How to Protect Bulbs from Squirrels

September 27, 2013

SQUIRRELS STEALING YOUR NEWLY-PLANTED BULBS? Don’t get mad…get creative! Based on my own experience, it’s easy enough to outwit these long-tailed bandits. You simply have to think like a squirrel.

My name is Kevin, and I am…The Squirrel Whisperer.

Please don’t confuse me with Robert Redford.

Did you know that squirrels are not fond of bulbs? When they forage, they are seeking nuts, seeds, gin martinis (straight up; no olives) and berries. (The squirrel pictured above is eating the red berries that grow on my yew-hedge.)

But Kevin, if squirrels don’t like bulbs, why do they dig them up?

I’m glad you asked! Here’s my theory:

When a squirrel stumbles upon freshly-dug earth (the result of your bulb-planting adventure), he or she assumes that another critter has buried a stash of nuts.  So the squirrel retrieves the loot, tastes the loot, and then — realizing it’s nothing but bulbs — tosses the loot. This explains why we sometimes find  bulbs dropped here and there in our yards. Usually these will show a single bite mark.

Consequently, to keep squirrels from messing with your bulbs, it pays to…

1) Cover Your Tracks.  One autumn, after squirrels dug up some newly-planted crocus bulbs in my Woodland Garden, I decided to perform an experiment: I planted more crocus bulbs in the same location as before, but this time…

I covered my work with shredded leaves.

The result? Because they sensed no soil-disturbance there, the squirrels left the bulbs alone.

The shredded-leaf trick also worked for some tulips I’d foolishly planted in the Woodland.

I say “foolishly” because…

When the bulbs bloomed the following spring, the flowers were promptly devoured by deer.

Sometimes you just can’t win.

 

2) Plant Bulbs Beneath a Low-Growing Groundcover. The tulip bulbs I plant every few years beneath a bed of Vinca minor in my Serpentine Garden (pictured above) are never disturbed by squirrels. Why? Because squirrels are basically lazy. They won’t dig in a bed that’s encumbered with lots of stems and roots (or a piece of chicken wire, which we will discuss in a moment).

3) Plant Large  Bulbs Deeply. Because squirrels won’t dig more than a few inches beneath the soil surface, it makes sense to plant your large bulbs deeply. Tulips can — and should — be planted 8 inches deep.

4) Use Chicken Wire. I’ve noticed that large public gardens (including Dumbarton Oaks) use chicken wire to protect their large swaths of bulbs. There are two ways to employ the wire: Lay it directly atop the bulbs, and then cover bulbs and wire with soil; OR, cover the bulbs first with soil, and then with the wire, pegging it in place with rocks or bricks. With the latter method, the wire can be removed when the bulbs sprout in spring.

5) Sprinkle Deer-Repellant Granules Over the Bed. According to some gardeners, the same smelly granules that keep deer at bay will also thwart squirrels. I have not tested this method, and thus can not vouch for its effectiveness.

And What About Red Pepper Flakes? For me, these are an absolute no-no. Red pepper won’t stop squirrels from digging. But it will burn their eyes if they come in contact with the stuff. And that’s just cruel.

6) Plant Squirrel-Proof Bulbs. If the above 5 recommendations prove too much work for you, then consider planting bulbs which emit an odor that no squirrel can endure.  These include:

Alliums of all kinds…

Daffodils and other members of the Narcissus family…

Hyacinths…

And  Muscari (“grape hyacinth”).

In the comments field below, let me know how your autumn bulb-planting is coming along, and if squirrels are an issue in your neck of the woods.  As always, I cherish  your thoughts.

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Related Posts:
How I Force Tulips for Winter Bloom
First Aid for Non-Blooming Daffodils
My Garlic Sowing-and-Growing Guide

Comments

  1. Brigitte says:

    Thank you so much Kevin for some wonderful and humane solutions to a frustrating problem! Your theory makes sense and I do believe you have proved it to be correct!

  2. Tracy says:

    Hi Kevin,
    I agree with all your points, especially about the cruelty of red pepper flakes. However, my very best squirrel prevention is the addition of a Jack Russell Terrier. As you probably know, these fierce little guys (or girls) take the encroachment of squirrels at ground level most seriously. In the twelve years my 11 pound JRT was on patrol, I almost never saw a squirrel on the ground, although they lived fat and happy lives up in my oak trees!

