Squirrel “Appreciation”

January 21st was National Squirrel Appreciation Day! It was also National Hugging Day, but I don’t recommend combining them and actually hugging a squirrel. Some of us find squirrels cute and huggable but others may find it hard to appreciate squirrels and may see them as more of a nuisance. They can be very entertaining, chasing each other and collecting acorns, but they can also raid bird feeders and dig up tulip bulbs.

When most of us think of squirrels, we think of tree squirrels. The squirrel family actually includes ground squirrels. Indiana has four native tree squirrels: Fox Squirrel, Eastern Gray Squirrel, Red Squirrel and Southern Flying Squirrel. There are also three native ground squirrels: Eastern chipmunk, Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel and Woodchucks. I was surprised to find Woodchucks in the squirrel family. I personally find it hard to appreciate Woodchucks because of the amount of vegetables they ate last summer in the Children’s Garden.

So what to do when nature’s cute fuzzy creatures and human projects collide? Wellfield Gardens are the perfect habitat for many of these animals, which makes it difficult to fault them for being here, doing what they usually do. They have no idea how much time and money we spent planting and nurturing that tree. They are as excited as we are to taste that cabbage we’ve been waiting for just the right time to harvest. Some of the cute critters we have to outsmart here at Wellfield include both tree and ground squirrels, particularly Woodchucks, rabbits, beavers, mice and voles. Our horticulture staff is made up of soft hearted individuals and the last thing we want to do is kill our furry friends.

Integrated Pest Management is a process of solving pest problems while minimizing risk to people and the environment. The pests in this blog are hairy rodents. Integrated Pest Management can also be applied to other pests, like weeds in the lawn, insects injuring flowers or fungal and bacterial infestations. At Wellfield, we are ever mindful that anything we do can have a direct impact on our environment, particularly Elkhart’s drinking water.

Physical controls or exclusion is our primary focus when trying to control animal behavior that affects what we are trying to accomplish at Wellfield. In fall 2020, the squirrels dug up numerous tulip bulbs before the ground froze. To stop them, we covered the bed with chicken wire, which kept the squirrels from digging but allowed the tulips to come up unimpeded in the spring. We hid the wire with a thin layer of compost. This seemed to work very well, so we did the same immediately after planting the bulbs this fall.

Rabbits are a problem, particularly around the maintenance area at Wellfield. A flat of petunias left within reach will not last long and potted saplings don’t stand a chance. As a result, we keep all rabbit candy out of reach, on potting benches. Anything that can’t be put up out of reach is surrounded by electrified fencing. Anything that we notice getting devoured during the growing season gets a spritz of Bobbex Animal Repellent. When applying, it smells like the rotten eggs it’s made from, but it seems to do the trick.

Woodchucks know where the vegetable gardens are and can’t wait to see what we are planting for them this year! The most successful deterrent seems to be the bendy fence in the Sensory Garden. It is wire fencing topped with pieces of rubber tubing or hose attached to more fencing that makes it difficult for woodchucks and raccoons to make it over the fence. We have tried planting a “bait crop” in the Children’s Garden, to no avail. They continue to eat everything that isn’t in the nightshade family, leaving only tomatoes and peppers. We will continue our quest to find ways to keep woodchucks out of the Children’s Garden.

Beavers are magnificent creatures that can do an extraordinary amount of damage in a short amount of time. Controlling their impact on the gardens has been an ongoing challenge, but we have had some recent success. Wire mesh has been placed around the trunks of at-risk trees; anything close to water, or trees preferred by beavers. A more aesthetically pleasing idea that we have been researching is the application of color matched latex paint mixed with sand. This method reportedly works better for larger trees and not saplings. Beaver fence, wire mesh secured to the bottom portion of the existing fence, has been installed in areas between Christiana Creek and Wellfield’s ponds. The beaver fence makes it impossible for the beavers to squeeze under the existing fence. We are also hoping to plant more of the beavers’ favorites on the creek side of the fence to encourage them to stay outside the gardens.

Like many homeowners, we have mice that find their way into the various buildings at Wellfield, particularly now as temperatures have dropped. Keeping entrance holes plugged keeps mice out and heat in. We make sure garbage is taken out or contained. Anything that could be eaten or used for bedding should be kept in a sealed container if possible. Any kind of poison should be avoided. Poison doesn’t just poison the mouse. Because poison can take some time to work, it will poison anything that eats the mouse. Cats, foxes, owls and even hawks have died as a result of eating poisoned rodents. If you have an aversion to any kind of trap, like I do, there is something to say for predators as rodent control. Cats have been used for centuries as a natural means of controlling the rodent population.

Our goal is to live in harmony with our environment, and that includes creatures that we sometimes consider pests. If you build it, they will come, and they have. Wellfield is a beautiful space and the perfect habitat for creatures big and small. We yearn for balance and finding the best way to exist together.

Amy Myers, Horticulture and Facilities Manager