Our yard is what you might call squirrel friendly.
Older neighborhood, mature trees, plenty of room for nests, berries everywhere and, most enticing of all, an oak tree loaded with acorns right across the street. The squirrels even eat the smelly fruit that falls from our infamous gingko tree (a behavior I’m happy to encourage).
Each fall, the Head Squirrel apparently puts the word out: Everybody meet for a smorgasbord at the big green house on the corner.
It’s like we have a virtual squirrel highway stretching from the maple tree on the west side of our house, across our flat roof, along a wooden fence and into the trees ringing our yard. We hear them dashing back and forth, doing whatever frantic things squirrels always seem to be doing.
Like, say, attacking our pumpkins.
The first year we moved in, I innocently put our pumpkins out in early October, thrilled to be decorating our new house with my then-18-month-old son. The squirrels assumed it was my gift to them. I would come out in the morning to find chunks of orange flesh gouged out. It was even worse once we carved the pumpkins, and the squirrels could smell the seeds inside. I had merely created a tiny entrance for them.
Over the years, I tried different deterrents, like sprinkling the pumpkins with red pepper. No dice. I’d still end up with a pulpy mess on the patio.
This, I realized, was a savvy foe.
In fact, the squirrels seem to get more brazen every year, casually munching away until I knock on the window or open the door and yell “Beat it!” Even then, they only move a few feet away, waiting until I lose interest.
One year, for a pumpkin-decorating contest, my son made a vampire pumpkin — with fangs, cape and all — that turned out so cool I thought it would be fun to set it on our front porch. Surely no squirrel would eat through all that black and white paint, I thought.
They started taking bites out of Dracula’s white face — which, I suppose, is only fair, given his past. But my son was dismayed.
So we’ve taken to keeping our pumpkins indoors as long as possible, saving at least one to carve for Halloween night.
A few weeks ago, we went out to the pumpkin patch and brought home a carload of pumpkins, which we promptly stashed in our breezeway. There they sat for over a week, safe from the squirrels’ clutches. But then I decided, what’s the point? If we can’t enjoy them, why bother?
So I turned to the anti-squirrel network for help. Friends advised various deterrents, from smearing pumpkins with Vaseline and chili powder (ingenious; otherwise it would just slide off); coating them with polyurethane (apparently works better than paint); or, for the “Caddyshack” lovers among us, scaring them with a loud BB gun (ammo optional).
I decided on the less violent alternatives and readied the Vaseline and chili pepper.
My husband was appalled. “You’re going to poison the squirrels?”
“Noooo,” I said, my voice lowering to a crazed whisper. “They’re too smart for that! They won’t eat it!”
I started my experiment last week, coating one of our pumpkins with Vaseline and sprinkling chili powder over it. Except it wasn’t distributed very evenly, and when I tried to spread it out it ended up in little clumps all over the pumpkin — and my hands. (Have you ever tried to wash off chili powder-scented Vaseline?)
Next to it I put our white pumpkin, with nothing on it, just to see if the deterrent made any difference. I tried the same approach out front with our giant pumpkin, figuring maybe it wouldn’t taste as good to the squirrels. (Or, they could think they’ve won the pumpkin lottery.)
Proud of my efforts, I contacted an expert for advice — Master Gardener Irina Stewart from Champaign County Extension.
Before I could ask a question, she said, “Never put out chili pepper or chili powder. It’s not going to deter them, and it’s only going to get into their eyes and mouth and really, really harm them. And they’re going to continue to mow through your pumpkins.”
“You cannot shoot them,” she continued. “It truly is against the law to do that.”
That leaves the polyurethane....
Nope, she has tried that trick, too, with no luck, though others swear by it. As far as she knows, hairspray, baby powder and other home remedies don’t work, either.
The most promising deterrent seems to be blood meal, a white powder made from sterilized animal blood. Squirrels (who are vegetarians after all) hate the smell and taste of it. It’s available at any garden shop, commonly used as food for tulip bulbs.
Upon further research, Stewart reported that bloodmeal appears to be hit and miss, too. There are commercial remedies, like “Liquid Fence” and “Shake Away,” a powder made from fox urine. But she isn’t sure they really work.
“Squirrels are very resilient, and they multiply like crazy. They’re going to eat through anything.”
My daughter’s idea was to place acorns around the pumpkins so they would eat those instead. I think they would just see it as a buffet.
As with any wild pest, changing their habitat is probably the best option, Stewart says. Put in a squirrel “scare,” with a loud noise to keep them at bay.
Or call in a wild animal specialist to trap your squirrels. It could get expensive (state laws govern how they can be transported and released). And hundreds of other family members are probably waiting in the wings.
Short of that, you have two options:
1. Put fake pumpkins out.
2. Deal with it. It’s nature.
What, we put food out and expect the squirrels not to eat it?
Stewart, who has already had four pumpkins destroyed by squirrels this year, plans to just buy more.
In the meantime, the chili powder seems to be working. And I haven’t noticed any red-eyed, sniffling squirrels in the yard.
We’ll see if we make it to Halloween.
Tell us your tales about squirrels! Leave a comment below, contact me at 351-5226 or email@example.com or follow me on Twitter.com/jawurth.
Photos: Irina Stewart holds one of four half-eaten pumpkins at her home in Champaign last week, top. Stewart, a master gardener, says there is no way to protect pumpkins from the squirrels who want to chew through the outer skin to get at the seeds inside. At bottom, the vaseline-and-chili-powder deterrent seems to be working so far at Julie Wurth's house. News-Gazette photos by John Dixon and Julie Wurth