If you're an avid gardener, you've probably dealt with your fair share of pests. From creepy crawlers to rodents, these critters can hinder your attempts at gardening and add a great deal of frustration to the process. Case in point: squirrels and chipmunks. Common in neighborhoods with old, mature trees, they can be the bane of gardeners who like to plant spring-blooming bulbs such as tulips and crocus. If you have an issue with spring bulbs being dug up and eaten, you're in luck—these easy tips will help you protect your garden all season long.
Squirrels and Bulbs
A large population of tree squirrels or chipmunks can make it virtually impossible to grow tulips or other bulbs without extensive control measures. Because these rodents cannot digest cellulose material, they depend on protein-rich plant structures, like those found in nuts and bulbs, to survive.
Gardeners are a squirrel's best friend, and squirrels are constantly digging to find (and hide) nuts and bulbs. Squirrels have even been known to sit and watch gardeners plant their bulbs, anticipating a feast shortly after the gardener is finished planting. Fall planting season can be especially tricky because that's when other food sources are beginning to dwindle, and squirrels and chipmunks are on the hunt to gather enough food to last through winter.
How to Protect Your Bulbs
Luckily, there are several things you can do to keep your bulbs in the ground where they belong. From physical barriers meant to keep critters at bay to handy ingredient swaps that will deter attention from your garden, the following methods can help keep squirrels and chipmunks from scavenging your prized bulbs.
Cover Your Bulbs
One of the most foolproof ways to protect your bulbs from ravenous squirrels and chipmunks is to cover the planting area with either chicken wire or hardware cloth (hardware cloth is a metal mesh much like chicken wire except that it has a smaller grid pattern).
There are two ways to use chicken wire or hardware cloth to protect your bulbs. You can cut a section of the material that's large enough to cover the overall size of the planting area. Lay it on top of the soil after you have planted the bulbs and secure it in place with stakes or by weighing it down with rocks or bricks. Cover the material with a mulch of shredded leaves or bark to hide the wire. Bulb stems will grow through the holes in the chicken wire or hardware cloth, but the bulbs themselves will be protected from digging critters. This technique works best in open areas where you won't have to work around perennials or other plants.
Alternately, you can use chicken wire or hardware cloth to make simple cages, placing the bulbs inside the cage and then placing the structure in the planting hole. These enclosures are especially effective against tunneling animals, such as voles, that also feed on bulbs.
Avoid Smelly Fertilizers
Bone meal, fish emulsion, blood meal, and some other natural fertilizers have a pungent aroma that might attract squirrels and chipmunks—not to mention digging dogs, cats, and other animals. Avoid these natural fertilizers in favor of synthetic fertilizers that have no odor if your garden has a history of issues with critters that dig.
Plant Your Bulbs Among Other Plants
When you plant spring bulbs among established groundcovers or other perennials, like creeping vinca or pachysandra, squirrels have a harder time finding the bulbs and digging them up. Another advantage to this strategy is that your spring bulbs will supply early color to colorless areas before the summer perennials begin to fill in.
Use Natural Repellents
Several organic repellents are on the market that might work wonders when it comes to keeping critters out of your garden. There is no need to limit your purchases to just squirrel and rodent repellents--organic deer repellents can also be effective. Another natural repellent method that's effective against squirrels is red pepper flakes—a liberal sprinkle over planted bulbs can do an excellent job of discouraging hungry squirrels from digging.
Add Sharp Gravel
If you're planting bulbs in an established garden bed, consider adding sharp gravel to the surrounding soil. When squirrels encounter jagged material, they'll often leave to find a new place to scavenge. You can find sharp gravel in home improvement centers or landscape supply yards (it's typically used to provide drainage under paved surfaces). Crushed oyster shells, which have an unpleasant gritty texture, might also stop squirrels from digging.
Provide Alternate Food Sources
The theory behind setting up a squirrel feeding station near your garden is that if the squirrels have easily-accessible grains and nuts, they won't bother trying to dig up your bulbs. This method is controversial— some experts believe that the food merely attracts more squirrels to your yard, and they will dig up your bulbs anyway. Keep in mind, however, in areas where squirrel infestations are unusually heavy, you might be violating local ordinances if you feed squirrels and other wild animals.
Clean Up Your Planting Areas
When you're finished planting your bulbs, remove any outer papery layers that might have dislodged from the bulbs, damaged bulbs you decided not to plant, or other plant debris. Such materials can signal the attention of squirrels, who will start digging to see what other goodies you've left lying around for them.
Plant Bulbs That Squirrels Don't Prefer
Squirrels are very fond of some bulbs, such as tulips and crocus, but other spring-blooming bulbs are not on their preferred menu. If you have a significant critter issue, you can replace your tulips and crocus with bulbs that are less-desirable to squirrels, or simply mix them in among your existing bulbs as a deterrent (a few bites of something bitter might keep the squirrels away from your yard). Bulbs that are not preferred by squirrels include daffodils, alliums (also onions and garlic), scilla, hyacinth, muscari (grape hyacinth), fritillaria, and snowdrops.
Delay Planting Time
The squirrel and chipmunk feeding frenzy typically peaks in early fall and begins to quiet down by late October when the rodents have already stored away most of their winter food supply. If possible, plant your spring-blooming bulbs somewhat later in the season, when squirrels are no longer desperately filling their stores for winter.