By Len Maniace
We’ve always known that city gardeners need to be tough. There’s concrete-hard soil, too much shade and, if you are working in a public area, unappreciative humans who walk through your planting area, and maybe even make off with your plants.
But as New York City has become more orderly and open to gardening and urban farming, another problem is becoming apparent: squirrels. They dig through newly planted areas, methodically nip off buds before they flower, and chew the bark off tree branches eventually girdling and killing them.
This may seem like peanuts to gardeners in the suburbs, where a major industrial-research complex has grown up around the war against deer. It’s not, however – though peanuts maybe part of the problem, as in soft-hearted city dwellers who regularly feed peanuts to squirrels.
Case in point: The gardens in the Queens apartment complex where I live have improved dramatically in recent year – and so too have our problems with the eastern gray squirrel, or Sciurus carolinensis. Perhaps they were always there but, we just didn’t notice. We’ve discussed several measures to control the squirrel population. We nixed the trap-and release squirrels (nearby squirrels would move in,) squirrel birth control (same deal, neighboring squirrels would fill that vacuum;) and poisoning them was ruled out as cruel and dangerous.
Several people suggested that feeding and providing water for squirrels would distract the critters from our plants, until we decided that such a measure would only increase their population making our garden more vulnerable if the free food and water ever stopped.
So instead of any concerted action by the garden, I’m running a test project that I hope might limit their access to a favorite breeding ground in our garden. Last year, I counted eight squirrel nests (known as dreys) in a mature sugar maple tree in our largely enclosed courtyard where most of our serious gardening is done.
Not only was the tree serving as a squirrel condominium, judging by the number of small branches dropping beneath the tree, squirrels were methodically gnawing at branches, leaving some larger branches nearly leafless.
Over the winter I considered measures to keep the squirrels out of the tree, including wrapping sheet metal around the trunk to prevent them from getting any footing. But this seemed too ugly.
Instead I bought a box of pigeon spikes designed to keep the bird off buildings. (They consist of a series of three-inch long metal spikes secured plastic base.) I doubled them up to make the barrier more formidable and then wrapped it around the trunk about 10 feet off the ground. It worked initially. I saw squirrels scamper partially up the tree, reach the barrier and then come down. Two weeks later however, a squirrel appeared high in the tree and I noticed that the rodents had opened up a gap in the barrier. Equipped with plastic ties, crushed red pepper and a jar of Vaseline, I repaired the damage and then sought to make the barrier unpleasant, too.
The strengthened barrier seemed to work. A few weeks ago, I spotted a squirrel climbing up the trunk, run into the barrier and then reverse directions. But as I’m writing this, I just spotted a squirrel some 20 feet up in the tree. Can squirrels laugh?