Squirrels Fear The Unknown Too

Pierre Francois dutifully protects ripening fruit.

It is embarrassing when my mother teaches me a practical gardening technique that I should have known about, especially if the particular technique is as simple and downright silly as what my mother does to protect ripening fruit from squirrels. A friend of hers suggested it; and it seems to be significantly more effective than the few fancier ideas that I recommended.

I should first mention that there is nothing new about repelling animal pests with effigies of other animals that they are afraid of. Scarecrows and stuffed snakes and owls have been around for centuries. As the name implies, scarecrows scare crows who perceive them to be potentially troublesome people. Rats and terrestrial rodents avoid snakes. Squirrels and some birds are afraid of owls.

When I was in about the fourth grade, I remember that National Geographic World magazine (which is now National Geographic Kids) featured a silhouette of a predatory bird that could be cut out and taped to windows to deter birds that might otherwise break their necks as they tried to fly through the clear glass. The associated article explained that the cut-out silhouette was effective because birds instinctively knew what to fear. A silhouette of a harmless seagull would not have been as effective.

However, some deterrents are not so specific, but instead rely on the fear of the unknown. Beach balls outfitted with decals of huge eyes look weird in the garden, but work because so many birds have bird brains that think such contraptions are big, scary and possibly predatory animals. Flash tape and old compact discs work simply because birds do not know what the reflected flashes are.

Scarecrows and other inanimate effigies should be relocated occasionally so they seem to be alive. They should stay near what they are in the garden to protect, and not loiter when it is gone. For example, if protecting ripening fruit, they should leave after the last of the fruit is gone. Otherwise, the target pest animals realize that they are fake or dead. Beach balls, flash tape and compact discs are more animated, so need not be moved so much, if at all, but are too tacky to stay all year.

All this may seem complicated, but can be simple enough for my mother to master with . . . well, allow me to explain.

Pierre Francois is a cute, fuzzy and seemingly French plush toy bunny made in China, who knows all about protecting ripening fruit from squirrels. (‘Stuffed animal’ is no longer politically correct.) After seeing how expensive a fake owl would be, my mother put Mr. Francois in the peach tree. He and his sort are free if borrowed (stolen) from the grandchildren, or very cheap at garage sales or thrift stores. Although cute and soft to us, Mr. Francois is big, intimidating and unfamiliar to squirrels. Before the squirrels get acquainted with him, the peaches will have been harvested, and Pierre Francois will have been reassigned to an apple tree.

Vermin Run Amok In Spring

Gophers are busy with homemaking projects.

No one really hibernates here. Well, ground squirrels might, but they are unlikely to be a problem in refined home gardens. Winter weather is sufficiently mild for most of the most troublesome vermin to remain active, even if somewhat subdued. Some are more active in autumn before food gets scarce. They store food for later, and eat more to gain weight.

Now that it is spring, vermin are more active than they are at any other time of year, even autumn. Gophers, squirrels, rats and mice want to party like it is 1999; well, like spring of 1999. Although they all fattened up last autumn, and stored plenty of food for winter, they now want to exploit abundant spring vegetation. So do raccoons, skunks and opossums.

Generally most vermin, which most prefer to describe more politely as ‘wildlife’, are not a problem for home gardens. Some might be beneficial. Skunks may trench into lawns, but only because they want the grubs that would otherwise cause more damage from below. They also eat snails and slugs. Opossums eat snails and slugs too, as well as baby rats!

However, skunks and opossums can do more harm than good. They eat vegetables and fruits as they ripen, and pet food. Raccoons cause more significant damage, and can be very dangerous to pets. These three types of vermin are nocturnal, and therefore difficult to dissuade or confront directly. Fortunately, they are not very common in urban gardens.

Conversely, squirrels are everywhere except the harshest desert climates. Although they cause significant damage to new spring growth, and will later damage developing fruits, they are more tolerable than other vermin. Some people actually feed them to draw them to their gardens! Rats and mice are less tolerable, probably because they lack fluffy tails.

Gophers are likely causing more damage than other vermin now. Their growing families voraciously devour many of the fresh roots that disperse in spring. Now that their tunnels are not too muddy, gophers are remodeling to expand accommodations. Young gophers do not live with their parents for very long, so will eventually infest new adjacent territory. Lawns and vegetable gardens are most preferable.

Rodents Will Never Give Up

Warming weather brings out the gophers.

