Q. I use four-foot high, 16-foot long cattle panels to create a huge tomato trellis, tying the vines to the panels as they grow up and then tossing them over to the other side when they reach the top. It provides strong support; and perhaps makes it too easy for Mr. Squirrel to pick the best tomatoes. Any ideas? Would it be wrong to hide in the garage and shoot squirrels?
---"MJ" in Hampton, Virginia
A. Well, it is considered an organic solution as long as you don't use lead shot…
...but it's probably illegal unless you're way out in the boonies; and even then, you'd have to be a darn good shot—those Evil Squirrels are small, fast-moving targets. Anyway, this situation is especially unfortunate, as it sounds like MJ has come up with a really neat system. 'Cattle panels' are big rectangular sections of very strong metal fencing, and I can see how you'd be able to provide great support and airflow to your tomatoes by coaxing the plants up one side and then just letting them sprawl down the other.
The first thing I'll suggest is the old reliable motion activated sprinkler. ("The Scarecrow" continues to be my favorite brand for its ease of use and range of controls.) Aim it at the tomatoes and see if the constant hits with cold water are enough of an annoyance to keep the Evil Squirrels away. If not, I'd suggest sacrificing the first run of fruits this season by saturating every early tomato with a strong solution of deer repellant.
Now you wouldn't want to eat those tomatoes; they're purely sacrificial. But if you really soak them with repellant, there's a good chance the squirrels won't come back for more. Then the tomatoes that follow will be all yours. You might even be able to wash and peel some of the skunked ones and use them to make sauce. (Add a LOT of basil and garlic!)
(Gardens Alive website extra: Our show's editor, Affable Al Banks, insists I also mention a tip I came up with during a phone call on the show—getting a box of old red glass Christmas tree balls and hanging them on the plants early in the season. "That person's tomatoes are terrible", mouths the unhappy tree rat.)
If those tactics don't work, she's going to have to change her method and grow inside the cylindrical tomato cages I recommend building. (See this article for details.) But she should use welded wire fencing; it's much easier to bend than those panels (which are designed not to bend) and the mesh on most fencing is small enough to exclude the Terrorist Tree Rats. Make lids for the cages from the same fencing and attach them with twist ties. That'll keep the vermin out and still provide human access to the fruits.
(I hate to see those cattle panels go to waste. Maybe she can try to use them to grow a vining crop like pole beans, and hope that the Evil Squirrels don't ravage them as well.)
Q. We never get any apples from the tree in our yard; the squirrels pick it clean before the apples are anywhere near ripe. I'd like to plant other fruit trees, but I see no point if the squirrels will be the only ones to benefit. Is there any way to keep them from eating everything?
---Kimm in West Philadelphia
A. Urban squirrels are the worst! The Corner Boys of the vermin world! They're just as destructive as the rural ones, but with a mean atty-tood to boot.
Now; this problem makes me think about my peach trees. I do lose a few fruits to something that leaves big teeth marks on the left-behind unripe ones every season or so, but not a lot—and where I live, the culprit could just as well be possums or raccoons.
One reason I may not suffer bigger losses is that I spray my trees with "Surround", a very fine clay preparation, several times over the course of a season to protect the fruits from insects and disease. It turns the entire tree a silvery white, but washes off easily when the fruits are ripe, and it may well make them unappetizing before that.
And it's not any kind of added expense. Everybody has to do something to protect their tree fruits from insect pests and disease, and I've found clay sprays to do the job really well—perhaps with the added benefit of deterring the long-tailed Servants of Satan.
And when I told my show's producer, Amiable Alexis Landis, about this she asked a great question: "Could you add something like a deer repellant to the clay spray?"
Now that's a thought! Deer repellant, garlic oil, hot pepper; they're all harmless. But I'd want to do a Martha Stewart and 'test it on a small area first' to make sure it didn't interfere with the protective function of the clay—because as Kimmy may be lucky enough to find out someday, the further along we get in the season, the more things come out to attack fruits, especially apples and peaches; and I have found the clay spray to be highly protective.
(And I must add that a good harvest is more than worth the effort it takes to achieve it. Homegrown tomatoes are wonderful, but homegrown peaches are an unparalleled taste triumph!)
Q. Now we'll finish up with a listener suggestion. Patricia in Greenbelt, Maryland writes: "My neighbor saves the hair when he grooms his cats and puts it around his yard. He thinks it keeps the squirrels away. What do you think?"
A. I can't see how some hair on the ground is going to keep Evil Squirrels out of a fruit tree, but I think it has great potential to prevent damage down low—like when they dig up containers or ravage a bed of tulip bulbs. Some Dutch growers recommend 'mulching' freshly planted beds with dog hair to keep squirrels away, and cat hair should work just as well. And all hair—cat, dog and human—is rich in Nitrogen, so it feeds the soil as it breaks down. It's also a highly effective slug control; the slugs get all tangled up in it.
(You may think that's gross; but it's not as gross as slug slime on your lettuce!)