Squirrels are ubiquitous in many parts of the world, often seen scampering along tree branches, gathering nuts, and playing in open spaces. While they are a beloved animal by many, squirrels can cause problems for gardeners, particularly when it comes to tomatoes. In this guide, we will explore the biology and diet of squirrels, the appeal of tomatoes to these creatures, the impact of squirrels on tomato gardens, and tips for protecting your garden from these critters.
Squirrel Biology and Diet
Overview of Common Squirrel Species
There are over 200 species of squirrels, but the most common species in North America are gray squirrels, red squirrels, and fox squirrels.
Gray squirrels are one of the most widespread species of squirrels in North America. They are known for their bushy tails and gray fur, which can sometimes have a reddish tinge. Gray squirrels are arboreal creatures and spend most of their time in trees, where they build their nests.
Red squirrels are smaller than gray squirrels and have a distinctive rust-colored coat. They are also arboreal creatures and spend most of their time in trees. Red squirrels are more common in Canada and the northern United States.
Fox squirrels are larger than both gray and red squirrels and have a distinctive rusty-brown coat. They are found throughout much of the United States and prefer to live in wooded areas.
General Squirrel Diet
Squirrels are omnivores and have a diverse diet that includes nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and insects and small animals. Some of the most common food items in a squirrel’s diet include:
Nuts and Seeds
Squirrels are known for their love of nuts and seeds, particularly acorns, walnuts, and hickory nuts. They also eat seeds from plants such as sunflowers and pumpkins.
Fruits and Vegetables
Squirrels will eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including berries, apples, pears, corn, and carrots.
Insects and Small Animals
Squirrels will also eat insects, such as grasshoppers and caterpillars, as well as small animals like bird eggs and baby mice.
Factors Affecting Squirrel Food Preferences
Several factors can influence a squirrel’s food preferences, including:
The availability of different food sources can change throughout the year, depending on the season. For example, in the fall, nuts and seeds may be more abundant, while in the summer, fruits and vegetables may be more readily available.
Different squirrel species may have different habitat preferences, which can impact their diet. For example, gray squirrels are more commonly found in urban and suburban areas, where they have access to a variety of human-provided food sources.
Competition with other animals, such as birds and other squirrels, can also influence a squirrel’s food preferences. Squirrels may change their diet to avoid competition or to take advantage of food sources that are more readily available.
Squirrels and Tomatoes: The Connection
The Appeal of Tomatoes to Squirrels
Tomatoes are a popular food source for many animals, including squirrels. There are several reasons why squirrels may be attracted to tomatoes:
Tomatoes are a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C and potassium, which can be beneficial for squirrels.
Tomatoes are also high in water content, which can be especially appealing to squirrels during hot, dry weather.
Ease of Access
Tomatoes are easy for squirrels to access, as they grow on low plants and can be easily climbed. Additionally, squirrels are adept at climbing trees and may be able to access tomatoes growing higher up on the plant.
Evidence of Squirrels Eating Tomatoes
There is ample evidence to suggest that squirrels will eat tomatoes if given the opportunity. Observational studies have shown that squirrels will eat tomatoes, and anecdotal reports from gardeners and homeowners have also documented squirrel tomato consumption.
Impact of Squirrels on Tomato Gardens
Direct Damage to Tomato Plants
Squirrels can cause direct damage to tomato plants in several ways, including:
Consumption of Fruit
Squirrels may eat ripe tomatoes or take bites out of unripe tomatoes, damaging the fruit and making it unsuitable for human consumption.
Damage to Stems and Leaves
Squirrels may also damage tomato plants by chewing on stems and leaves, which can stunt growth and reduce yields.
Indirect Damage to Gardens
In addition to direct damage to tomato plants, squirrels can also cause indirect damage to gardens in several ways, including:
Squirrels may dig holes in the soil around tomato plants, which can damage roots and disrupt soil structure.
Spread of Disease and Pests
Squirrels may carry and spread diseases and pests that can impact tomato plants and other garden crops.
Tips for Protecting Your Tomato Garden from Squirrels
There are several strategies that gardeners can use to protect their tomato plants from squirrels:
Physical barriers can be an effective way to keep squirrels away from tomato plants. Some common physical barriers include:
Fencing around the garden can help keep squirrels out. Fencing should be at least six feet tall and buried at least six inches deep to prevent squirrels from digging under.
Netting and Cages
Netting and cages can also be used to protect tomato plants from squirrels. These should be made of durable materials that squirrels cannot chew through.
Tree Guards and Baffles
Tree guards and baffles can be used to prevent squirrels from climbing trees and accessing tomatoes growing higher up on the plant.
Deterrents and Repellents
Deterrents and repellents can be used to discourage squirrels from coming into the garden. Some common deterrents and repellents include:
Natural repellents, such as spices and strong-smelling plants, can be used to repel squirrels. Predator urine can also be effective in keeping squirrels away.
Commercial repellents, such as chemical deterrents and ultrasonic devices, can also be effective in keeping squirrels away from tomato plants.
Habitat modification can be an effective long-term strategy for preventing squirrel damage to tomato plants. Some habitat modification strategies include:
Removing Food Sources
Removing food sources, such as bird feeders or fallen fruit, can help discourage squirrels from coming into the garden.
Trimming Trees and Shrubs
Trimming trees and shrubs around the garden can make it more difficult for squirrels to access tomato plants.
Providing Alternative Food Sources
Providing alternative food sources, such as squirrel feeders filled with nuts and seeds, can help divert squirrels away from tomato plants.
Alternative Solutions for Squirrel Problems
In some cases, it may be necessary to remove squirrels from the garden altogether. Some alternative solutions for squirrel problems include:
Live Trapping and Relocation
Live trapping and relocation can be used to remove squirrels from the garden. However, this strategy may not be effective in the long term, as new squirrels may move in to take their place.
Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers
Wildlife rehabilitation centers can provide advice on dealing with squirrels and other wildlife in the garden. They may also be able to take in squirrels that need to be relocated.
Consulting with Local Wildlife Experts
Consulting with local wildlife experts, such as conservation officers or wildlife biologists, can also provide helpful advice on dealing with squirrels in the garden.
Squirrels can be a challenging problem for gardeners, particularly when it comes to protecting tomato plants. However, with the right strategies, it is possible to coexist with squirrels in a balanced ecosystem. By using physical barriers, deterrents and repellents, and habitat modification strategies, gardeners can protect their tomato plants from squirrel damage while still providing a home for these beloved creatures.