None of the most problematic rodents here hibernate completely. Only ground squirrels hibernate, but they are rare, and tend to avoid home gardens and refined landscapes. Some other rodents are less active through the cooler parts of winter, but never completely stop eating, chewing and digging up what they want from our gardens. Many will become more active with warming weather.

Gophers are the most destructive rodents right now. They might still be excavating the mud of last winter from their tunnels. They will find plenty to eat as warming weather stimulates root growth of their favorite plants. Young gophers are growing up and leaving home, to excavate more tunnels and consume more vegetation elsewhere. They are more numerous now than they will be all year.

Squirrels are not so industrious. For now, they are destructive only if they dig out recently planted seedlings and bedding plants, or eat flowers and freshly emerging foliage. They should otherwise be temporarily satisfied with acorns that they hid late last year. They will become more of a problem as they eat ripening fruit, nuts and maybe vegetables later in summer. Some might chew bark.

Rats are sneakier than squirrels. They are not as destructive to ripening nuts and stone fruits, but do eat some of what falls to the ground. Although not a problem for the garden, well fed rats infest adjacent homes, where they cause serious damage. At this time of year, rats sometimes ruin citrus fruit. They eat the pulp out from the rinds of oranges and tangerines, and the rind off of lemons.

Rodents are nearly impossible to exclude completely and safely from gardens. Poisons are too dangerous to be practical around the home, particularly if there are dogs or cats anywhere nearby. Traps are safer and effective, but require diligence. Also, some traps are difficult to set. Each type of rodent exhibits distinct characteristics. That which controls one type is ineffective for another.

Sanitation and vegetation management deters some rodents by depriving them of sustenance and nesting sites.


P80408Wildlife and domestic animals seem to follow me everywhere I go. When Brent and I lived in the dorms at Cal Poly, our room was known as the Jungle Room, not only because of all the greenery, but also because every little bird that got knocked out while trying to fly through the big windows at the dining room was brought to our room to recuperate. A baby squirrel that weaseled into my jacket while I was out collecting insects for an entomology class lived with us for a while. There were two baby ducks that need a bit more explaining.

When I moved south of town, where my roommates boarded horses, the horses worked diligently to open their gate to come to the house to eat my rare plants. The neighbor’s cattle sometimes did the same! When it rained, creepy crawdads came out of the ditch at the railroad tracks and up to my porch.

When I moved to Los Gatos, it seemed that every stray dog in town eventually arrived at my home. In fact, my home was ransacked by the FBI just because their bloodhound who was supposed to be pursuing a suspect of a crime wanted to come by! Again, that takes a bit more explaining. Birds flew through freely. A pair of some sort of small bird nested in my shower, and before I realized it, started to raise a family . . . and finished. Pigeons tried to nest repeatedly in the same spot on top of the refrigerator, but got evicted. A squirrel moved into the guest room, and refused to leave. It sometimes tried to join me for breakfast.

Then, at my second home, there was Timmy the baby deer, two feral cats, skunks, coons, squirrels and more neighborhood dogs than I can remember, as well as Bill the little terrier who actually lived there. I could go on. https://tonytomeo.wordpress.com/2018/03/14/timmy-in-the-garden/

Squirrels are a common denominator. They are everywhere.

My home in town was in the Live Oak Manor district, which, as you can guess, was dominated by huge old coast live oaks as well as comparable valley oaks. The valley oak next door was supposedly the largest in the Santa Clara Valley. Squirrels were everywhere and very well fed!

The east facing window over my desk would have had a good view of Mount Hamilton if the view had not been so cluttered with utility cables. The wildlife that used the cables could get annoying at times. Crows made their annoying noise. Pigeons just stared at me stupidly. Squirrels scurried by with bits of fruits and vegetables that they stole from the garden, and sometimes stopped to cuss at me. I sometimes cussed back, but also reminded them to be careful as they jumped from the high voltage cables into the tops of the neighbor’s hedged redwood trees below. The redwoods sometimes grew dangerously close to the high voltage cables between clearance pruning.

As you can imagine, the unimaginable but obviously predictable happened. I do not know if he was coming or going, but I would guess that he was jumping from the tree to the cable. I only heard a loud ‘ZAP’ and subsequent ‘FIZZLE’. By the time I looked out, the unfortunate squirrel was a swinging charred carcass with a death grip on the cable he was reaching for. The death grip was impressive. He stayed there for a long time, swinging in the breeze. Silent sparks could sometimes be seen at night, where his tail brushed against the tip of the redwood shoot. I do not know if a crow finally got him, or if he just fell into the neighbor’s yard. Either way, he did not get a proper burial.

