Squirrels – the scourge of city gardeners

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.

Squirrel closeup

Sciurus carolinensis, or the eastern gray squirrel, ready for his or her closeup.

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.

Squirrel barrier

A squirrel barrier made of pigeon spikes has reduced their numbers in what had been their favorite tree.

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?

My Garden

One of our gardens in the Greystones in Jackson Heights.

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About lenmaniace

Award-winning writer and editor who has worked as a journalist and a corporate communications professional specializing in environmental sustainability and public health policy. Experience includes successful media outreach for a Manhattan publicity firm. Board member and president of a community-based nonprofit. Founder and leader of a series of successful park, art and environmental programs in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation’s most diverse city. * Executive Editor at Elsevier, a leading scientific and medical publisher. * Publicist, Media Advisor, Social Media Manager (part-time) at Monteiro & Co., a book-marketing company that specializes in business management, economics and politics. * Reporter (part-time) at the New York Post, specializing in breaking news in the world’s most competitive media market. * Senior Writer and Editor at The Journal News/LoHud.com, Gannett’s daily news outlet in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. Specialized in health policy and environmental sustainability issues * President the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, a volunteer nonprofit civic organization in Queens, N.Y. Leader of its innovative environmental sustainability programs, including the Green Agenda for Jackson Heights.
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One Response to Squirrels – the scourge of city gardeners

  1. Elaine Young says:

    Are there trees close to the one where you saw the squirrel? If so, they can easily jump from tree to tree, much further than one would think! When I feed the birds in my Fresh Meadows yard in the winter, I have a squirrel baffle that is the only thing preventing the squirrels from getting up the pole to the feeder. Is there something similar for trees? -Elaine Young, West Cunningham Park Civic Association, Fresh Meadows

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