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A Forlorn Fruit Grower Asks: "Can Anything Stop These Ravenous Tree Rats From Boosting My Blueberries and Copping My Kiwis?!"
Q. Dear Mr. McGrath: I read your recent suggestions about preventing squirrel damage to Spring bulbs but none of them seem practical for my situation, so I ask your advice about these three problems:
1. I have fifteen blueberry bushes in a 45 foot long linear bed, which I had previously been able to protect from birds with netting. But, beginning three years ago, squirrels began to eat holes in the netting and now eat all the blueberries.
2. I have three jujube trees. This year for the first time, squirrels ate all of the fruits (about 300-400) just as they were ripening in mid-October.
3. Finally, I also have three hardy kiwi vines (the "Anna" variety) trained on a pergola that's eight feet tall, 25 feet long and six feet wide. This year, also for the first time, squirrels ate all of the kiwis (1000-2000) as they were ripening.
Deer repellent does not seem practical to spray on fruits close to harvest. The size of the area that would need to be covered does not seem practical for hot pepper spray or motion activated sprinklers. A Jack Russell terrier does not seem practical for my suburban yard of 50 x 50 feet. I tried a Havahart trap, which was successful in trapping squirrels, but I could only trap and resettle (across the Schuylkill river) one pest a day, which wasn't nearly enough. I would appreciate any other suggestions.
---Peter; Merion Station, PA
A. Well, you have my deepest sympathies. And admiration—I never 'met' anybody who actually grew jujubes ("The Chinese date") before! Anyway, squirrels don't normally bother such plants. When they do, it's often because someone in the neighborhood has started feeding them. People, please: DO NOT feed squirrels! It's not good for the tree rats (they can lose the ability to forage on their own) and the ravenous rodents become the single most perplexing pest problem in all garden dom when they develop a taste for home-grown goodies. By the way, some listeners tell me they have it even worse—that squirrels eat the FLOWERS off their fruit trees in the Spring.
The website www.deadsquirrel.com may offer some solace to all rodent ravaged gardeners. A couple of crazy guys (the Squirrel Defamation League, whose motto is "All Squirrels Must Die!") put together this wonderful (tongue-firmly-in-cheek) site to warn us that squirrels are not the cute cuddly little forest creatures some folks are fooled into believing, but furry fiends bent on nothing less than world domination! Think about it—first they eat all our food. Then they send the suicide squirrel out to jump on the nearest transformer and knock out our power. Then, when we're cold, hungry and helpless…
Anyway, you could put up a couple of fake hawks and owls—their natural enemies. And attract REAL hawks and owls by providing roosting spots—a couple of well-positioned crossbeams about six or eight feet off the ground.
I was going to say that I didn't think squirrels were all that scared of snakes, but a couple of listeners just told me that had great success hanging fake snakes in their squirrel-attacked trees. Attracting real snakes is always good for garden pest control, but snakes down on the ground wouldn't be much of a threat against squirrels. Got a friend willing to lend you the irboa for a few weeks in the summer?
And while a Jack Russell terrier is a great defense against almost any other form of wicked wildlife, those arboreal acrobats would just torment the pooch from their fruit-filled perches. They'd probably pummel the poor pet with jujube pits.
I'm glad to hear that the Havahart trap is catching fiends for you, but I'm surprised you still have the 'hart' part after the way they've pillaged your poor orchard. I'd think about showing a little less hart towards my tormentors, if you catch my drift.
You would need a lot of motion activated sprinklers to protect all that tasty fruit. (And squirrels might not mind running through a sprinkler on a hot summer day. And I agree with you about the deer repellent in this instance. Its perfect for protecting things like shrubs and the bark of young trees from the not-so-tender-attentions of those giant-stomachs-with-legs, but I'm not sure I'd want to eat actual fruit that had recently been heavily sprayed with the stinky, sticky stuff.
But there is something spray able that might protect the fruit without fouling its flavor: "Surround at Home". This clay-based spray from Gardens Alive is designed to protect fruit crops from insect pest sand disease by covering the developing fruit with a light gray film that physically prevents disease spores from reaching the skin, and that insect pests don't like the feel of on their widdle buggy feet. I've been thinking of spraying some on my new peach trees next Spring to see if it can help protect them from deer, and it occurs to me that it might just keep your bushy-tailed bandits at bay.
It better. Because if it doesn't, your only answer is something I saw years ago at Long swamp bed and breakfast, out in rural Berks County Pennsylvania. They had a big beautiful stand of blueberry bushes in their orchard. As all blueberry growers know, birds love those tasty treats quite a bit—and protective netting is no help if it just hangs on the bushes. So the owners wound up building an eight-foot high cage-like structure around the entire patch—plastic piping bent into an airplane hanger-like frame, covered with bird netting all around, with a hatch-like door they used to get in and pick. Bees could get in; humans could get in; but birds could not get in.
Of course, birds don't have the teeth from Krypton rodents are equipped with. Perhaps you could soak the netting in something really nasty—dried blood, deer repellent , a brewed-up batch of my old stories—to protect it from those teeth. Or cut to the chase and fence in at least some of your fruits with metal. A roof and sides made of animal fencing, perhaps, with a screen door for produce picking people. Just make sure the openings are big enough to allow bees inside, but small enough to deter malicious mammals.
Oh, and these ARE squirrels, so keep that door LOCKED.
You Bet Your Garden ©2004 Mike McGrath