Rodents Eat Just About Anything

61214thumbNot much bothers old fashioned junipers. They tolerate heat and frost, and anything else the weather throws at them. They do not appeal to many troublesome insects. Once established, they do not mind if they do not get much water. So, aside from over-watering and bad pruning, they are pretty indestructible. Yet, once in a while, otherwise healthy junipers die suddenly and mysteriously.

Sometimes, entire plants die. Sometimes, only big pieces of them die. The foliage is intact, but dried to a nice light brown. The roots are firm. In fact, the damage that caused such efficient death might not become apparent until the dead stems get dismantled and removed. It might even get overlooked because it is not the sort of damage that we expect to find in our tame home gardens.

Rats! They sneak in under the dense foliage to chew the bark from the main stems. The thicket of rigid stems protects them from cats and dogs. They can kill both shrubby and ground cover junipers, as well as ivy, ceanothus, cotoneaster, firethorn, . . . and nearly any sort of shrubby plant that they feel safe from predators in. They also eat vegetables and fruits, particularly citrus fruits.

The damage should be rather distinct. Bark is missing. Bare wood is exposed. Squirrels sometimes cause the same sort of damage, but usually on smaller stems in trees. Gophers do their dirty work underground by eating roots. If they kill junipers or other shrubbery, the dead plants can be pulled up from the soil relatively easily, and fresh gopher ‘volcanoes’ should be evident in the area.

Protecting stems and roots from rodents is more difficult than protecting developing fruit. The rodents know that they are concealed by the dense growth that they chew the bark or roots from, so fake owls are not much of a threat. Poisons are very unpleasant for the targeted rodents (duh!), and very dangerous to cats and dogs that might catch the poisoned rodents. Traps are effective and safe (except for the rodents . . . duh!) but take serious dedication to empty and reset!



It was not easy for me to start this blog. I do not mean that getting it set up and operating was difficult. That part was a breeze. I mean it was not easy for me to go along with the crowd and do something that is so hip, trendy and popular. I never liked trends, and I certainly do not like trends that use the internet and computers. Well, at least I get to write about gardening and horticulture. It is a topic that I happen to be good at writing about. I do not need to post pictures of puppies, kittens, babies, what I cooked for supper last night or where I went on vacation.

This is Rhody, in the picture above. He is a puppy. He is terrified of kittens, barks at babies, will eat anything that I cook for supper, and will go anywhere we might go on vacation. He can not write my blog for me because he can not type. Besides, he does not speak American English, or any other human language. He does not help in the garden much. As I said, he is a puppy.

So, there I did it. I started a blog, and posted a picture of a puppy.

Well, getting back to Rhody. He is a terrier, which literally means that he is terrestrial, or associated with the soil. In other words, he digs. His kind were bred to exterminate rodents, particularly in the soil. Rhody is just now starting to figure this out, but still needs to work on his technique. He has not started to dig for gophers, and actually seems to be more interested in getting more closely acquainted with them when they emerge from their holes and stare at him for more than a few seconds. Rhody just stares back. Perhaps his is in telepathic communication with the gophers, and is negotiating their relocation to a better home on a nearby vacant hillside.

I do not mind. It is bad enough that gophers dig in the garden. I do not need Rhody digging in the garden too.

It is the terrestrial part that Rhody does not seem to understand. He already knows that he dislikes all other rodents above the surface of the soil, such as squirrels, rabbits, deer and horses. The squirrels are not much of a problem, but the rabbits eat big patches of iceplant and other succulents, and have eaten the foliage and buds of several small potted plants. Rhody chases them off every morning.

We still need to work on Rhody’s concept of what a true ‘rodent’ is. The deer had been eating leafy plants in the garden, but have been notably absent since Rhody chased them away only a few times. I do not like him to chase the deer because I am afraid that he might actually catch one. Fortunately, he does not see them until they are already fleeing. Rhody also needs to learn to not bark at horses.

Rhody is not allowed far from the house because coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions live in the surrounding forest, and sometimes come close to home. None of them are known for pursuing dogs, but could get nasty if chased by one. I would be pleased if Rhody worked only in the garden, which happens to be close to the house.

So, in summary, posting a picture of puppy who does what he can to protect the garden from vermin is not completely irrelevant to gardening.