While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

The Tenacity of Life, Part IV, or No Garden for Old Squirrels

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My garden is home to a 70-some year-old Pieris japonica.  It is pruned to allow sunlight to filter through its 12 foot tall canopy and to highlight its twisted trunk and peeling bark.  This is no lollipop shrub – Pieris japonica may be a common plant but its austere beauty at maturity is rarely surpassed when allowed to show its pure form.  I can see most of the plant from a hall window, and a portion of the upper trunk and canopy is visible from a window above the kitchen sink.  It’s my daydreaming plant; I travel, have conversations, work out problems, etc., in the presence of this much loved shrub.  And while washing dishes one late June evening I noticed a large wound on an upper portion of the trunk.  Upon close inspection, I realized that this injury looked similar to a wound, now sealed, on the trunk of my young Acer japonica.  The Maple was stripped of bark early in its life by a hungry squirrel, the result being a 7 inch long, open gouge.  I enclosed the Maple in a squirrel-proof cage while the wound sealed, and I would have caged the squirrel had I been fast enough to catch him.  And I knew that the Pieris’ wound was caused by a bad case of Sciurus griseus, the Western Gray Squirrel.  The Pieris trunk was much too large to enclose in the same type of wire cage I used on the Maple, and too close to a concrete path to plant Mahonia or Berberius as deterrents.    So I decided to hang things from the canopy near the injury to discourage the little devil.  Since this technique is successfully used on fruit trees to keep Starlings away I was sure it would deter a squirrel, for these creatures are certainly less endowed with brain power than is a bird.

My first effort at discouraging the rodent involved hanging brightly colored plastic spinners from the canopy.  Colorful, but with no effect.  As a matter of fact, I think the squirrel enjoyed watching the spinners because he would sit on a limb close to them and stare as if hypnotized.

My second attempt was to wrap the injury, including above and below the damaged area, with bubble wrap.  To keep the wrap together I used duct tape, but the only tape on hand was bright lime green in color and printed with the peace sign (which did not influence my attitude one bit).  This method did have an effect, but not the one I aimed for.  The critter just moved down the trunk to resume his work, and my neighbor across the alley commented on my unique 4th of July decoration, and said he might try it at his house.

Not one to quit even while down, I tried something a bit more dramatic.  I coiled limbs from an enormous Rosa rugosa (from a demonstration garden I maintain) around the Pieris trunk, and tied them with heavy twine.  If you know the Rugosa rose, you know its thorns.  So it was with great determination, and in some pain, that I wrapped the Pieris trunk.  This should have slowed down the little squirrel – but it didn’t.  And finally, one sunny afternoon, I caught him in the act.  I charged out the back door, shouting, waving my arms, and making enough noise to upset the dog two houses down the alley.  The startled squirrel jumped off the trunk and flew past me, running through the covered work area, and down the sidewalk.  My spouse, who happened to be sitting at the kitchen table at the same time that the squirrel ran past, commented on the rodent’s girth – especially his rear end.  “It looks like it’s wearing furry parachute pants,” my spouse said.  Then he asked if this could be the same squirrel I had nursed back to health years ago. (At this point, I must confess that I have history with more than one squirrel.  About 13 years ago (before Pippin, aka the Handsome Hound, came to us), I found a tiny, starving squirrel pup hiding under a tree on the property line between mine and my neighbor’s yards.   As it didn’t run off when I found it, I thought I could help it by bringing food to its location.  My intent was that once recovered, it would return to its nest and that would be the end of it.  I was wrong.  That was just the beginning – it made itself at home in every garden bed on our property.  So maybe my spouse was correct and this was the same squirrel – older, bolder, and a little wider.)

I didn’t see Mr. Pants again for the rest of the summer.  In early fall, after determining that no more damage to the trunk had occurred, it appeared that he had given up and moved on to friendlier digs.  I removed the rose limbs (ouch!) and inspected the wound.  It was on the mend – and a cleaner wound than the maple had endured.   But to protect the shrub during the frantic activity of fall, I hung a large blue glass float wrapped in a heavy macrame hanger from the limb immediately above the old injury.  The float hung low enough that the squirrel would be hampered by it if he resumed his activity, which he did – and it did.   More than once I looked out the kitchen window to see him hanging upside down from the macrame holder, looking perplexed.

It was, also, around this time that our neighborhood was overrun with squirrels.  I claim no responsibility for this (I’m only feeding my crow, after all), but a next-door neighbor came over to visit and mentioned that squirrels woke him early that morning by rolling mysterious things down his roof.   He had let out his dogs to give chase, but this just resulted in more frantic activity on the roof and the dogs running in circles.  He never did find out what the squirrels had been playing with but the dogs found some apples (from my tree!) on the ground around his house.

A few days later I was witness to a 3-squirrel head-on collision at the ground feeder on our terrace.  I had just filled the feeder with peanuts in the shell, as my crow watched, when one squirrel charged up the sidewalk towards the feeder at the same time that Mr. Pants came running around the corner of the terrace and yet another squirrel ran to the feeder from the neighbors’ yard.  All three running at break-neck speed, all in the same direction, all with the same goal in mind.  Food!  This was when I realized that squirrels don’t do reverse.  The collision was dramatic and messy – legs, tails, peanuts, and fur flew in all directions.  The crow, the only creature with a working brain in this group, patiently waited out the chaos and ended up the lone recipient of the scattered nuts.

That same month brought an answer to one of Pippin’s prayers.  On a beautiful, sunny afternoon I went outside to begin removing a small patch of sod in the fenced portion of the yard that belonged to him.  He came outside with me and stretched out in the shade of our apple tree, contentedly chewing on a bone.   Out of the blue (actually, out of the tree) an apple and a squirrel fell to the ground and landed no more than 10 inches in front of the dog.  Pippin froze.  He stared at the poor stunned creature in the grass in front of him, blinked once, and then realized what had just happened.   He shot up to full attention, legs tense and tail flagging so fast that the white tip became a blur, and let loose with an ear-shattering, bone rattling, high-pitched bark directly in the stunned squirrel’s face.  Nothing happened.  The squirrel remained sprawled on the grass with its legs outstretched.  Pippin waited a second or two and let out with another mind-numbing bark while making a slight lunge in the squirrel’s direction.  This got the little guy’s attention – he jumped up and ran to the hedge with Pippin hot on his tail, baying, yelping, and barking at full volume.  The squirrel made an easy escape into the hedge but Pippin became stuck in the laurel, the small wire fence, and a 3’ x 5’ sword fern.  It took some time to disentangle the dog from the hedge limbs and fence, and pull him out of the flattened fern.  I brought him back to his bone, pulled sword fern out of his ears and out from under his collar, smoothed his ruffled fur, and patted him on the rear.  He licked my hand and looked up at me with an expression that said “This is the best day of my life!”

The life of a suburban squirrel can be difficult – they have been trapped, shot, poisoned, hunted, chased by dogs, eaten by coyotes or birds of prey, turned into stew, or run over by cars. I keep this in mind on those rare times when I shell out a meal or two for them, under the watchful eye of my crow.  It seems the least I can do to repay them for the many years of unintended enjoyment they have given me.

And as I put a few more peanuts in the feeder, I keep in mind that plants regrow and damage is repaired, and in some small way I make my garden a bit kinder to those creatures with whom I share space.

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Author: dphare2014

Horticulturist, Lead Steward Carkeek Park Demonstration Gardens, Author

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