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Green Acre #210: Real Squirrels and Fake Geraniums

Fake or real? There’s a bit of both in the window boxes of LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens.” / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” doesn’t have all the answers, but she’ll research some if you submit questions to her. You can just add a Comment to this post, and the question will be forwarded to our Green Acre columnist.

Dear Stephanie:

We’ve got several squirrels who scramble around our garden, climb the trees and then make a lot of noise when they get on our roof. Any experience making them scram? I’ve read about dousing the roof with water and peppermint oil?

Be well!

Ankeeta Eichhorn

Dear Ankeeta:

Actually, I have had the opposite dilemma—attracting squirrels so they’d eat the damn apricots from our tree, now thankfully deceased. What a disgusting mistake that tree was.

You don’t like sweet little chittering rodents with fluffy tails, eh? Alrighty then! You can put up an electric fence around your garden: Squirrels are quick learners and have excellent memories (think buried nuts), and a few frizzled friends might give them a hint.

Tree chickens*, as they’re sometime called, also don’t appreciate being sprayed with water, or being startled, so a sprinkler on a timer might be a kinder, gentler deterrent.

As would various plants they are known to dislike—peppermint is one of them, and makes a nicely scented border as well as a tasty addition to your juleps and lemonade. You can also douse cotton balls in peppermint oil and stick them around plants your inadvertent pets find attractive. So, yes, a spritz of peppermint oil on the roof might very well help.

On the roof is one thing; in the attic, where they might nest, is another. Look for and seal up any holes, even tiny ones—these critters can squish through impossible gaps. Trim the tree canopy to make sure the branches are not in jumping distance of the rooftop—amazing is their acrobatic skill.

You might also try a flashing strobe light aimed at the roof or out an attic window—that startle factor again. Even a light left on in the attic might dissuade nesting.

There are ultrasonic devices that emit a sound audible only to small animals, though I’ve not come across one with better than a so-so review. Most users report that animals get used to the sound in a matter of days.

Besides mint, there are other plants these varmints dislike: hyacinth, lily of the valley, and good old geraniums among them, though some squirrels I’ve known get angry at the geraniums and attempt to dig them up. I have found fondue forks—surely you have a few somewhere—planted prongs up among the geraniums, scratches that itch.

It is now nearly time to plant spring bulbs, and oh, how they do love to dig those up, particularly the tulips that you’ve broken your back over. The trick is to mix bulbs they like with those they really hate, including snowdrops, allium and hyacinth. Daffodils have a toxin that makes them inedible. Plant the smaller bulbs above the tulips for a natural barrier; the tulips will push their way through.

With a little luck, the squirrels will have given up on your yard by the time next summer rolls around—and you’ll enjoy a wonderfully mixed thrill of a border.

As a last resort, you might consider feeding them so they’ll leave your plants alone. But if you just want them gone, spread peanut butter on pine cones and toss them over the fence into your neighbor’s yard. That should do it.

Dear Stephanie:

When I moved last year from a house in Washington DC to an apartment in Manhattan I was excited to have a glass-enclosed terrace, a solarium. I could still have a “garden,” I thought, but the terrace faces east, and every plant died in the unrelenting sun and heat. Now I’m happy with a fake geranium on the windowsill—no fuss, no muss and always in bloom.

Flora Dora

Dear Flora:

Was that a question?

Far be it from me to dis phony plants. Whether you suffer from nigrum pollicis (black thumb disease) or just an inhospitable patch of turf —or shelf—when fake flowers are used well, they can even add a witty soupçon, whereas going full-faux is a little . . . sad.

Thirty or so years ago, when my little back garden (and I) were young and sunny, I planted Asiatic lilies for their gorgeous blooms and seductive scent. Sadly, the display was short-lived, the show was over within a month, leaving towering green . . . sticks.

Shopping at one of those craft places, maybe Michael’s, I came across a display of cheap, fake-silk lilies that were startlingly realistic. Thinking, what the hell, as I do, I bought some then snipped off the flowers and wired them to the plant stems, which were by then nestled amid various live flowers and greenery.

So real did they seem that they even fooled me. I would sit on the steps leading down to the garden from the back porch, the best spot to view it all—and also closest to the kitchen for more coffee—and laugh to myself. When most of the garden is real and ever-changing, you soon stop noticing that the lilies are not.

I no longer bother with lilies, I don’t have enough sun for even a paltry display, but I do always have a few fake geraniums among the real ones in the window boxes, as the real ones  don’t flower well for me in extreme summer heat. The fakes are mixed with the real pansies and pothos and whatnots that change with the seasons, and the English ivy that drips over the box ends (though I’ve been known to add a little fake ivy to fluff up those ends, like a hairpiece).

But an entire box or bowl or vase of fake stuff? Pluck off those geranium flowers, toss out the leaves (which do scream fake) and mix the blooms in with pots of real greenery: a variety of ivies, deliciously scented herbs like lavender and thyme, and a fountain of asparagus fern, which is insanely hardy in dry sunny spots.

Not surprisingly, Southern Living magazine has a fine list of plants that can survive full sun and heat. Go forth and fake it where it doesn’t flourish.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

*This is the kind of fascinating thing you learn wandering the Internet.

5 thoughts on “Green Acre #210: Real Squirrels and Fake Geraniums

  1. Jean Gordon says:

    I like that!!!! add faux with real greens……sometimes flowers keep giving new growth and then other times nothing for a long time. Its like the old song “Imagination is funny, it makes a cloudy day sunny” so go ahead pop in a faux flower here and there. Great idea, thanks Stephanie.

  2. Bonnie Mitchell says:

    How – oh – how do you not love squirrels?! Send them my way (although my peanut supply will need even more shoring up). I DO love the little critters & they are certainly acrobatic & so fun to watch.
    Not crazy about faux flowers, however, but your ideas for incorporating them into existing displays – not bad. Thanks!

  3. Sayonara to squirrels. Hmmmm. How did I avoid saying that?

  4. Janet Kelly says:

    Thanks, Stephanie,
    Lots of good ideas here for saying sayonara to squirrels and mixing faux flowers with real.

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