Gardener vs squirrel

We’re all familiar with the typical garden pests – aphids, slugs, and snails – but our Head Gardener Dan is currently having some trouble with pests of the furrier variety: grey squirrels. In the battle between gardener and squirrel, who will win?

As spring continues to paint Winterbourne with its vibrant hues, we find ourselves grappling with a familiar adversary: the grey squirrel. Their persistent appetite for tulips presents a formidable challenge, thwarting our efforts to cultivate these delicate flowers. Sometimes our squirrel companions dig them up in the autumn. Sometimes they like to lull us into a false sense of security by letting our tulips grow all the way into the spring, only to systematically demolish them just before they’re about to flower! Despite the squirrels’ best efforts, we refuse to yield entirely, and have tried various tactics to combat the problem.

Tulips
Tulips (credit: Maggie Bucknall)

For a few years it looked like coating tulip bulbs in a chilli paste prior to planting would work, but our squirrels seem to be getting used to the taste now. So, whilst we’ve not given up completely, we have decided the best form of defence is to grow alternatives to tulips – something that flowers at roughly the same time and gives roughly the same effect – that aren’t such a delicacy to our hungry rodent friends.

So far, Camassias have proved quite effective. These South African bulbs are not only resilient but remarkably easy to grow. They can take a bit of light shade and produce tall spikes of purple, blue, or white flowers in April and May. The two hardiest and easiest species to grow are C. leichtlinii, which can grow to about 1m tall, and C. quamash, which is smaller at about half the size. We grow both in the Monocot Border on the Top Lawn, in the Pink and Blue Border, and in pots on the Terrace.

Allium (credit: Tony Bucknall)

The other obvious alternative is alliums. These have long been a favourite at Winterbourne, thriving in the upper half of the garden with its relatively free-draining, sandy loam soil. We’ve been trying to build up our stocks over the last few years and have even started introducing some more unusual varieties to the collection. Among them is A. ‘Mount Everest’, which would have to be my favourite. Nestled in the White Garden, this variety lives up to its name, boasting huge heads of pure white flowers atop towering, statuesque plants.

My final recommendation is the Sicilian honey garlic plant, Nectaroscordum siculum, which is somewhat comparable to a more relaxed version of an allium. Instead of a head or ball of flowers, it produces clusters of nodding bells, loosely arranged together, all pointing down to the ground. They’re a lovely two-tone pink and white colour and, like alliums, their spent flower heads dry beautifully, making them an excellent addition to autumn arrangements. Let’s just hope our squirrels don’t develop a taste for garlic!