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Forget pecans, these squirrels are after my tomatoes

POSTED: July 24, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Oh, sure, everything was going all fine and dandy the last time I checked in with this garden column, showing off my zucchinis and so very proud of my little cherry tomatoes that looked like small golden pears.

Then, I went away for a weekend. For less than 48 hours, my garden was left unattended, save the occasional backyard trek by the dog.

When I got back, I witnessed the carnage. The squirrels had rolled through, shredding tomato stems, chomping holes in squash and stripping my little gold beauties clean off.

It's very depressing.

I needed some guidance. I was sure the deer netting I had wrapped around my beloved tomato plants — which I did, as a precaution, before I even left on my weekend sojourn — would be enough.

But apparently these squirrels are pretty smart. Or determined. Or both.

I called my friend Ron Brechter, a Hall County Master Gardener who led a seminar this spring on growing tomatoes. He had all sorts of advice for combating all sorts of pests and diseases — so, how about squirrels?

"I had some success with a product called Critter Ridder; it's kind of a pepper-based liquid and when you spray it onto your plant, when the animal bites into it it's kind of like you biting into a jalapeño pepper," he said. "There's all kinds of home remedies - you mix rotten eggs with vinegar, (but) I don't know how effective those are."

Critter Ridder — or, any of the other various liquids used to ward off rabbits, deer and squirrels — are water soluble, so if it rains you have to be sure to apply it again. Or, over a week or so with no rain, the product will gradually wear off.

It's also important, Brechter noted, to spray the product on the fruit and the leaves - not on the flowers, since you could wash away the pollen in the process.

He also noted that another home remedy is putting human hair in the garden. But seeing as how I put a pile of dog hair — collected from my ... er ... couch cushions — right in the middle of the tomato plants, that doesn't seem to do the trick, either.

"You could keep a deer or rabbit out with a fence," he noted. "But I don't think you'll keep a squirrel out."

A quick survey of my neighborhood proved I wasn't alone. My neighbor around the corner had a half dozen strawberry pots in front of his house this spring. By early summer, the squirrels had ravaged the fruit; he didn't get even one berry.

Others have noted them swooshing in off branches, in an Indiana Jones-style move, and attacking from above.

My dog is too wimpy to sit out all day, guarding the garden. So, what's next?

Probably a BB gun. Or an electrified fence.

It pays to do your homework

Before I bought tomato plants, I started reading about the different varieties and their resistance to certain diseases. But when it came time to order the seeds, I threw out all that knowledge and just bought by the names I liked - and that was a mistake.

Now, one of my plants, which I was so proud of just a month ago, is starting to die from the ground up. A little research led me to the culprit: verticillium wilt.

It started with the lowest leaves and gradually started to move up. The disease apparently keeps the plant from taking in water and nutrients, effectively choking it.

Luckily, you can get varieties that are bred to resist it - as evidenced by the other plants in the garden that are doing OK - but alas, this soul wasn't. Another one bites the dust.



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