What’s the Most Squirrel-Proof Fruit?

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Depending on my mood I see our yard either as a sort of groovy, permacultural exercise in “abundance” or as an overpriced rodent feeder. It occurred to me this morning that we’ve been, inadvertently, running an experimental squirrel fruit buffet for ten years.

Perhaps it would be informative to see what trays in the buffet have any fruit left for the resident hominids. Towards that end, I’ve created an annoying, animated emoticon scale ranging from one to five squirrels with five being the most favored fruits and one being the least favored.

In the give up all hope category:

Figs: Squirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by Alephron
Everyone loves figs. Raccoons, squirrels, rats and even Roman emperors. I’ve even seen raccoons, in the middle of the day, feasting on our delicious Mission fig. It’s easy to see why. There’s nothing like a fresh fig. And fig season is so frustratingly short. Kind of like our youth!

Apples: Squirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by Alephron
We have two trees, a Winter Banana and a Fuji. The squirrels are welcome to the mealy Winter Banana apples. But those Fujis are just about the tastiest apple I’ve ever eaten. The squirrels usually manage to get them all.

Persimmons: Squirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by Alephron
We have both the non-astringent and astringent types of persimmons. The squirrels like to take a bite out of them before they are ripe, thus leaving them to rot on the tree. Persimmons take so long to mature that I doubt I’m going to get any this year before the squirrels get to them.

Peaches: Squirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by Alephron
I managed to harvest a few thanks to throwing some netting over the tree. But I was so stressed out by the prospect of finding the tree stripped of fruit that I became unpleasant to live with.

On the more hopeful side:

Avocados: Squirrel Icon by AlephronSquirrel Icon by Alephron
The damage here is more from rats than squirrels, I think. Typically, I’ll find an avocado with one bite near the stem on the ground. The good news is that those partially chewed avocados are, usually, still edible.

Pomegranates: Squirrel Icon by Alephron
I think this is the real winner in the squirrel/human fruit buffet fight. I’ve found squirrels trying to eat them but they have to chew through the thick and unappetizing skin. Plus the tree has hidden, wicked thorns. The downside is that these two qualities also make them difficult to harvest and eat. I use what we call the pomegranate spanking method to release the seeds. Squirrels have not yet figured this out.

What fruits do you manage to wrestle from the squirrels? What have you noticed in your garden?

The Fine Art of Determining Peach Ripeness

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How do you know when your peaces are ready to pick? For home growers it’s all about color. According to the University of Georgia,

Ground color is the best field indicator of peach maturity. . . The ground color of a peach approaching maturity is light green. A break in color toward yellow is the first definite indication of maturity. Brightening of the red over-color of the skin is another, though less reliable, index of maturity. Red color is typically dull prior to the green to yellow break. When the underlying ground color breaks to yellow, the red brightens and can easily be selected. Color judgments are reliable with many older varieties, but new highly colored varieties with higher percentages of red over-color have diminished the usefulness of color in maturity determination.

Farmers have access to a few tools that can make ripeness determination easier such as this expensive gadget that measures firmness or a brix meter for determining sugar content. These tools could only be justified if you were planning on growing, shipping and selling fruit. More useful for us backyard growers is this gallery of peach fruit color stages.

I’ve been picking them a little on the green side and letting them ripen inside in order to stay ahead of the squirrel menace. This year we’ve eaten a lot more peaches than the squirrels have.

How to Squirrel Proof Your Fruit Trees

IMG_7297We’ve been guilty in the past of claiming that growing fruit is labor-free. That’s a lazy blogger’s lie. The truth is that you have to stay on top of pruning, irrigation, fruit thinning, fertilizing and pest prevention if you want to harvest any fruit. After not getting a single peach off our small tree last year due to squirrels, I vowed to do things differently this year.

I considered a number of squirrel prevention techniques:

  • Metal collars on trunks. This doesn’t work, especially in urban areas. Squirrels are superb acrobats and can simply jump from a roof, fence or adjacent tree on to your fruit tree.
  • Trapping, killing, hunting. I don’t have the heart to do this and it’s illegal in urban areas but it is what professional orchardists do.
  • Electronic or visual frightening devices. According to UC Davis, these don’t work. Squirrels aren’t dumb.
  • Dogs. Maybe, but it depends on the dog. Our late doberman was more interested in alerting us to the mail carrier’s rounds. He was more interested but, ultimately, unsuccessful in his 13 year battle against skunks.

Exclusion with plastic bird netting is the most promising technique for urban areas. In order to do this you need to keep the tree pruned to a manageable size. I purchased a 14-foot by 14-foot piece of bird netting and Kelly and I put it on the tree (it’s a two-person job as bird netting is a pain to work with). We secured it with clothes pins. You must be absolutely certain to leave no gaps in the net. If you leave a gap you could trap birds and the squirrels will also work their way in. The next step is to keep a close eye on the fruit and harvest it as soon as you can, perhaps a little sooner than is ideal.

Unfortunately, squirrels can easily chew through bird netting so this method is far from foolproof. According to UC Davis, exclusionary methods will only work if the squirrels have other things to eat. Another argument for biodiversity in our landscapes, I suppose.

If you know of any foolproof squirrel prevention techniques please leave a comment!

083 Kris De Decker of Low Tech Magazine

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Our guest this week is journalist Kris De Decker, the creator of Low Tech Magazine, a blog published in English, Dutch and Spanish that covers low tech solutions in great depth and detail. Without exaggeration, I think it’s safe to say it’s my favorite blog. On the podcast we discuss high tech problems, Catalan vaulting, fruit walls, Chinese wheelbarrows, open modular hardware, fireless cookers and alternate forms of the internet.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

I picked a peck of pickled peaches

IMG_7181Each year I thin our peach tree to assure that, in a month, the squirrel population will access only the largest and most succulent peaches. The other reason to thin a peach tree is that if you don’t it will collapse of its own weight, like those industrial broiler chickens that can’t stand up if you let them live past the eating stage.

But what to do with all those immature peaches? Yes, you can pickle them. This I learned from Kevin West’s bible of food preservation, Saving the Season. In the introduction to his pickled green almond recipe (p. 103) West notes that immature stone fruit such as peaches and nectarines can be pickled in the same way as green almonds (almonds are a stone fruit too).

If you don't thin this branch it will break off.

If you don’t thin this branch it will break off.

I’d share Kevin’s recipe with you but he’s a fellow author and you really should own his book, Saving the Season. It’s the classiest food preservation book out there. Plus Kevin could have me killed and pickled (just kidding). What I can tell you is that this is a quick, vinegar powered refrigerator pickle. Any similar vinegar pickle recipe will work. West’s recipe calls for white wine vinegar. I ran out and substituted the vinegar you clean floors with. Nevertheless, they came out fine and resemble large olives.

Should you want to try pickling green almonds, by the way, you can sometimes find them in Middle Eastern grocery stores and some farmers markets (our local Armenian supermarket Super King sometimes has them if you can survive the infamous parking lot).