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When Chipmunks Go Bad

Q: Mike: We have a terrible problem with chipmunks. They ruin the bark mulch we put down every year. The chipmunks dig in it and push so much soil up onto the bark, you can't even tell there is bark there. It's a mess! They dig holes all over and even dig up our plants! Is there any thing we can do to stop them or get rid of them? Thank you!
    ---Donna in Hebron, Indiana
We have a problem with Chipmunks burrowing along the foundation of our house and also under the blocks that our air conditioner sits on. I tried to discourage them with fox and coyote urine but it doesn't seem to work.
    ---Chuck in Marlton, New Jersey
How can I rid my vegetable and flower gardens of chipmunks? They tunnel three to six inches underground and the tunnels cause some of my plants to die. Please help—they have outsmarted me for eight years now!
    ---Gene in Bowie, MD
Mike: A family of chipmunks has taken up residence in our small garden of perennial and annual flowers. They are adorable and we love to watch them, but I worry about what they might be doing. The annuals they can have, but this is my third year cultivating the perennials and I would hate to lose them as they are finally looking lush. I can't see any damage yet, but the chippies run in and out of the garden constantly—sometimes stopping to look in the glass door at me. I don't want to evict them unless I have to; but if I have to, how do I do it?
    ---Linda in Paoli, PA
PS: My children and I LOVE your show; my 11 year-old son especially—I think your humor targets his age!

A: Nice parting shot, there, Linda. But my wife disagrees—she says it's the humor of an eight year-old. So there.

Anyway, I always felt that chippies were just cute little guys; we see them around all the time and they've never touched my plants or tunneled into my garden. But we have had a flurry of questions about putting the brakes on Simon, Alvin and The odore lately. And just last week, one was caught red-pawed nibbling away at some of the extra tomato plants I had given to a friend. Extension service Bulletins seem to back these impressions up—warning that they can be around for decades just being darned cute and then suddenly become pests one season.

As you can imagine, exclusion is pretty much impossible—chipmunks are almost as acrobatic as that most evil of garden foes, the squirrel, and much smaller to boot. You'd have to fence the entire area off in hardware cloth sunk a foot or two into the ground—with a hardware cloth roof—to keep them out. Even Donald Duck wasn't pushed to such extremes in his epic battles with Chip and Dale. (Apparently Walt Disney was trying to warn us in those classic cartoons.)

But it should be easy to protect plants from being eaten with a bad tasting repellent. You can use a commercial deer repellent—chippies don't like the taste of rotten eggs any more than Bambi does.

Or mix up a batch of my personal repellent recipe, which also deters rabbits and many insect pests: Whiz up one clove of garlic and one hot pepper in a pint of water, strain, pour into a sprayer that has never held chemicals, add one drop each of liquid dish washing soap and vegetable oil and spray on the plants you wish to protect, shaking frequently. (The container, not you.)

Predator urine do not work. Their 'collection' is also cruel in the extreme. And they don't work—did I mention that? I'd try castor oil instead; it imparts a smell to saturated soil that burrowing creatures can't stand. Use one of the packaged castor oil products—wet or dry—sold for vole and mole control. You can also make a home-made version—IF you can find old-fashioned, stinky, bad-tasting castor oil as opposed to the new and improved deodorized version. Simply pour a quarter to a half-cup of the fully odorized stuff into a watering can that's about half full of lukewarm water, add a couple drops of dish washing soap and stir frequently.

Spread or water your castor oil stuff wherever you see their holes. It's fine to get some IN the holes, but the point is to saturate the ground. Start back at the house or other area you wish to protect and treat outward, so you don't inadvertently push them towards your plantings or under your home, where researchers warn, they really can damage the foundation—not so much from the tiny little tunnels themselves, but from water flowing down through those holes and causing untold mischief.

If they're undermining rock walls—a problem posed by listeners in years past—or that air conditioner support, try spraying that area heavily with deer repellent, liquid castor oil or one of those garlic sprays sold for mosquito control.


And finally, back when I was Editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, we ran a piece in which Dr. Thomas Barnes, a professor at the University of Kentucky, explained that live trapping could be very effective. Use a very small trap (Havahart, Sherman and Tomahawk were the brand names mentioned), conceal it so that just the entrance is poking out of a pile of leaves, and bait it with a mixture of "cheap, greasy peanut butter, oatmeal and something fruity".

Warning: If you ARE going to "Have a Heart", the captured chippies must be taken to a rural area far away—like 20 to 40 miles far, warns a wildlife relocation specialist we consulted. Drop them off within five or ten miles and…. they'll be baaaack!

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