a larger cage that will cover a small bed (example, 6 feet by 6 feet, 36 square feet). There’s one caveat: tomatoes grown in a roofed cage must be determinate tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes, also called "bush" tomatoes, only grow to a compact height (less than 4 feet) and all the tomatoes ripen at or near the same time.
For individual plants, purchase a 6-foot length of wire hardware cloth. Form the hardware cloth into a circle, and use pliers to loop the strands on the cut end into the wire squares on the other end. Bend the strands and secure them with the pliers to the squares in the hardware cloth so the newly formed fence will stay in the form of a circle. Place the circular fence on the ground around the tomato seedling. Drive a small stake into the ground beside the fence and secure the fence to the stake to keep the fence in place. Place a piece of bird netting over the hardware cloth cage and secure the netting to the cage with garden twist ties.
Get a cat
If you already have one, you’re a step ahead of the game. If you don’t already have one, you don’t need to go buy one. Just set out a saucer of cat food. Chances are, you’ll attract a neighborhood cat ... or two. They’ll keep out squirrels, chipmunks and birds, too. Just don’t feed them too much, one person replied on Facebook. If you do, they may stop hunting.
Or get a border collie
A gardener and dog lover in eastern North Carolina says that in the past she’s had a dog door that opened to a fenced yard. She said all she had to do was say "squirrel," and her two border collies blasted through the door in a dead barking run. “No squirrel was harmed, the dogs got exercise and my garden stayed safe.” Now that’s a win-win-win!
Scare the you-know-what out of them
How do you do that? Put out some predator pee. Preferably, the thinking goes, from a wolf. Luckily, you don’t need your own wolf. You can order it online. Just enter “wolf urine” in your web browser, and you’ll find several sources. Supposedly it will keep any varmint on four legs — from a vole to a moose — out of the garden. If you go this route, you can probably forget using the cat or border collie trick. If other members of your family are not as enthusiastic a gardener as you, you might also find a storage place for the predator pee other than in the kitchen. Depending on the urgency of your squirrel problem and the ripeness of your tomatoes, you can even request express delivery.
Mix ’em a cocktail
Some people swear by a hot, red pepper tea. Mix up a batch and spray it around the border of the garden and leaves of plants in the garden. People who’ve brewed this concoction swear that unwanted critters won’t go near their tomatoes. However, this is a tactic that comes with a warning. Don’t let it get on your skin or anywhere near your eyes or mouth. Sniffing it to get an idea of its potency is not a good idea, either. Capsaicin, the hot component of peppers, can cause severe irritation upon contact. If you are going to reuse any containers in which you made the tea, clearly mark them and put them where children can’t reach them.
Here’s a hot pepper tea recipe to consider:
- Start by putting on rubber gloves like the kind you might use to protect your hands while washing dishes and a long sleeve shirt.
- Buy 4 fresh cayenne peppers, cut the tops off and throw away the green stems. Cut the peppers in half lengthwise and chop coarsely.
- Place the chopped peppers and seeds in a container and add 1 1/2 cups of hot water and 1/2 cup of white vinegar. Seal tightly and let the jar sit for 4 days, shaking gently 2-3 times a day.
- Place a strainer in a funnel and place the funnel into a spray bottle. Pour the pepper mix into the container, discarding the chopped peppers and seeds that have collected in the strainer.
- Add 1 teaspoon of dishwashing liquid and 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil to the spray bottle. Screw the spray lid on tightly and gently shake the bottle to mix all the ingredients into a light emulsion.
Take ’em to court!
A former newspaper reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says a Georgia Supreme Court justice told her that he endorses the cat tactic. He said he also uses another trick: He plants three times as many tomatoes as he needs: a third for the squirrels, a third for the deer and a third for himself.
As a last resort
Then, of course, there were the I’m-fed-up-show-no-mercy responses. Shoot ’em or shock ’em, said many. “I sit and enjoy the afternoon breezes in a lawn chair from 6-8 p.m. with a pellet gun (scope sights) and pop them in the butt,” said a landscape architect in Durham, N.C. A Facebook response from Atlanta took a more deadly aim. “My brother shoots them with a pellet gun, and then the hawks swoop down and carry off the carcasses. He nailed squirrel No. 30 the other day.” That’s the problem, said a former Marine. “You never run out of targets. You take out all the squirrels in your yard and others move in.” Then there are the Squirrel War shock and awe advocates. From Denver: “I would hook up an electric wire to a metal pole and try to kill them with electricity as they run down the pole towards garden.” Before resorting to such lethal tactics, it would be a good idea to consider reaction from the neighbors and local ordinances. The neighbors might not be amused, especially because young children and pets are naturally curious and might wander into the garden. And, of course, you need to know and follow local ordinances, or you could have a much bigger problem than an annoying squirrel.
And a bonus hint ...
If you’ve successfully defeated the squirrels, have at least six hours of sun, are properly fertilizing them and still aren’t getting tomatoes, perhaps the reason is that they are not being pollinated. Tomatoes, said one person in an extension office, are not pollinated by insects. They are pollinated by wind. If you are getting flowers but no fruit, try gently nudging the plants back and forth. This should help pollinate them and produce those juicy orbs you’ve been anticipating since you put the little seedlings in the ground.
Related squirrel stories on MNN:
- Why Germans are stumped by the word 'squirrel'
- Meet Sneezy, the Penn State squirrel that wears hats
- How to keep squirrels out of your attic