  3. Vicki says:

    We always got a good laugh out of tulips randomly showing up in the middle of our yard when my mom would plant them! More of a “natural” arrangement!

  4. Dee says:

    I have found a very effective deer and rabbit repellant called Deer Scram. I have a large area in my front yard that was decimated prior to the application of Deer Scram. Although the directions state that it should be reapplied every so often, I have become lazy and have failed to do so for at least two years. In that time I have seen my neighbors roses eaten down to stumps while mine have not been touched. So I’d say the product works great!

  5. paula K says:

    to protect crocuses from “relocation” by squirrels, we make little wire boxes, using the wire that has smaller holes than typical chicken wire, we cut a square and then shape it into a box putting 5-8 crocus bulbs inside, then we plant the box. Before covering with soil we spread out the bulbs by prodding them with a little stick . then put fine soil over so it falls into the “box”. Its a real pain the neck but seems to work, These crocuses are still in place while others are missing or pop up all over the yard, especially next to the trash bin!

  6. Jane says:

    Kevin, you came to the same conclusion and the same solution I did some years ago about this– disguise the smell of freshly turned earth. For people who are short on fall leaves, a bag of the smelly commercial cocoa shells mulch works like a charm, too. The mulch (or leaves) can be removed if you don’t want it a week or so later when that fresh earth smell has disappeared.

    Here’s a tougher one, though– squirrels eating, or more often just biting off, tulip blooms. Any idea what to do about that? (It’s not deer, this is in deer-less but squirrel-heavy inner suburbs)

  7. Betsy says:

    Hi Kevin, Can you apply your squirrel whispering abilities to bird feeders? We have a seemingly unsolvable problem with their constant raids. No matter what we do they always win.

    I have given up completely trying to grow crocus, which I just love in the early spring. Either the chipmunks devour them as soon as they are planted or the rabbits eat the flowers as soon as they bloom. Gr-r-r-r and sigh!

  8. Donna says:

    Kevin:

    You can add Eranthis, Fritillarias, Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica), and Scilla to the list of bulbs the critters don’t like – and I think Chionodoxa might be there too but not completely sure yet.

    Great post!

  9. Hi Betsy – I have no great advice for you, because squirrels raid my bird feeder, too!

    Donna – Thanks for the heads-up on these other bulbs, all of which grow in my garden.

  10. Susan M. says:

    This might apply to Jane’s problem of squirrels eating her tulip blooms. In recent years I’ve had very few tulips make it to mature bloom. I asked a perennial garden site about it and the reply I got suggested my garden was supplying rabbit treats, and sure enough, we see more and more of these cute pests every year. The other bulbs Kevin suggests do not appeal to the critters that like the tulips, so sadly, I’ve had to give up tulips in my garden.

  11. Caroline says:

    Great advice. I also sometime get donations from my cat’s litter box to repel animals. I use compressed sawdust pellets in his box. When they get wet they return to sawdust which I can sprinkle here and there.

  12. Helen says:

    The chicken wire is a good solution. My experience with squirrel repellents has been a bust. I live on rental property and do a lot of growing in pots. I spread commercial repellent around my freshly planted geraniums and the next morning geraniums and dirt was all over the ground. It seemed the more repellent I used the more fierce the digging. Since I plan to move in the early spring I hope to find a location with less squirrels and raccoons. Sigh……………. I may have to move south of Boise to the desert. lol

  13. Mil says:

    I’m so glad to have read your blog today. It explains so much. Its a nice insight into squirrel psychology. I have been finding my tulip bulbs laying on the surface of the soil. After replanting them, deeper this time, I’ll use your chicken wire tip.

    In other years, squirrels have ruined a lot of our tomatoes just when they were ripe for picking. This year we haven’t had the problem, though we’ve done nothing differently – go figure. Instead they are making large holes, in only one section of our newly seeded lawn. Since I can’t use a heavy mulch on it, I’m going to cover the lawn with tulle and hope that will deter them.

    Thank you so much for all the information.

  14. Jean Charlton says:

    I had a beautiful swath of mums blooming in my border garden and this week my gardener found a groundhog eating the flowers from the stems. He covered the plants with a screen box. This will keep the groundhog at bay, but is unsightly. Any suggestions?

