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!

Coffee Grounds in the Garden

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According to a handy fact sheet from Washington State University, Coffee grounds will buzz your garden. Coffee grounds build humus, boost nitrogen, phosphorus and zinc, bind pesticides and toxins, prevent bacterial and fungal infections and feed earthworms. Authored by Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, Extension Urban Horticulturist and Associate Professor, this peer-reviewed pamphlet also provides a set of suggestions for using coffee grounds in the garden:

  • Coffee grounds should be composted before used as a soil amendment but can be used fresh as a mulch.
  • Fresh grounds are phytotoxic, so keep them away from direct contact with roots.
  • Coffee grounds will not necessarily make your soil more acidic.
  • Don’t use coffee grounds where you are starting seeds.
  • Despite rumors, coffee grounds do not repel pests.
  • Let coffee grounds cool before adding to compost bin so you don’t kill beneficial microbes. And don’t let coffee grounds amount to more than 20% of your compost pile.
  • Don’t add coffee grounds to vermicomposting bins.

If you’re using coffee grounds as a mulch Chalker-Scott has two suggestions:

  • Apply a thin layer (no more than half an inch) of coffee grounds. Cover with a thicker layer (four inches) of coarse organic mulch like wood chips (Chalker-Scott 2015). This will protect the coffee grounds from compaction.
  • Don’t apply thick layers of coffee grounds as a standalone mulch. Because they are finely textured and easily compacted, coffee grounds can interfere with moisture and air movement in soils.

How to Rodent Proof a Chicken Coop

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One morning I opened the metal trash can I used to keep the chicken feed in and plunged a scoop into the feed. In that cup of feed there was some additional protein in the form of a small, freaked-out mouse. I shrieked and the mouse jumped out of my hand and dashed off. Then I peered into the bag of feed. Like the plot of a rodent horror movie, I found two other mice running around along with a dead and bloody mouse. I’ll leave it to you to fill in the mysterious details of that story. But I knew it was time to deal with the problem.

Thankfully, like Dr. Maurice Pitesky mentioned in the podcast on Wednesday, most chicken pest problems can be taken care of with simple sanitation. In my case that meant putting the food away at night and investing in rodent proof feed containers.

Every night I put the entire feeder within the trash can you can see in the picture on the right (it has a much more secure lid than the larger can I used to keep the feed in). In the morning I put the food out again for our four hens. It means that I have to get up just a few minutes earlier than I usually do but that’s not a big deal as I’m one of those tedious and boring morning persons.

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Some folks use rodent proof treadle feeders. These feeders open when the hens step on a small metal platform. I was sent a treadle feeder like the one above but my skittish hens would not get anywhere near it even with the treadle kept open. I probably could have trained them to use it but I’ve found that putting the feed away at night is no big chore. I gave the treadle feeder away to some other chicken enthusiasts whose hens are less afraid of the contraption.

As to rodent-proof feed containers I’m using two Vittle Vaults, one for the feed and the other for scratch. They have a locking, rodent and water proof lid. The small trash can in the picture (that I put the whole feeder in at night) seems to be working.

For more information on controlling mice and rats see UC Davis’ Integrated Pest Management information for rats and house mice. We used to have mice in the house but the cats have taken care of that problem. As to the issue of rodents eating fruit, I’m still working on that problem.

Build a vegetable prison to keep out raccoons and skunks

It’s come to this: Vegetable San Quentin. Last year’s Crittercam surveillance project demonstrated the futility of planting vegetables in our yard without serious fortifications. Bird netting? Useless. If we want to grow our own veggies we had to build something that can resist the strong arms and fingers of our local band of late night hipster raccoons.

Once again, I can’t say enough good things about the usefulness of the free 3d drawing program Sketchup, which I used to plan out my veggie prison. It was especially useful for figuring out the angles of the cuts I needed to make for the top. I was able to dial in those angles and dimensions on my compound miter saw.  All that was left to do was screw the whole thing together and staple the 14-Guage welded wire from Home Despot.

The access panels have two positions. Down to protect small seedlings:

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And up to act as a trellis and allow tall plants to grow out the top:

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I’ve noticed that once plants get established and past the 2-foot point I don’t usually have to worry about those midnight raccoon parties. Obviously, if I had to deal with deer I’d have to build a bigger cage. I can also cover the whole thing in floating row cover material if I want to keep out cabbage leaf caterpillars.

If you’re a Sketchup user I uploaded the plans to the 3D Warehouse. Search for “Raccoon Proof Vegetable Bed” and you’ll be able to download it. This bed was designed for the narrow top slope of our front yard and is 3 by 8-feet. I would recommend increasing the width to 4-feet if you build one yourself.

UC IPM on Facebook

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We get a fair amount of “what’s that bug?” type questions around the Root Simple Cosmodrome. Not being an entomologists, we send people to the University of California’s excellent Integrated Pest Management page. Now, UC IPM has a Facebook page. Along with the Garden Professor’s Facebook page, you’ve got pretty much all the social media based gardening information you need.

Kelly adds: We’d be remiss if we didn’t also mention the useful and better known, What’s that Bug. But you will need UC IPM if you have too many of one sort of bug and wonder what you can do about it.