Squirrels, Guns and Alcohol 

Foiling the efforts of the garden outlaw

You're accustomed to all sorts of fruitcakes in print, so the event I'm about to describe shouldn't come as a surprise. I might also mention that it was witnessed by an individual of sterling character and sound mind, who will verify my story if he ever wants to see another care package of chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. My son will testify that as we were waiting on the inbound for the green at 27th and Main, a squirrel with a large nut in his mouth dashed over the crosswalk, reaching the curb just as the light changed. Squirrels are ubiquitous in my neighborhood, which is across from a park, and they are accountable for some of my erratic driving, but had my son not seen this with his own eyes, I would hesitate to report it to the thousands who anticipate my informative columns.

Squirrels are funny, but becoming less so all the time, as they destroy and pillage many of my garden efforts. I don't find the way they hold their ground and scold me while standing on my back step all that amusing, but I confess to thrilling shivers of apprehension when they leap from the cherry tree to the roof over my hot tub when I'm in it. They appear confident if impulsive, and the combined exit scramble could result in worse injuries to me than to them.

When they battle with gangsta crows at dawn in June over the cherries outside my bedroom window, they're loud, belligerent and unyielding. A fertile female determined that my attic would be hers, and she chewed off portions of the wooden roof each day. My husband climbed the ladder every evening to nail tin patches over her labors. This went on for a week or more before she gave up to torment another human. She was one stubborn mother.

A friend tells the story of a squirrel who dropped down her chimney to devour all the graham cracker and pretzel gingerbread houses she was completing for her preschool class. The gluttonous satiation of the beast did not diminish the speed and vigor with which it shattered knickknacks and shredded curtains in its frenzied escape. This woman hates squirrels even more than I do, and it didn't soothe her a bit when I admonished her, as my neighbor had advised me: You must make peace with your squirrels.

Squirrels are on the post office wall of the plant world. They are mentioned eight times in the Sunset Western Garden Problem Solver. They're not the only critters accused of stealing, threatening, vandalism, poaching, lying, money laundering, disorderly conduct and general mayhem, but they're the best at it. Call it profiling if you will. In this very space, I have advocated the horticulturist's advantage in thinking like a plant, but I must warn that every time I've thought like a squirrel, things have turned out badly and fast.

An ornamental bed or pot of recently loosened soil is tempting beyond all squirrel reason. I find more holes than nuts, though, because their attention span is woefully deficient. I don't have an oak tree, but I have saplings in all my beds, along with a few horse chestnuts and walnuts. One poor soul, probably the victim of a nasty head wound in the reckless leap from the dogwood to the porch rail, wedged a peanut between the light fixture and the wall.

What do the experts advise about deterrence? Until I locate a text entitled Squirrels, Guns and Alcohol, these are the tips I've turned up in my research:

Use small red lava rock as a mulch on containers and beds. Trap and release squirrels elsewhere. (I've recently learned that a woman across the park traps them and releases them on the ball diamond, which is a mere two seconds from my spaghetti squash.) Wrap sticky barriers around tree trunks to keep them from eating the fruits. (Their projectile leaping can cover half a block. The rare failure is seldom fatal; it simply renders its victim irrational and ill tempered. Or more so, at least.) Sprinkle seeds and vegetable crops with cayenne, or spray with a peppermint oil mixture. Cover or wrap plant and bulb victims with chicken wire. These methods may be effective against the squirrels that reside in the coastal areas where publishing companies operate, but in the supremely diverse North End, we have squirrels ranging from criminally insane to gifted and talented. They love their vegetables hot and spicy.

BW's entertainment editor recently wrote about hunting. I share her aversion to guns and killing, so my threats to the rodents that plague my gardens and dreams are imaginary and hollow. In a recent sorrowful discovery of detached and gnawed eggplants (how much chicken wire can one gardener use?), I imagined the plate of chicken satay I had seen at the Thai restaurant the night before. Squirrels' bodies are perfectly shaped for skewers, and this is even more evident when they are viewed from my hot tub as they're careening wildly toward the roof.

Anything tastes better with garlic and October is the time to plant it. It's best to obtain the bulb from a nursery, but you may be successful with garlic from the grocery store. Separate the head into individual cloves. Loosen the soil in a sunny spot after dark when the squirrels aren't watching, and use a tool handle to make holes 4-6 inches apart no more than an inch or two deep. Tamp earth lightly over the hole. Either cover with chicken wire, or plan on a diminished harvest in mid-late summer. Use a portion of this bounty to prepare a marinade for the squirrels who meet a bad end in your garden. Ending their miscreant lives up to their little necks in peanut sauce has to be better than miscalculating the timer at 27th and Main.

Linda Jarsky is a master gardener, certified arborist, landscape designer and marketing director for DG Nursery and Turf. Questions and comments may be directed to LJ at www.dgnursery.com.

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