  15. suzanne curnutt says:

    My problem with squirrels is that they are eating my wooden deck. I have tried the spray and it works for about 1 day . Then they seem to like it. We live in a wooded area and have trouble with deer and other animals eating all plants. I now just think I am feeding the wild life. However, my large wooden deck is another matter. Very expensive to replace. Any hints? Thanks

  16. Cilla says:

    I love the stories about everyone’s trouble with bulbs and squirrels!! Unfortunately where I live now in the NW Rockies I can hardly get a bulb to grow! And my issue is with our sled dogs when they get loose in “my part” of the yards! They will dig them up! lol I celebrate each little, scraggly bloom as it arrives! And here my crocus are usually in May and my daffodils in early June! I miss Tidewater Virginia where the daffodils in abundance bloomed in late Feb or March! AS fro the squirrels and bird feeders back East I made it a game to try to stump the little monsters!! Here we have to watch out for bears…so no feeders from April 1 to December 1. We don’t want them to learn to come around houses for food. Kevin I live vicariously in your house and garden! Thank you!

  17. Marlyn says:

    I’ve pretty much given up trying to grow tulips and crocus. Deer eat my tulips. I’ve watched the gray squirrels trot right up to a just about to open crocus and chew the bloom right off the stem! Does he/she eat the blossom – No! I’ll stick with alliums , daffodils and grape hyacinth, I think.

  18. Denise in NJ says:

    My tulip blooms, if they make it that far, are devoured by rabbits. So are most of my vegetable seedlings as soon as they are planted in the beds. I’ve tried fencing in the beds and they chewed right through it. Every year I find a nest of babies in one of my raised beds. I’ve seen squirrels eating my big green tomatoes and chipmunks eating my grape tomatoes – and they sit there and laugh at me while they do it. I’ve also had squirrels invade my house up in the attic space and chew through the ceiling. I’ve watched them scurry through the dropped ceiling in my kitchen and heard them wail when they fall down a wall and can’t get back up. As you can guess, I have absolutely no sympathy for squirrels and anyone who does is more than welcome to come to my house and take them home. I make that offer to everyone who has chastised me for calling an exterminator yet none of them have taken me up on the offer to take them out of my house. Taking over my garden is one thing, taking over my house is entirely different. I’m as humane as they come, but when it comes down to critter vs. human, I’ll defend humans any day. I also don’t have a lot of sympathy for bears. I don’t have them here, but my in-laws do in western NY state. The bears climb right up onto the deck and destroy everything. I watched one fling the gas BBQ grill over the deck railing like it was a paper cup and I’ve seen them pull down a six foot fence 4 x 4 posts to get into the garden. I watch from the window, of course because my husband won’t even let me take a stroll up there unless he comes with me, with his rifle strapped on. Those things are scary.

  19. Terri says:

    I need to comment to the lady who deck is getting eaten by squirrels. I have never heard this but I do know from personal experience that woodchucks or as some call them ground hogs absolutely love wood and especialy treated wood and MDF. I’d bet ya that if the deck is getting eaten fairly fast that it’s a ground hog problem. My neighbor had a hole the size of car tire in his new barn door in a matter of a few days. Trapping is the only humane way of ridding yourself of these critters.

  20. Maggie says:

    Me too Suzanne-the squirrels keep chewing on our treated steps! What to do???

  21. Annie B says:

    Squirrels are always an issue, but I’m so glad you agree with kind-hearted approaches. They are just out trying to earn their living.

  22. Beverly, zone 6 eastern PA says:

    Placing a sheet of bird netting across the freshly dug area, much like your leaf blanket, usually discourages squirrels from digging. It needs to be weighted all around the perimeter with long branches, or bricks or ground staples. Squirrels dislike the way the material moves unpredictably under their footsteps and/or catches in their toes. Cut the netting to size so you don’t have dangerous wads knotted up at the edges which may catch birds who are not familiar with its nature.

    I always got the best bang for the buck with daffodils, being located in a very rodent-prone area. MIce, voles, shrews, chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, groundhogs, skunks and one oppossum have all been found inside my fenced yard. An alert, fast dog is a blessing.

