Post #G28: Squirrels are just rats with fluffy tails, UPDATED

Posted on September 27, 2020

Remember the popular kids’ cartoon about Rocket J. Rat and his pal Bullwinkle Opossum?  No, guess not.  Must be the naked tail, or something.  Nobody seems to like rats or possums.

But squirrels are cuuuute!

Cute obnoxious destructive pests, in the garden.  That said, this is not an anti-squirrel screed.  Much.

This is a report about two commonly-suggested methods for preventing squirrel damage to pumpkins and other winter squash.  For me, one worked, one didn’t.  Given that it’s the time of year when squirrels seem to be gnawing on everything not protected by heavy steel mesh, I thought I’d report that out.

Coating the outside of the pumpkin with the hottest, cheapest hot sauce I could find seems to have worked.  Making my own “capsaicin spray” from hot pepper flakes, following common internet guidance, did not.

Short edit on 10/4/2020:  Just use floating row cover, it’s easier.  See Post #G30.

Long edit on 10/1/2020, which you should read before you bother to read the rest of this.

 The big weakness to this method is that hot sauce washes off.  Now, I knew that up front.  And in one sense, that’s a plus, because I intend to eat these pumpkins.  But I knew that meant that I’d have to re-coat after every rain.  And I have been doing that.

What I didn’t know, until yesterday, is that every rainstorm creates a window of opportunity that the @$@#$ squirrels can exploit.  They managed to get in another few bites between the time the rain started and the time I got the pumpkins re-coated.

In the end, this hot-sauce method, by itself, greatly reduces but does not fully eliminate squirrel damage.  That’s due to the short “window of opportunity” created by every rainstorm.  It changes the pumpkins from being an all-day every-day squirrel snack, to an occasional squirrel treat. 

Which is good.  But not good enough.

Commercial pepper sprays, by contrast, are typically wax-based and so should not easily wash off.  So that’s definitely an option.  I just am not thrilled with the idea of putting $20 worth of pepper spray on what probably amounts to $20 worth of pumpkins.  And then having to deal with processing a wax-and-pepper-covered pumpkin, and have it remain edible.

The same economic logic applies to making hardware cloth (metal mesh) cages for each pumpkin.  Aside from the labor, and the look, the cost of the hardware cloth could easily exceed the store-bought value of the pumpkin.  (Ignoring the fact that the hardware cloth could be re-used.)  Pretty sure I could make that work, but pretty sure I’m both too cheap and too lazy to pursue it.

Arguably the best advice I read on the internet was to get a Fiest.  That is, a dog specially bred to go after varmints.  Not an option for me.

So, I’m trying another cheap approach, using materials I have on hand, which is to wrap the pumpkins in a couple of layers of floating row cover.  Several social-media commenters suggested that this would work, although why that would work is beyond me, as squirrels can easily chew through it.  But, given that I have a big roll of it, I figured it was worth a try.  I splashed a little hot sauce on the row cover material when I was done, just for good luck.

I worry that this might affect (e.g.) the ripening of the pumpkin.  But if I don’t manage to stop the squirrels, I won’t have to worry about that at all, as all my pumpkins will be trashed. So I thought it was worth a try.

I’ll report back on the apparent success or failure of this method.  If it doesn’t work, I’m back to hot sauce, and just putting up with whatever damage occurs during and immediately after rainstorms.

The original post follows.

Something has been gnawing on the pumpkins in my garden for a few weeks now.  I wasn’t really sure what was causing it, but “squirrels” would be a good guess, based on the marks that were made.  Little chips taken out of the surface, and the occasional gouge.

The damage has been ramping up as we get closer to fall, and I finally caught one in the act earlier this week. So I finally knew who the culprit was.

So, what to do?

I tried a cure often mentioned in social media, which was to make my own “capsaicin” spray by boiling up pepper flakes, letting that sit, and decanting the liquid to a spray bottle.  Despite using the hottest peppers I owned (Korean pepper flakes for making kimchi), this did not appear to deter the squirrels at all.

By contrast, smearing hot sauce onto my pumpkins, straight from the bottle, appears to have worked.  I went to the grocery store and bought some bottles of cheap hot sauce with a first-listed ingredient of peppers.  And it looks like about 75 cents worth of hot sauce will do one treatment for the ten or so pumpkins that remain in my garden.

I could have bought a commercial garden pepper spray.  For $20.  And waited for it to be delivered.  And then ended up with yet another bottle of something, sitting on the shelf.  But this way, anything left at the end of the season — heck, I’ll just eat it.  Cheap, neat, and effective.

The one major downside is that the pepper sauce is water-soluble.  I have to re-apply after every rain.  But with ten pumpkins, that’s not hugely burdensome.

A minor downside is that I can’t spray it. (Which may be why people will tell you to make your own sprayable solution from pepper flakes.)  I tried mixing hot sauce with water and spraying it, but it rapidly clogged my spray bottle.  When all was said and done, it’s just easier to shake a little bit directly out of the bottle, onto the pumpkin, and smear that around.

I have no clue whether this will affect the taste of the pumpkins.  (I’m growing them for food, not for fun).  And you certainly wouldn’t want kids (or adults, for that matter) handling these after they’ve been heavily peppered.  But in terms of being an effective squirrel repellent, I’m giving this a thumbs up.

Don’t mess around with trying to make some sort of spray.  Just use hot sauce straight from the bottle.