Bunny rabbits and squirrels are adorable, up until the point when they bring Armageddon upon your garden. Then, they're twitchy, furry demons from hell. But holy water, silver crosses, and Latin babbling won't protect your garden from pests. Neither will wooden stakes unless they're holding up wire fencing or pinning down snares.
Here's what you can do to discourage squirrels, rabbits, and other fuzzy entities from your backyard. You don't even need to call a priest.
How to keep squirrels out of your garden
Furry-tailed tree rats (as well as ratty-tailed rats) will ravage anything within reach of their grubby little paws. Nuts are a no-brainer, but they love squash, strawberries, melons, tree fruit, and of course, seed-bearing sunflowers.
Squirrels have sharp claws, hind feet that are pointed the wrong way (that's some top-level evil right there) for better climbing and leaping, and their bushy tails help them keep their balance as they skitter gravity-defying angles, facing upwards, down, or completely inverted. According to the online wildlife guide Squirrels in the Attic, the Eastern squirrel can launch themselves four feet straight up in the air, and laterally leap nine feet with no altitude drop.
According to any Japanese horror movie adaptation, witnessing this kind of behavior means you're going to die a horrible death within 24 hours. Don't worry — that's barely true. Rabies can take weeks to kill you.
Unless you take serious precautions, your garden's pretty much doomed for eternity once it's on the local squirrels' radar. The best strategy is making your property less attractive to squirrels, so they don't claim it as their territory or nesting grounds. The ultimate squirrel-proof garden is a wasteland surrounded by steel sheet metal. You want to grow a lush, productive Eden. Here's how to compromise. Some of these strategies are on the extreme side, but we're throwing them out there anyway. And many of these work on other rodents and rabbits, too.
- Ask neighbors to trim trees that overhang your fenceline.
- Don't plant trees within leaping distance of wooden fences, rooflines, and trees beyond your property line.
- Place anti-squirrel barriers above and below your bird feeders. Spinny stuff is both effective and entertaining.
- Add cayenne pepper flakes to your bird feeders. Birds don't notice it, but rodents sure do!
- Repellent scents won't get rid of settled squirrels, but they may help deter squirrels from moving in.
- Paint your plants with the hottest, hell-fire pepper sauce you can get your hands on (but don't itch your nasty bits after doing so).
- Put hardware cloth over any possible point-of-access to your home, outbuildings, and drainage pipes.
- Stack firewood to reduce any gaps. Here's a good spot to stuff mothballs or rags soaked in repellents as a hail-mary.
- Fill in holes in your backyard as soon as you find them. Check around pavers and foundations.
- Seal up tree cavities.
- Place traps where you've observed squirrels entering your property.
- Place potted peppermint and rue around your garden. It might have a better effect on smaller rodents, but it's worth a try IF you crush a few leaves every day.
- Add deep mulch around vulnerable plants, leaving the customary 1" to 2" around stems to prevent rot. Squirrels have to work harder to bury their food, and it's easier for you to remove their caches.
- Give commercial deterrent sprays a try. They're moderately effective, but as part of an overall strategy, they might help fend off the little f***ers.
- Get a dog that likes to chase critters. Rat terriers, Jack Russell terriers, and dachshunds are natural-born squirrel killers. Prepare for a LOT of digging damage, though, and heckling from friends for having "fake dogs." Rottweilers are a bit over the top, but they do protect stuff buried in the ground.
- University of Georgia's extension program recommends placing 2"chicken wire over containers and raised beds.
- These simple DIY 1" chicken wire tubes, dug a few inches (or more) into the ground, will deter ground squirrels, rats, and rabbits. Square cages with tops (or tented chicken wire cloches) are better for tree-dwelling species and deer.
- On a similar theme, you can use inverted wire wastebaskets, troll craft shops for decorative cloches, or make your own out of chicken wire. Store-bought wire cloches will put a serious dent in your booze budget.
Female squirrels usually have their kits in early spring, often giving birth again in late summer. Time your squirrel-proofing accordingly to remove nests before they're occupied. Trapping baby squirrels inside nesting cavities is unpleasant on many levels.
What doesn't work to deter squirrels
David at Squirrels in the Attic tipped us off to the fact that ultrasonic devices aren't effective against rodents. In fact, in 2001, the FTC issued a warning to electronic anti-rodent devices to manufacturers, retailers, and wholesalers, and at least one company that markets them has been subjected to a class-action lawsuit.
What doesn't work for one gardener might work for you. Start with less expensive over-the-counter products, and go from there.
How to repel rabbits from your radishes and roses
"If we can eats it, bunnies wants it." And then some; The Spruce has a list of plant species those furry little Sméagols covet in their recent article, "Garden Plants That Rabbits Love to Eat." If your favorites are at risk, you'll want to take precautions to protect them.
If you skipped over the squirrel section, go back! Most of those anti-critter suggestions might also work on long-eared thieves, rats, mice, outdoor cats, and possibly pocket gophers.
Plant deterrents that may work on rabbits:
Deer are far more finicky than rabbits, so don't count on deer-resistant plants for landscaping if you live where there are lots of rabbits around.
- Cayenne pepper flakes
- Crushed or powdered garlic
- Garlic plants (particularly effective on Bunnicula)
- Onion plants
- Chive plants
- Ornamental alliums
- Marigold plants
- Rue plants
- Russian sage plants
- Vinca minor plants
These aren't necessarily deterrents (except for peppermint, which most animals don't like), but rabbits generally won't go for most herbs in the mint family. These include rosemary, lavender, basil, and oregano. Plant these as borders around your ornamental and veggie beds, and they might not notice the sinfully good stuff farther in. We prefer to rely on wire exclusion barriers, but you can learn more about growing these plants on our gardening blog.
