Squirrels in the Garden
by Marci Hayden
Q: Why do squirrels dig in potted plants to hide their nuts, eat the leaves off newly planted trees, and chew the rose buds before they have a chance to bloom?
Most squirrels’ natural diet consists primarily of nuts, seeds, grain, and fruit. By far their favorite foods are nuts, followed by sunflower seeds, yet when their natural food is scarce they will eat anything they can find. As you may have already noticed, they will readily eat succulent shoots and buds of any vegetation you try to grow in your gardens.
The best recommendation of naturalist experts for peacefully coexisting with wildlife’s pesky or destructive backyard behavior is to make future plant selections from the many native plants that are becoming available.
Clearly, more wildlife will visit our gardens for food as their native habitat is lost due to development. Growing native plants in home gardens to provide the foods wildlife thrives on, usually berries and seeds, along with shelter for their protection and raising of young, can help to replace what is lost. We can pursue gardening in harmony with nature, rather than fighting against it. Begin the adventure of gardening with native plants!
Some squirrel-hardy plant recommendations: all types of salvias, sages and woody herbs including rosemary, oreganos and thymes; these plants will thrive in full sun and can take partial shade, and need only infrequent summer water once established (this means during the first summer season, you water thoroughly just once a week). For taller impact, add lavateras (also called tree mallows) and ceanothus.
Q: Why do squirrels hide their food?
Squirrels get food from many sources; if there is an abundance of food the squirrel will store it for the future. Hiding food in many different places ensures that if other squirrels or animals find some of it, at least the entire year’s supply would not be lost. Sometimes squirrels hide their food only temporarily, until they can move it to a more convenient location. This is called “scatter hoarding.”
Some squirrels dig a shallow pit referred to as a “midden” where they’ll store cones they’ve cut or found. This supply is then covered with leaves or other debris which creates a cold and moist storage environment. This practice is known as “larder hoarding”.
Q: Where do squirrels live?
Squirrels build nests called “dreys” from twigs and leaves. The interiors are lined with fur, feathers or other soft material for comfort. Normally this type of nest has two exits, and is built high up in a tree between two strong branches. Choice spots are far enough above the ground to provide protection from ground predators, but not so high that nests would be destroyed by winds. Squirrels will also build nests called “dens” in hollow tree cavities.
Q: Are squirrels vermin?
Squirrels are usually considered vermin by insurance companies, who use the definition of vermin (birds or mammals that are difficult to control) as a means to preclude a claim for the damage a squirrel can do.
Never hold a nut with your fingers for a squirrel to eat! Since a squirrel has eyes on the side of its head, it cannot see what is in front of its mouth. Your finger would feel about the same as a shelled nut.
Just a note on two other garden visitors:
Deer: The only real recourse for keeping deer out over the long term, when they are bold and always present, is installing deer fencing (an 8-foot tall sturdy wire fence, leaning away from your property). Or you could fence just the individual plants that you want to save.
Raccoons: Known for creative abilities to get into all kinds of places where they’re not supposed to be, raccoons can present a difficult challenge to keep out of a garden. If these persistent omnivores cause problems in your yard, start with fencing around the compost area and any other parts of your yard where they forage for food. The only humane solution that consistently works is fencing them out.