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The Best Offense is a Good Defense

Where there’s a squirrel, there’s a way. Whether in your flower beds or conquering a squirrel-proof bird feeder, squirrels can be a frustration to gardeners.

A garden should be a peaceful sanctuary, a place where we can feel connected to nature and where our spirits can be refreshed. But as most gardeners have learned sooner or later, Fall and Spring are peak periods for plundering and inflicting havoc by our furry four-legged fiends, uh, I mean friends.

In Fall, the squirrel—a rodent (or rat with a fluffy tail)—is “Public Enemy Number One” to many flower bulb enthusiasts. These animals like to dig things up, including your freshly planted daffodils, even though the bulbs contain certain compounds that irritate their mouths and have a terrible taste. Funny thing is (ok, not that funny to some), they won’t eat them, they’ll just dig them up. One good solution is to place a sheet of chicken wire right on top of the planting just below the soil’s surface making it virtually invisible. The bulbs will be smart enough to find their way right through the wire in the Spring.

Especially popular to squirrels are gardens littered with bulb-scented debris, such as those papery skins. It is scent, after all, that guides them to the hidden feast, not memory cues such as “six hops from the big tree on the right.” A good garden clean-up followed by a heavy watering will stop the squirrels from smelling the bulbs and remove traces of recently disturbed soil (a visual clue that they use). In addition, they don’t like muddy feet.

Although this may contradict common gardening sense (and annoy the heck out of you), feeding squirrels peanuts or corn in tree feeders during their Fall nut-gathering and your bulb-planting period, may minimize damage to your bulb gardens. In theory, this offers them some easy pickings and discourages them from digging for harder-to-find nourishment, like bulbs.  Deer are the greatest threat in the Spring when, after a hungry Winter, they look for anything green, young, and tasty.

From the deer’s point of view, a fence is the best deterrent…a high one. It needs to be at least seven feet high (adding an overhang of chicken wire will discourage them even more). Better yet, the most effective deer fence is a double fence, as deer can either jump something very high, or something very wide, but can not do both at once. Two fences (one high and one moderately high) spaced about three feet apart will do. The deer will see the two fences and instinctively won’t jump.

Deer and animal repellents can be purchased at Behnke’s. These sensory products, which you spray onto and around your plants, seek to dissuade the unwanted garden diner by offending his/her sense of smell and taste or exciting his/her sense of fear and caution. To succeed with these products, you have to spray early (before they start munching), and regularly during the season (especially after heavy rains). Your coverage has to be complete and regular so the animal doesn’t take a bite, like it, and continue to try the rest to see if there is another good bite somewhere.

Allium christophii, the Star of Persia.
Allium christophii, the Star of Persia.

Narcissus (daffodils) are animal-resistant, and planting bulbs animals don’t like will greatly improve a garden’s overall survivability in problem areas. Behnke’s offers many more animal-resistant varieties. They include: allium (ornamental onion), chionodoxa (glory of the snow), colchicum, eranthis (winter aconite), fritillaria, Galanthus nivalis (snowdrop), Hyacinthoides hispanica (Spanish bluebell), hyacinthus (hyacinth), leucojum (snowflake), muscari (grape hyacinth), ornithogalum, oxalis, and scilla.

Some home remedies include mixing six raw eggs in one gallon of water with 2 teaspoons of antitranspirant (such as Bonide® or Wilt-stop®).  The smell of decomposing eggs keeps the deer away while being too faint a dilution for humans to detect. A hot sauce spray mixing two teaspoons Tabasco sauce in one gallon of water with two teaspoons of antitranspirant provides a taste deterrent to deer and other small animals. Both recipes must be reapplied after heavy rains. Read the Wilt-stop label for plant limitations.

Essential to arriving at a defensive plan, you must start by identifying the creature that is causing the damage and then learn a little bit about its habits. There is really no one magic solution for your animal pest problem. Our customers swear by this one or that one (or sometimes just swear). Often what works in one garden doesn’t work in another.

If deer are truly starving, they will eat just about anything, including tree bark. Behnke staff can help each of you find your own answers. Experimentation is the key…and certainly worth a try.

By Mike Bader, Buyer

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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