Squirrel and rabbit-proofing the high desert garden

In the southwestern Mojave Desert ground squirrels of various species and rabbits will eat a garden as soon as it sprouts. They will consume leaves and unripe fruit from orchard trees as well. This may seem unusual since the genus name for our ground squirrels is Spermophilus, meaning seed-loving. The climate is harsh in the Mojave Desert and resources are scarce so the squirrels have become very adaptable in their diet. Erin and I have seen ground squirrels (both small Antelope ground squirrels and the much larger Beechey Ground squirrels climb and denude a fruit tree of its leaves in a couple of days. We have seen them later come back for unripe fruit.

These suggestions may or may not work for you if you garden or have a small orchard in the southwestern Mojave. These rodents are voracious.

I mention cats because my kids who live at Rainshadow Farm are allergic to dogs. I do have friends who garden and farm/ranch in the area who have dogs who are outside much of the day. It seems that a family dog or two may help deter both squirrels and rabbits. Some friends say that pigs will frighten off these raiders.

Squirrel proofing:

  • CATS
  • Coffee grounds around plants
  • Human hair around plants
  • Plants that seem to deter at RSF: rosemary, lavender
  • Plants to try at RSF: bitter herbs and other bitter plants. See below!
  • Try this:
    • 1 gallon of water
    • 6 capfuls of Murphy’s Oil Soap
    • 2 Tbsp. of cayenne pepper

Spray onto plants. This does not harm the plants and WILL keep the squirrels away!

  • They will not eat daffodil bulbs
  • They may not eat garlic
  • Sprinkle copious amounts of cayenne pepper around plants (be careful of eyes; wear gloves; can cause burns)
  • Try deer repellant
  • Sprinkle white vinegar around plants – doesn’t seem to work here
  • Install a fence of 1-inch mesh wire at least 30 inches high. The fence should extend 6 inches below ground, with an additional 6 inches bent outward at a 90-degree angle to discourage burrowing. Set at least two electrified strands, one 2 to 6 inches above ground and the other at fence height, off the fence about 3 inches. Doesn’t work – they use the mesh to climb up and over. Works sometimes with individual plants like tomatoes and zucchini if the top is pressed together. They can still get at some vegetables.
  • Protect trees by wrapping their trunks with metal sheeting or using baffles to keep the squirrels from climbing the tree. Remember to allow for tree growth when applying wrapping. Several friends do swear by this. This is one of our next projects.

***In the orchard to protect the trees. The ground and tree squirrels will climb and eat the blossoms in early spring and they will go after the fruit too: ***


Desert cottontail by Erin Ward.

Desert cottontail by Erin Ward.

Beechey ground squirrel by Erin Ward.

Beechey ground squirrel by Erin Ward.

Antelope ground squirrel by Erin Ward.

Antelope ground squirrel by Erin Ward.

  • CATS – may keep them more cautious.
  • Coffee grounds around plants – may work
  • Tea leaves – may work

Both tea and coffee will improve the soil.

  • Human hair around plants- unclear if this works (3/2013)
  • Plants that seem to deter at RSF: rosemary, lavender (3/2013)
  • Plants to try at RSF: bitter herbs and other bitter plants.
  • Protect trees by wrapping their trunks with metal sheeting or baffles to keep the squirrels from climbing the tree. Remember to allow for tree growth when applying wrapping.

Finally, there is the thought that plants themselves may help in keeping desert-grown vegetables and fruit safe. So-called bitter herbs and plants may help deter squirrels. Mostly my experience has been that the squirrels will jump through the herbs (but often not eat them) and that the rabbits will wade into the midst of them to get at what they want. Sometimes the rabbits will try a new herb a few times but, disliking them, after that leave them alone. Rosemary is perhaps the best deterrent I have found. The squirrels have avoided a certain nectarine tree that has an extremely prolific rosemary plant around its base. Rosemary grows very well in the high desert with a bit of extra water.

Many of the following bitter herbs and culinary plants can be used on the home farm in cooking or as medicinal teas and extracts. We have planted many of these experimentally. We can get nearly all to grow in the high desert; some will thrive.

  • Rosemary and lavender plantings have been a deterrent in the watering basin of the nectarine tree outside the patio door.
  • Use:
    • Rosemary
    • Lavender
    • Arugula
      • Bitter herbs:
        • Angelica
          • For centuries, people have used Angelica (Angelica archangelica) to remedy colds and ailments such as rheumatism. Its properties make it a stimulant, stomachic, and tonic. For liquors, it’s been used to flavor gin.
        • Chamomile
          • Chamomile’s (Matricaria chamomilla) curative properties include relief of both fever and restlessness. This mild bitter herb is used as a sedative and antispasmodic.
        • Dandelion
          • Dandelion (Taraxacum) is a mild bitter herb used as a blood cleanser and diuretic, which is also said to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. It is still used in traditional cooking in the Mediterranean and parts of Asia.
        • Goldenseal
          • Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis) is a strong bitter herb used to stimulate the appetite and eliminate infections. In Collections for an Essay Toward a Materia Medica of the United States (1804), Professor Benjamin Smith Barton declared goldenseal a tonic, observing, “The root of the plant is a very powerful bitter.”
        • Horehound
          • Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) dates back to Ancient Egypt and is believed to be one of the bitter herbs mentioned in the Bible. It has been used as a treatment for colds and respiratory ailments (such as in cough syrup and throat lozenges).
        • Motherwort
        • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
        • Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)
        •  Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
        • Hops
        • Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)
        • Wild Indigo
        • Meadow Sweet
        • Cranesbill Geranium
        • Catnip
        • Yucca
        • Iris
        • Daffodil
        • Narcissus
        • Iris
        • Lamb’s Ear (out here the rabbits love lamb’s ear, maybe the squirrels will not like it.

Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) – has many health benefits but is tropical. Bitter melon is a plant. The fruit and seeds are used to make medicine.

Bitter melon is used for various stomach and intestinal disorders including gastrointestinal (GI) upset, ulcers, colitis, constipation, and intestinal worms. It is also used for diabetes, kidney stones, fever, psoriasis, and liver disease; to start menstruation; and as supportive treatment for people with HIV/AIDS. It is an anti-viral. May prevent cancer cells from developing and/or multiplying.

Topically, bitter melon is used for deep skin infections (abscesses) and wounds.

Bitter melon is used as a vegetable in India and other Asian countries and as an ingredient in some kinds of curries.

How does it work?

Bitter melon contains a chemical that acts like insulin to help reduce blood sugar levels. Studies in mice indicate bitter melon seed may have a cardioprotective effect by down-regulating the NF-κB inflammatory pathway. (from WebMD)

Rabbit proofing:

  • Some of the above work for rabbits too.
  • Clover, grass, or plantain patch may keep them busy and out of the gardens. Planting extra greens for the rabbits also works for some people.
  • Mesh cylinders around plants is helpful.
  • Rabbit repellants may work; reapply every two weeks or after rainfall.
  • Create chicken wire cages or cloches for individual plants. Roll a piece of chicken wire into a tube, trimming any sharp edges. Twist one end of the chicken wire tube into a point, creating a cloche. Cloches can be placed around individual plants to protect them from being eaten. Ensure the cage/cloche is installed several inches into the ground, or mound soil around the base.
  • Placing wire or metal oven racks around plants may help prevent rabbits from eating garden the vegetables. The rabbits reportedly do not like to step among or stand upon the racks, and may look for food elsewhere.
  • Planting the following plants in the garden that rabbits supposedly do not like may deter them from eating the vegetables: Yarrow, Aster, Wild Indigo, Meadow Sweet, Cranesbill Geranium, Iris, Narcissus, Yucca, Lambs Ear  (hahaha, out here they love Lamb’s Ear), rosemary, lavender, and catnip.
  • Rabbit repellent tea: Homemade, organic mixture that can be sprayed onto the surface of plants: Place 2 tablespoons of cayenne pepper and 2 tablespoons of garlic powder into a coffee filter and twist it closed. Place this makeshift teabag into a jug or pitcher and pour about 32 ounces of warm water over it. Allow the mixture to steep overnight. It may be preferable to allow the mixture to steep outdoors, as it has a potent smell! Squeeze the filter gently when removing it from the water, being careful not to rip or tear it. Pour the resulting brew into a spray bottle, adding a squirt of dish soap, which allows the spray to adhere to plants’ leaves. Spray the concoction liberally onto the plants that are most targeted by rabbits. This mixture will need to be reapplied following a heavy rain.
  • Raised beds may be a deterrent to rabbits. A bed at least 18 inches high may work. Rabbits may nibble at the edges. Beds of concrete block or pressure treated 4 by 4’s make good raised beds. Out here they hop it.

Soon I will discuss our co-existence with the birds. Mainly the birds enjoy fruit as much as we do. The ravens enjoy raiding the chicken coop for an egg and will pick at and eat any area of freshly sprouting corn.

If we want to live up to the principles we hold dear as ecological gardeners and farmers, we will not destroy these animals. It is challenging to coexist on a piece of land, hoping to grow food and not kill hungry animals. We do not eat the squirrels and rabbits. Some of our neighbors wish to and that may play into their set of ecological controls. However it is not currently our way, so we have to continue to think creatively. Incidentally, cats and dogs do not generally kill the wildlife, although they may frighten them away, helping the garden grow somewhat more prolifically. Periodically a cat may catch a ground squirrel (the ground squirrels are very fast and very clever, so this is unusual). Rarely a dog will be fast and motivated enough to catch a ground squirrel. Larger and faster hunting breeds can, however, catch rabbits. Devouring the rabbit can be dangerous for the dog and it certainly does kill the rabbit. These aspects of such ecological controls are worth taking into consideration. They may or may not be suitable for you.

Raven perched on chicken coop at RSF.

Raven perched on chicken coop at RSF.

About rainshadowfarm

I teach anthropology, am an archaeologist, a drylands agroecologist, community educator, and a single mother of eight grown kids. I currently own and operate an educational and research farm in the southern Mojave Desert, Rainshadow Farm. I'm 100% West Virginia hillbilly. Not necessarily in that order.
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5 Responses to Squirrel and rabbit-proofing the high desert garden

  1. cmechilln says:

    Thanks for the info

  2. asaraha says:

    One comment about the suggestion to sprinkle white vinegar around plants – I have accidentally killed plants by getting white vinegar too close to them (I was aiming to keep down mold on the soil). It’s a known broadleaf herbicide. So don’t get it too close! But a bonus I suppose could be keeping down the weeds around the plants…

    • Thank you for this advice, asaraha. It’s good to know. I’ve given up with squirrel deterrence other than letting my cat patrol warn them off. The critters and weed out here are very tough and persistent. My current adaptation to desert growing is to plant copiously and hope for the best!

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