When furry pests are winning the war in your garden
If all attempts at keeping rabbits and squirrels out of your garden have failed, or you're dealing with such overpopulation that you need to level the playing field, you can call in the pros or take matters into your own hands. Maybe have them go online and get ordained first, just for good measure.
Many gardeners might be horrified by the thought of killing cute, furry animals while others (we're looking at you, fellow Michiganders) just stopped reading altogether; they're digging through their recipe binders looking for Grandma's crispy critter fry batter, or rinsing out their pressure cookers. We've got solutions for every denomination here, so read on.
Ethically dispatching pest squirrels and rabbits
Some squirrels are invasive, and (quite literally) considered fair game for hunting or trapping. Check with your state's fish and game agency to find out which species are protected, whether there's a harvesting season in your area for unprotected species, or if you can hunt or trap them year-round. Ignorance won't get you off the hook if you're caught unlawfully double-tapping a squirrel or rabbit.
Your fish and game biologist will help you learn if your town or city has laws addressing poisoning, hunting, and trapping by property owners within urban limits. Most can refer you to professional wildlife control companies in case you get cold feet.
Effective traps for squirrels and rabbits include live traps and jaw (body) traps. We're not fans of leg and paw traps. Here are some resources and tutorials for trapping pest animals:
- How to Catch a Rabbit With a Live Animal Trap (Video)
- How to Set Up and Use a Cage Trap for Squirrels (Video)
- An overview of nuts as told by Harlan Pepper (Video). Note, macadamia nuts are toxic to pets.
- FAQs and legislation related to padded-jaw rabbit traps (PDF)
We don't want to get too deep into the subject of shooting and trapping varmints on your own, but we do want to warn you that there are very humane ways to do so. Drowning them in a live trap isn't one of them. If it's legal where you live, a 22lr rifle round is adequate for either animal. No BB gun has the velocity and energy to effectively dispatch a rabbit, and squirrels have unexpectedly thick hides. If you're thinking about arming yourself with a scoped pellet rifle, read this excellent article about hunting small game with air guns first. It's very important to use the right caliber, pellet weight, and velocity to humanely and safely take out rabbits and squirrels. And remember, the rules of gun safety apply to pellet guns.
Hiring a wildlife pest control company to eliminate rabbits and squirrels
These often differ from the insect exorcists who solve ant and roach problems as licenses and methods differ. You can always run to the hardware store and purchase your own traps, but they can get expensive, especially if you don't know how to use them, or you can't justify the expense with a delicious rabbit pot pie. Professional trappers understand their quarry's behavior and know where and how to set traps successfully. They'll also handle the unpleasant task of collecting and disposing of the varmint victims.
Releasing live-trapped animals to the wild
What about live trapping? Can't I insist the adorable little garden annihilators be released out in the woods or something? That fish and game biologist will break it to you gently, or come out with the cold hard truth: In most areas, invasive species may not be released back into the wild and must be destroyed. In many cases, trapped wildlife are territorial, and moving them to strange areas is akin to a death sentence. So don't feel guilty about sending them to their maker — or your kitchen.
The problem with poison
Even though some of the worst poisons are technically off the market, we're wary of toxins in available chemical controls. Pets and wildlife may eat carcasses or dying animals and get sick (or worse). Kids and pets can find the poison bait. And squirrels, being demon spawn, need higher doses than most pest rodents, increasing the risk while decreasing your odds of vanquishing them.
An infographic to remember easy tips
Save this handy infographic from Squirrels in the Attic for easy reference when plotting against the little furry invaders.
Down-home squirrel and rabbit recipes
Oh, come on. You knew we were gonna get around to it. Ready for some "caught cuisine"? When properly prepared and cooked, rabbit and squirrel are so tasty, it's unholy.
- "5 Squirrel Recipes You Won't Be Able to Resist" by Wide Open Spaces has some upscale squirrel recipes. How's that for an oxymoron?
- Fried Squirrel with Biscuits and Gravy from Practical Self Reliance. This is a refinement of a classic dish, with instructions for dressing (cleaning) squirrels.
- La Cajun's Squirrel Stew on Cooks.com. Tired of etouffee? Try this!
- Braised Rabbit with Herbed Dumplings by Steven Satterfield for the James Beard Foundation website. Ironically, this recipe includes carrots as well as herbs that tick off the bun buns. Take that, fuzzy devils!
- Fried Rabbit from Bon Appétit. Remember, in some circles, rabbit's a fancy-pants protein.
- Roasted, Bacon-Wrapped Rabbit from NYT Cooking. You don't need 30-50 feral hogs in your backyard. Just one, and a rabbit. And a bunch of herbs neither got to destroy.
Pro tip: Just tell the kids they're eating chicken. They won't know the difference, but you will, and you won't be disappointed! Gluttony is among the seven deadly sins, but lyin' ain't!
Don't keep Seed Needs out of your garden
We promise not to invade your woodpile, undermine your patio, swing on your bird feeders, or bury our lunch in your petunia beds. In fact, we won't show up unless we're specifically invoked. What we will do is guarantee you get fresh, plump, healthy seeds sourced from disease-resistant natural genetics. Contact us if you have any questions!