Friday, November 25, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Practical Gardener

The Eastern Gray Squirrel Can Be A Pest In The Garden

WSU/King County Cooperative Extension

Q: We grow a vegetable garden in the north end of Seattle. Squirrels ate about 75 percent of our sweet corn. We do not want to kill them, but threw rocks and hung pie plates, which didn't work. How can we get rid of them?

A: Unfortunately, if there were an easy answer to your question, many gardeners would be happier, with bigger crops and more serene lives. The Eastern gray squirrel is persistent, relatively smart, and omnivorous, an alien interloper to our area. And it's a rodent, often described as a rat with a fluffy tail. In many parts of Western Washington, this squirrel-with-an-attitude has driven away the native Western gray squirrel. (If you have a problem squirrel, it's most likely the Eastern gray.)

Once they have discovered a food source in your garden, they will return again and again to continue devouring. They can also chew into attics to nest, disturbing wiring and creating a nuisance while nesting. Attitudes toward squirrels vary from the sentimental to the disgusted, and often veer into disgust when the homeowner experiences difficulties like the ones you mention.

A resident dog, confined to the vegetable patch, could annoy the squirrels enough to keep them away. If there's no resident dog, you have few options. They have few natural enemies. I've been known to throw bricks and buckets of water at squirrels rummaging in my garden, with no effect except acquiring a sore shoulder and a wet shirt.

A bulletin from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests sprinkling cayenne pepper on cornsilks to deter raccoons. This might help with squirrels, though I tried it on the ground where squirrels were digging and they went right through it, perhaps appreciating the added flavor. Hardware cloth metal cages are the only sure protection for crocus and tulip plantings.

Excluding pest animals, including rats, from the yard is easier if you do not leave pet food outside, and cover garbage cans securely. Don't put food wastes into compost bins. (Use a worm bin instead.) If you have a bird feeder, collect or sweep up spilled seed, which invites rodents.

Obviously a vegetable garden is a ready source of food and will lure these creatures. Be sure to clean up all food crops and diseased or spoiled food at the end of the season. Decaying fruit left on the ground will attract rodents. If your neighbors feed squirrels, it's much harder to keep them out of your garden.

This squirrel is considered a pest rodent and is not protected by the Game Department. The Department of Wildlife, headquartered in Mill Creek, suggests trapping as the only certain way to reduce the squirrel population. Bait a trap with peanuts or peanut butter on bread, popcorn, or sunflower seeds. This squirrel is an invasive, non-native animal, and they do NOT recommend releasing the trapped squirrels in open areas or parks. Dispose of them by dropping the trap into a large pail of water. This will quickly and humanely drown them. This message is not one that many people like to hear. For more information on squirrels, dial 296-3425, then dial in Tape 1254. "Squirrel Control."

Q: I have two loads of wood chips from the tree person who will dump them free of charge. Wood chips from the deciduous trees are composting beautifully, with good hot activity. Others with pine needles have no activity. How can I heat this pile?

A: Your two different piles illustrate the carbon/nitrogen balance in the composting process. If there's a balance of carbon ("browns" like wood chips, sawdust, straw) and nitrogen ("greens" like fresh grass clippings, fresh animal manure, or green leaves), the pile will begin to decompose rapidly. That's why the wood chips from the deciduous tree residue heats up faster.

With the conifers, there's a much smaller supply of nitrogen-bearing material. Those conifer chips will make good pathways and good mulch for shrub areas, but they will break down much more slowly. You can add some fertilizer high in nitrogen to the pile if you wish to heat it up a bit, or mix it with fresh animal manure.

Gardening runs Friday in Scene and Sunday in Home/Real Estate. It is prepared by Mary Robson, Master Gardener program director, Holly Kennell, Washington State University/King County Cooperative Extension agent, Susan Miller, integrated pest management specialist, and volunteer Master Gardeners.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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