In the Northern Hemisphere, September to the end of November is the season for planting spring-flowering bulbs in the garden… and it’s also the season when squirrels are preparing for winter. They have to stuff themselves with as many calories as possible before the first snowfall if they want make it through the winter. So when squirrels see you planting bulbs in your garden in the fall, they really start to salivate!
We’re talking about a major conflict here: you plant bulbs so you can have the most flowers possible in the spring, yet squirrels see them as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Does that mean that planting bulbs a waste of time?
Of course not. There are many ways of making sure squirrels don’t eat your freshly planted bulbs. And let’s start with the very best tip:
Avoid planting tulips and crocus. Most bulbs are poisonous or distasteful to squirrels, so they won’t eat the bulbs of daffodils, hyacinths, snowdrops or any other spring-flowering bulb. They really only like tulip and crocus bulbs. And not even all crocuses, at that. They won’t eat the bulbs of Tommie crocuses (Crocus tommasinianus), for example, nor of its cultivars like ‘Ruby Glow’ and ‘Barr’s Purple’, either. You can plant them with impunity. So you can avoid the squirrel/bulb conflict simply by not planting tulip bulbs. Problem solved!
But You Like Tulips!
Of course you like tulips. Everybody does. Although daffodils, hyacinths, Tommie crocuses, etc. are beautiful flowers, it seems to me that a spring garden without any tulips really just doesn’t make the grade. You simply need tulips in your spring garden!
Fortunately there are other ways to enjoy beautiful multicolored tulips without having squirrels eating them.
- Bury’em deep. Squirrels are not great diggers and will give up if they have to dig down further than 6 inches (15 cm). And guess what? Tulips prefer deep planting. Plant their bulbs 1 foot (30 cm) deep instead of the 6 inches (15 cm) usually recommended and you’ll discover your tulips actually grow better and last longer. And that squirrels will leave them alone. So what are you waiting for?
Spray the bulbs with a repellent. When it comes to squirrels, the most effective repellent seems to be Ro-Pel. It contains Bitrex (denatonium benzoate), a product with an incredibly bitter taste. The squirrel will bite into one bulb, then spit it out. Thereafter, it will associate the smell of the bulb with bitter taste of the repellent and avoid any contact with treated bulbs. Ro-Pel is widely available in the US, but is no longer marketed in Canada. Canadian gardeners can order Ro-Pel from the US by mail (try Amazon.com). Or visit a pet shop. They sell several products containing Bitrex (used to prevent dogs and cats from gnawing on electrical wires, etc.) and they are all safe to spray on bulbs.
Cover the planting hole with chicken wire. As you finish planting your tulip bulbs, cut a piece of chicken wire about 6 inches (15 cm) wider than the planting hole and fold it downward about 2 inches (5 cm) all around, creating sort of a bottomless cage. Now insert this barrier over the hole, pushing the folded edges down into the soil. Squirrels will no longer be able to dig through the top of the barrier and even if they try to go through the side, they’ll quickly encounter the down-folded chicken wire. You can remove the barrier after 3 or 4 weeks (the smell of the bulbs will have dissipated by then)… or even leave it in place, because bulbs have no difficulty in sprouting and blooming through chicken wire thanks to its many openings.
Apply blood meal or chicken manure after planting. These organic fertilizers give off a strong odor (at least to squirrel noses, humans barely notice them) that masks the scent of tulip bulbs. So the poor squirrels simply have no idea where to dig. In fact, they’ll often simply avoid areas treated with either fertilizer which they seem to find quite unattractive. The “organic” smell dissipates after a few weeks… but then so does the odor of the bulbs, leaving the poor squirrels totally perplexed.
Feed’em peanuts. This is what the White House (Washington D.C.) does. They plant more than 10,000 tulip bulbs every year without any damage. In September , they fill big feeders with peanuts and place them near the flower beds. They keep them filled for three weeks after they plant the bulbs, after which time, again, the squirrels can no longer smell the tulip bulbs. You could do the same with your 10,000 tulip bulbs!
Interplant with crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis). The musky, almost skunky smell of crown imperial bulbs will mask the scent of other bulbs nearby. A crown imperial bulb planted every 2 feet (60 cm) or so in a bed of tulip bulbs should do the trick. Ornamental onions (Allium spp.) can also be used to confoud squirrels.
Install a motion-activated sprinkler. Just plug it into a garden hose and point it towards the part of the garden where you just planted your tulip bulbs. The next time a squirrel passes by, it will sprayed with water. And squirrels do not like to be touched, even if only by H20. If you can’t find this squirrel deterrent in your local garden center (it goes under the trade name “Scarecrow”), you can order it by the mail from Lee Valley Tools.
There you go! All sorts of ways of enjoying tulips without having to deal with hungry squirrels!