How do we keep squirrels from eating our tulip bulbs?

(Question)

We want to plant a bed of about 200 tulips this fall, and have heard that there’s something that can be sprinkled around the bulbs to keep the squirrels from digging them up. We live in Toronto and have a large, wooded park near our home, where we often feed the squirrels while out walking.  Your advice would be very much appreciated.

(Answer)

Yes, you are quite right in being concerned about squirrels, as they are notoriously fond of tulip bulbs, and you mention that you live close to their natural habitat. But you aren’t alone with this concern, and Toronto Master Gardeners has written a very informative Guide titled: Growing Tulips. Therein, under the section on “Diseases and Pests”,  you will find several preventative measures which you may choose to deploy alone, or in conjunction with one another.

First, a gardener identifies the pest: in the Toronto area the Eastern Grey Squirrel is medium-sized, bushy-tailed, and has two common colour phases: black and grey. Fall is also the time when grey squirrels prepare for winter by burying seeds and nuts. While not all of their stash will be found, their keen sense of smell allows them to recover a good 85 per cent the following spring.

So, you could use this sharp olfactory characteristic to your advantage, and utilize often-preferred biological controls such as:

1. Planting other bulbs, such as daffodils, allium or fritillarias, or all, to your plot— if this fits in with your garden vision. Daffodil bulbs, and leaves, contain poisonous crystals which only certain insects can eat with impunity, and squirrels avoid. Allium (the Latin word for garlic) has a smell that resembles onions, again, a deterrent, and ‘frits’ contain poisonous alkaloids that produce a pungent, skunk-like odor that repels squirrels — and deer, while you’re at it !

2. And remember to clean up all remnants of discarded bulb skins after planting, as their presence, and smell, will prompt squirrels to dig for buried treasure;

3. Sprinkle blood meal around the plantings: blood meal contains high levels of nitrogen and ammonia. Again, the smell will drive squirrels away;

In addition to these biological controls, there’s always the cheap-and-cheerful option to spread chicken wire over your planted bed, and let the bulbs grow up through the wire, no need to remove.

And lastly, since you’re fond of feeding the critters over in the park, away from your new plantings,  this could well be considered a strategic, diversionary and eco-friendly means of control !