  23. Hi Beverly – Thanks for the bird-netting tip. And yes to an alert, fast dog!

  24. Dan B says:

    Thanks, Kevin. Spent a lot of dough on woodland bulbs last Fall only to end up with holes.

  25. Denise in Colorado says:

    All very good ideas! I have had no problem with bulbs getting dug up… My husband has a soft heart and he has adopted 4 cats so the “tree rats” usually move on after getting chased by the cats. They stay off the deck and bird feeders too. Adopt a kitty! ;-)

  26. Maka says:

    I have use Dr. Bonner’s peppermint soap for years for many things. Diluted in water, maybe 1 tsp to 1-2 Tb. depending on size of spray bottle, I’ve sprayed roses, around the garden, the tomatoes, etc. The deer in the NW didn’t like this smell and turned up their noses, but as others have posted, they seemed to get used to it. I also sprayed on patio to deter critters from that area, but again hit and miss on sure thing.
    When I moved to the SW, very different deer, but worked again, until this very hot dry monsoon season when all bets were off and the deer jumped the fence to get to garden. After reading all the great tips, I may try rotating all the great tips. The fine wire is a big help. My garden was dug down 2-4′ and wire was laid, the compost and soil mixture so happily nothing comes in from under ground. Gophers were big problem in some areas.
    My biggest problem with squirrels is my car. They chew on wires, cables, filters, hoses, all very expensive. Now my parking area smells of stinky dryer sheets I won’t even let in the house, and even moth balls, I’m desparate!
    Sorry so long, but did want to include this FYI – 2 rattle snakes were intwined (not sure if romantically or what), and blocking a needed exit, so I grabbed Dr. Bonner’s full strength and gave them a squirt. They quickly untwined and departed.

  27. Patty says:

    Thank you for this post. This explains why the squirrels are in my planters every time I plant something in them. Recently, I divided some coral bells and planted them in a big pot to get them rooted before transplanting them to other locations in the ground. I noticed the dirt around the roots was disturbed but the plants were still in the pot. I also see the squirrel climbing my tropical hibiscus – he’s probably getting the seedpods from the spent blooms. Something is digging around my Dahlia plants. I know we have chipmunks, too.

  28. Dennis says:

    I used to do the ckn wire,got beautiful tulips BUT they decided to chew off the flowers instead!! I think they had issues w/ my garden. !! HA. funny w/ th ckn wire, the girls at my local nursery told me about the wire method . I didn’t know they meant a flat piece and cover it up. Well I made a BOX out of the wire and went back to them to show them if that was suffice,
    they never laughed so hard that season.

  29. Denise in CO – Yes, cats are definitely squirrel-deterrents!

    Maka – Oy, rattlesnakes!

    Patty – Hibiscus flowers are edible for humans, so I assume the seed pods are a real treat for squirrels.

    Dennis – Don’t feel bad. I learn everything the hard way, too!

  30. Pam says:

    A response to Jane who sent in comment #6: It has been found that cocoa shell mulch is potentially lethal to pets because it contains the toxin Theobromine. Many dogs love chocolate, and it is this ingredient that makes dogs sick if they consume enough. They can even die. If a dog is around cocoa shell mulch and is unsupervised, it is likely to eat it as it would a chocolate bar and get very sick. I steer clear of cocoa shell mulch altogether.

  31. Susan In OH says:

    Interesting that no one has mentioned soaking your tulip bulbs in Bulb Guard which may be a mixture of red hot pepper, garlic, onion, oil, and a soap. Also sprinkle cayenne pepper into bird seed to deter squirrels, but doesn’t hurt the birds. Also I find a box of Irish Spring Soap opened at one end and laid by plants that appeal to ground hogs does the trick. How about the fishing line strung about 4′ off the ground around the perimeter of your property to deter deer?

  32. Josie says:

    I have found that using chopped garlic deter squirrels from digging in your flower beds. I buy chopped garlic from the dollar store and sprinkle it in my flower beds. The squirrels can’t stand the smell of garlic, and I have no problem with them digging up my bulbs I found this article in a book I was reading and decided to give it a try after trying everything else. This is the only thing that I have found that keeps them out of my flowers. Before I started using the chopped garlic I would plant garlic bulbs which also works. Hope this is helpful.

