My garden is large. It is filled with plants that provide food, shelter, and nesting materials for wildlife – some of whom are less welcome than others. There is no shortage of places to hide, to hunt, to nest, to bury food for later, and to forget where food is stored. In winter, early spring, and late autumn, we provide supplemental food for birds and for a few opportunistic rodents with big, furry tails. We have a fish pond and a bird bath to provide water and an occasional snack for the heron that lives in a near-by park. The landscape has been maintained with organic pest control methods for over 20 years so our population of beneficial insects is high and our pest insect population is low. I think we’ve done well by the creatures who visit here. So I ask this question almost every summer: why is someone digging holes in my container gardens? Why not just the gardens?
I never catch the culprit in action, rarely find anything hidden in the containers, and never discover plants removed from the containers. This has been a mystery and a source of irritation for a many years. Most mornings when I water the containers, all is well. But on occasional mornings I will find a messy mound of potting soil near the edge of the container and a large, deep hole in front of the mound. Of course, I’m sure a squirrel is responsible but I never find a morsel of food, a nut, or even an acorn in the container. Nothing. And, as I said, I never catch the culprit in action.
So I was mightily surprised one recent sunny morning when I walked around the corner of the house, watering pail in hand, and found – right there in my favorite container with my favorite plants, hind quarters up and head down – the 4-legged criminal! Caught in the act! And he was busy! Frantic digging splashed potting soil around the container, over the plants, and down to the pavement. This squirrel was on a mission. Whatever he lost he needed back in a bad way, and fast. At this point it should be noted that the squirrels in my garden tend to arrive with plenty but often leave with nothing. It is not surprising to find squirrels all around my garden busily digging, finding nothing, running to another spot to dig, finding nothing there, and running to yet another area. This goes on for hours. The reason for this is that the crow family I seem to be supporting will perch on the roof of my house and watch where these guys bury the goods. And crows don’t forget what they observe. As squirrels run around my garden like wind-up toys with broken springs burying their stash for a future that never arrives, the crows sit upon my roof and calmly watch the show. I think they laugh. I certainly do because I know who will be the lucky recipients of the many stashes around my garden. Sure enough, as soon as a squirrel leaves the area he just buried something in, a crow swoops down to retrieve the prize. Anyway, I watched this little guy dig down into my container as if looking for the best nut ever created until he realized I was behind him. He shot out of the container, spun around, and landed on the pavement in one motion. And there he sat, perched on four tense, quivering little legs, tail twitching alarmingly, and stared at me. I stared back. He twitched. I didn’t. Then he raised up on his hind legs and began puffing out his cheeks, making a small huffing sounds with each puff. I tried not to laugh as I said “Shoo!” I imagined him saying to me, in a wise-guy voice, “You talkin’ to me?”
At that point, he took one little hop towards me. This did make me laugh but I accepted the challenge and took a step towards him. We stared at each other, neither blinking. Wondering how long this could continue, I decided to begin cleaning the mess he had made in my container while watching him out of the corner of my eye. He dropped down to all-4’s again and watched my every move but stood his ground. I took my time (being stubborn, I guess) and slowly, carefully returned the soil to the pot where it belonged. I straightened out the foliage of the creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), put the little malachite frog (a gift from my brother) back in its rightful place, and walked back around the corner. There I stood, out of sight of the squirrel, and waited. Sure enough, in a flash he jumped back up into the container and resumed digging. This must have been the nut to end all nuts, because I walked back into his sightline but he didn’t budge. In fact, he gave me one hard, determined look (this time I imagined him saying “You want a piece a’ me?”) and continued to make a mess of the container. I decided to see this through so I left him alone. After making a messy hole in the same spot I had repaired and finding nothing (don’t these guys remember anything?), he sprang around to the other side of the pot and began digging there. Sure enough, this was the place! Soon he had dug down deep enough to find a large Brazil nut – pure gold in the rodent world, apparently. With the nut in his mouth, he leapt down to the pavement with me right on his tail. He turned to face me, stood straight up on his hind legs again, twitched his tail, and gave me a look that said “Mess with me and you’ll regret it!” At which point I decided that any squirrel brave enough to stare down a human in gardening clothes with gardening tools close by deserves to keep what he finds. Then he turned and ran up the large, statuesque Pieris he uses as a freeway overpass between my and my neighbor’s yard, and disappeared.
The container is no worse for the experience and the squirrel finally found the nut of his dreams, and I had an entertaining morning in the midst of day full of chores. Sometimes, nothing else is needed to make a day good but the snack of your dreams and a laugh.