How to Stop Squirrels and Chipmunks from Damaging Your Plants

Here's how to outsmart the wily critters that dig up and nibble your favorite flowers.

Every gardener likely has a story about squirrels or chipmunks (or maybe even both) making a nuisance of themselves. For me, these cute but mischievous creatures seem to have an affinity for my containers. One year, I had a large pot of annuals on my doorstep, and every night when I came home from work, two or three of the plants would be dug up, lying wilted on the ground. I'd plant them again, and the squirrels would dig them up the next day. This went on for some time until I figured out a few ways to outsmart the critters. Here's how you can stop squirrels and chipmunks from eating flowering plants, vegetables, and fruit in your garden, too.

squirrel holding nut
Doug Stremel

1. Understand Why Squirrels and Chipmunks Dig

As exasperating as squirrels and chipmunks can be, there are several things we can do to coexist on more friendly terms. First of all, think about why these creatures do what they do. They eat nuts, leaves, berries, roots, and seeds. Generally, there is enough food for them in our backyard habitats, and they don't become pests.

Squirrels spend much of their day burying little stashes of food in multiple places around their territory. That's why they often are digging into the nice, soft soil you've just prepared. Chipmunks commonly store their food in one place and are delighted when they happen across a squirrel stash or your bulbs. As you can imagine, when one of these animals finds your bulb plantings, they think they've just arrived at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

2. Apply Cayenne Pepper or Other Repellent

Available at just about any grocery store, finely ground cayenne pepper can spice up your food as well as your garden. I tried sprinkling the soil in my front door container with cayenne pepper, and it worked. No more dug up plants to greet me every evening. Normally you have to reapply the pepper after each rain or every time you water the container, but I found that my squirrel lost interest after that and went off to dig somewhere else.

You can also use a number of repellents marketed specifically for squirrels and chipmunks. These products contain ingredients that are not harmful to your family or other backyard wildlife. One such product is Woodstream Get Away Squirrel, which uses capsaicin (the chemical that gives hot peppers their heat) as a deterrent. Many gardeners have luck by drenching the soil in plant containers with castor oil repellent, sold for mole control. Other repellents use predator urine to frighten rodents away. All of these products need to be reapplied after a time and certainly after a rain.

narcissus romance daffodil
Peter Krumhardt

3. Avoid Attracting Squirrels and Chipmunks as Much as Possible

To reduce your yard's attractiveness to squirrels, remove food sources such as pet food bowls or bird seed and reduce attractive habitat sites such as rock piles or fallen logs. You can also modify your plant choices when you know which species they don't like. For example, squirrels and chipmunks do not like the smell or taste of daffodils. They do, however, love to eat tulip bulbs. Planting daffodils with your other flowering bulbs can help mask the scent of tulips and help protect them.

Jay Wilde

4. Protect Bulbs from Digging Creatures

When planting spring flowering bulbs, make sure they are planted at the proper depth. Plant tulips and hyacinths 6 to 8 inches deep. Smaller bulbs, such as crocuses and grape hyacinths, should be planted 3 to 4 inches deep. After planting, tamp down the soil with your hands and water the planting area to make it more difficult for squirrels to dig up the bulbs.

Bulb cages (bought or homemade with chicken wire) work well for small plantings. If you have a large area to protect, try covering it with chicken wire after your fall planting is done. Tack down the wire and cover it with a thin layer of mulch to hide it. Remove the barrier in early spring as soon as you see your bulbs coming up.

Also, you can help hide your bulbs by spreading an even layer of mulch over the soil after you plant. Squirrels and chipmunks recognize freshly dug soil, so without that mask of mulch, they will have an easier time finding your freshly planted bulbs.

tomato Moskvich
Scott Little

5. Provide Water to Protect Your Veggies

In hot, dry summers, squirrels and chipmunks are looking for water and this is when they might get into the birdbath or vegetable garden. I learned about this firsthand one summer evening when the little devils harvested my nice, ripe tomatoes. They climbed a tree to dine in peace, and then dropped the half-eaten red bombs on my dinner guests!

I have since made sure there is a clean supply of water for all of the wildlife in my garden and in turn, they have left my tomatoes alone. If you find that squirrels and chipmunks are still eating berries, tomatoes, or anything else you had hoped to harvest, covering plants in heavy-duty garden netting might be your best bet.

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