  33. Debbie says:

    I agree about the laziness of squirrels..I find that gently stomping on the ground after planting and before covering with fallen leaves, mulch, whatever has helped with my squirrel issues.

  34. Diane says:

    I am a lazy woman who lives in the woods. Too lazy for chicken wire. The critters have eaten my crocuses and my tulips, but mostly avoided the daffodils which came up last spring. Now I know, research before I plant. And I enjoy other people’s crocuses and tulips.

  35. Peggy Herron says:

    I have left beautiful blooming formal tulip beds at 4 o’clock and returned a few of days later with 800 tulip flowers snapped off at the base of the flower. I have tried mothballs, pounds of Indian hot pepper, coyote urine. Bobbex deer replant sprayed on and under the stems of each tulip as they grow ,about every three weeks. The park smells like fish for a couple of days but it works.
    It is also a fertilzer and not toxic to animals or the gardener .
    Somtimes planting late blooming tulips will be left alone to bloom.
    I use metal lawn staples or cut and bent wire hangers in the shape of a upside down U in pots or planters. The bent metal is stuck in the soil about 1 inch down ( just enough to hold the staple up all winter ) and 1 to 5 inches apart covering the whole planters surface . This prevent the little bastards from digging . The staples are hopefully removed before the bulbs start to come up.
    I feed and love squirrels . It is a love hate relationship.

  36. Joni D says:

    We don’t have problems with squirrels, however we do have a cat problem!! The little critters have decided to use one of my gardens for a litter box! NOTHING grows in that area! I have removed the soil and replaced it – worked in wood stove ash – and still nothing! The cats have taken care of the squirrels, but what takes care of the cats? These are feral cats, Our dog chases them, but isn’t outside 24/7!!! Always problems with something or another!

  37. María says:

    I am very thankful for all your teachings Kevin, I will look for the plants that you suggested. Can you please tell me if I should dig up the gladiolus before the snow come? Thank you in advance!

  38. Hi Maria – Wait until the foliage dies back, and then dig up your gladiolus bulbs or “corms.” Store the corms someplace dark, cool, and definitely dry. I store mine in a paper sack that I fill with vermiculite, sawdust, or bone-dry peat moss.

  39. Joy says:

    Bless you for your thoughtfulness towards the squirrel’s eyes!!! It is true what you say about red pepper and I wished more people were sensitive to that as well. Thank you Kevin!

  40. Kathryn Phillips says:

    Kevin – I just read your article on bulbs and squirrels and not only did I get my usual chuckle and some words of wisdom, but it also made me think back to when I worked part time at Home Depot. I was ringing up the bulbs a customer was purchasing and we were discussing how to deter squirrels. Another customer that was next in line asked, “Why would a squirrel dig up a light bulb?” Trust me, she was serious.

  41. hollie bamford says:
  42. Jacob says:

    @Kevin you spread some valuable information which is really useful for me because i feel this issue in my back space garden. I definitely recommend to other individual to read your tips.

  43. Great post. I am trying to focus mostly on plant selection to coexist with my deer and squirrel but you raise a good point with soil disturbance, I had my Allium dug up but uneaten. I’ll be sure to cover them next time.

  44. Tina says:

    Dear Kevin
    Just found your web page – thanks for the squirrel advice. It’s nice to know there are people who really pay attention to all aspects of their natural environment….I agree about the no pepper flakes – too mean. And I love the squirrel whisperer analogy! Thanks again.

  45. ceal whalen says:

    Thanks for the squirrel advise but what do you do to keep the deer from eating your tulips as they did to mine this year (I don’t have a squirrel issure)— they didn’t touch my next door neighbors!!!

  46. Joan says:

    I have read all your comments but none seems to solve my problem. Every year I plant Hyacinths and tulips and cover them with mulch (about 3″ of mulch) and every year they do not come up as the have squirrels eaten them. The ones that do come up the squirrels eat the flowers. Just today I went into my front garden and more bulbs have been eaten (I see the bits of bulbs and stems lying around). I have a cat who is always out but that does not seem to deter my unwelcome visitors. In the past couple of years I have literally planted hundreds of bulbs and get maybe 20% to come up.

    Can anyone help me here?

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