The Assistants



My fair city of Saratoga Springs, NY really feels like a city in the Adirondack woods. We are very close to the southeastern border of the Adirondack Park, and the city is old enough so that there are numerous giant trees along the streets and in the yards.  Many of them are evergreens.  So when it snows, and the roads are whited out, and the spruces and white pines are draped with brilliant crystals, it feels as if I live in a forest.

All this may explain a squirrel population that verges on obnoxious.   There are excellent places for them to nest.  There is a rich diet of nuts that they eat out of the pinecones, as well as the banquet provided by gardeners—crabapples, feral raspberries and mulberries, beans.  I’ve even seen squirrels raid the lemongrass in my garden—just yank out a small plant and take off up a tree.  There is also a squirrel highway among the branches and the utility lines.  They can run along a line and land right in my biggest peach tree, ready for dessert.

The squirrels do a lot of gardening.  I see it mostly with my bulbs, which are, of course, often a large plant wrapped up, in the off-season, in the neatest, most compact, rodent-movable packaging.  My tulips, which I always plant in groups of five of a kind, get scrambled.  The lilies are even worse.  This year, I wound up with Asiatic lilies from my backyard—orange, pink—in my front yard, where the Asiatics are strictly red, white, and purple-black.  I also have two giant ‘Scheherazade’ lilies as lone wolves in spots where I’d never have planted them.

Though I wish the squirrels were fussier in their color schemes, as gardeners, they do provide some valuable services.  I have a few beautiful Brunnera macrophylla  ‘Jack Frosts’ in places where I didn’t plant them.  I don’t know if the squirrels moved seeds or a bit of root, but these are beautiful, expensive plants that don’t necessarily love being divided.  I’m glad for the extras.

And I have sunflowers in my yard.  I have never planted sunflowers in this garden.  Again, I wish the squirrels were a bit stricter about tall plants in back, but nonetheless, the sunflowers’ arrival is an unexpected act of grace.  I smile every time I walk by.


  1. The squirrels here are obnoxious. They are eastern gray squirrels some idiot released on the UW campus years ago because they missed the squirrels from campuses back east. They have pretty much displaced the native squirrels everywhere they’ve spread to. My sister says they’ve recently reached her town 73 miles north of Seattle. A few more years, and they’ll reach the Canadian border. The only good eastern gray squirrel is a dead eastern gray squirrel.

    I found that squirrels are much less likely to disturb my newly planted bulbs if I put dog poop on top of the soil. Yes, I wear gloves when I garden.

  2. Our tree rats are numerous and large (fox squirrels), and they disturb just about everything. While they are the planters of sunflowers and squash (seed used as a winter food offering), your Brunnera are getting around by seed which are too small to interest the squirrels. Many small seeds get moved around by harvester ants.

  3. Lately I’ve been wondering if I couldn’t put a dent in our tree rat population by setting out a kill trap, chopping up the remains and feeding them to our chickens (who love meat scraps). That would do wonders for cutting down my chicken feed bill. 🙂

  4. I hear so much about folks battling squirrels, but so far my garden is squirrel-free. My theory is that absence of power lines slows their migration out to the new parts of suburbia. Or maybe it’s the lack of good tall trees – seems like most of the many, many trees planted by homeowners and the city are not large-canopy species like oak and sycamore, but rather small-canopy species like flowering pear & plum or crape myrtle. Either way, I’m happy to not have to fight that particular pest over what gets planted where.

  5. The brunneras reseed and some seedlings look very similar to Jack Frost. I don’t think the squirrels have anything to do with it. I have had another brunnera cultivar, Langtrees, reseed as well. The spots weren’t quite the same but I left them. Such a great plant, Brunnera macrophylla and cultivars! Deer leave it alone and it needs little water.

  6. I have peanuts sprouting everywhere from the squirrels burying them. There is always that one neighbor who thinks they are cute and feeds the scraggly little b**tards. Though I see some relief. The stray kitten who adopted us last fall almost caught one.

  7. I live in a section of town that has many, many black walnut trees. So that means the squirrels have excellent trees to live in, and plenty to eat. My neighbour saved a squirrel years ago when it fell out as a baby, now it comes into her house everyday for its peanut butter cookie. Unfortunately it has had many offspring.

    Luckily the squirrels are well fed enough that they leave many of my plantings alone, but I also plant an awful lot of daffodils. They do dig in my gardens though. I finally bought a bird feeder that closes when they try to get into it, so they leave it alone.

  8. Do you have jays back there? Here in Northern CA, they are my most enthusiastic assistants. I get 5 to 9 new oak trees a year, thanks to them. Oak trees in the gardenias are a favorite, along with oak trees in the cistus, and oak trees in the broccoli.
    Fortunately the brand of squirrel I have doesn’t garden except for occasionally stealing a nut or fruit.

  9. Gray squirrels always win when they confront any other species. Their fertility is unmatched. They have displaced red squirrels wherever they have come into contact. Attics are their favorite breeding ground.

  10. How nice for you to have help in the garden, even if it is the type of help that does not abide by your design instructions! There are very few squirrels in my garden. I wonder why. Perhaps the very large rabbit and chipmunk population, neither of whom are at all helpful, keep the squirrels away.

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