Squirrels are some of the most common animals found in the landscape and gardens. They are adaptable creatures, able to thrive in any environment from natural wooded areas to fenced-in yards and gardens. All they really need are trees to build a nest and plenty of food to eat.
The most common plants that squirrels eat include nuts, seeds, and even fungi like mushrooms. Some of their favorite foods are very common in the garden, including berries, apples, avocados, succulents, corn, tomatoes, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, flower bulbs, and even tree bark and buds.
Given the range of food, squirrels will eat, gardeners can have a difficult time controlling their detrimental impact. Keep reading to learn about the 11 plants that may be targeted by squirrels and what you can do to protect your garden.
What Makes Up A Squirrel’s Diet?
Most people already know that squirrels are experts at stashing huge amounts of nuts for winter. What you might not realize is how truly diverse squirrel’s diets really are. Squirrels’ diets change along with the seasons, and they will eat whatever is around.
According to Colorado State University, during the spring and summer, squirrels will eat everything from fruit, succulents, flower bulbs, and garden vegetables.
Produce and plant matter are readily available while the weather is warm and the sun is shining, but come wintertime, the squirrel must adapt to the upcoming lack of food.
Squirrels Stash Their Food
Squirrels spend the autumn gathering nuts and seeds that have been ripening throughout the summer. They stash them in their nests, otherwise called dreys as well as in tree hollows and underground burrows.
These huge stashes of food are meant to last the squirrel throughout the entirety of winter, but as their stashes dwindle, they can even resort to eating tree bark or ripping it off of the branches and feeding on the sugary sap underneath.
Although squirrels will go for a wide variety of plants that may be in your garden, they won’t eat just anything and definitely have favorites. Next, discover 11 plants that are most commonly targets of hungry squirrels.
11 Plants That Are Commonly Eaten By Squirrels
Squirrels are easy to blame for damage to the garden because they are so populous almost anywhere you go throughout the world.
A lot of the damage to plants in the garden might be better attributed to rabbits, deer, and other pests unless the squirrels are lacking in the plants they love.
This is why it is important to have an understanding of which plants squirrels will commonly eat, that way you can better protect your garden by first correctly identifying that squirrels are the culprit.
Squirrels Love Berries
A favorite summer treat of squirrels and many other animals and humans alike is berries.
Berries of all kinds are favored by squirrels, but strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and other trailing berries are most likely targets because their vines trail on the ground, easily reached by small rodents.
Don’t put it past squirrels to climb though, you may still need to protect berry shrubs such as blueberries.
Squirrels can and will climb great heights to reach the foods they want. Squirrels are often not big enough to take the whole fruit off of the vine or branch, so if your berries appear to have small nibbled marks on them, it is likely that a squirrel has gotten to them.
Apples Are A Tasty Fall Treat For Squirrels
Closer to fall, squirrels get into the autumn spirit along with the rest of us, turning their sweet tooth toward ripening apples.
Much like with berries, squirrels are unlikely to take the whole fruit with them, instead eating chunks of the fruit where it lies.
Squirrels are much more likely to go for the ripe or even overripe fruit that has fallen to the ground because the acrobatics of eating off of the branch takes much more energy than taking a bite out of fallen fruit.
Cleaning up fallen fruit before it begins to rot on the ground is a good way to prevent a squirrel infestation and to deter other animals and pests such as deer and ants from invading your yard.
Squirrels Will Munch On Avocado, Just Not On Toast!
Millennials aren’t the only group who go crazy over avocados. Rather than spread it over toast in the morning, squirrels will simply chew their way through the tough outer peel to get to the creamy fruit inside.
Avocados are a great source of healthy fats, which is likely what draws squirrels to them, while they are bulking up for harsh, cold winter weather.
Much like apples, squirrels will wait for the fruit to ripen and fall to the ground, because at this point it is ripe and much softer and more palatable. Protect your avocados by gathering them from the tree and cleaning up the fruits that fall to the ground before they attract pests to your landscape.
Succulents Can Be A Hydrating Treat For Squirrels
A non-fruit snack that squirrels favor is succulents including aloe, yucca, and cacti of all types. The University of Arizona lists squirrels as one of the major pests that can damage succulent-type plants.
Squirrels will go for these hydrating plants, especially during the hot summer months and during an extreme drought when water sources are rare or hard to find. Succulents hold a ton of water and can be extremely hydrating when other water sources have dried up.
Squirrels will eat big chunks out of the edges of succulent plant foliage. Sometimes the plant is able to survive this damage, but other times you may need to remove whole sections to prevent the spreading of disease through these open wounds.
Even worse, if the damage is bad enough you may lose the whole plant!
Corn Is A Favorite Veggie For Squirrels
Fall harvest season brings another delectable plant to the squirrel’s diet- corn. Corn is actually a type of grain, and grows on tall stalks which squirrels can easily climb. It can more easily be compared to a seed than a vegetable, despite what you may think.
Because corn is so large and cumbersome to the small squirrel, they will nibble on the kernels straight off of the corn stalks. Squirrels will target the part of the corn cob that is easily reached without shucking the whole grain.
Because they can only reach a small section of the corn cob, squirrels can actually cause extensive damage to the crop by moving from stalk to stalk to get their fill, eating small amounts of many plants instead of damaging only one.
Tomatoes Are A Common Target Of Squirrels
Tomatoes are another plant that can suffer from the presence of squirrels. These fruits are full of water, making them hydrating as well as nutritious as they ripen all summer long.
This can be an unpleasant surprise when the gardener goes out to collect their hard-earned harvest only to find the vast majority have been picked at and chewed on by pesky rodents.
Anothera Tomato Cages and other reinforcement techniques can help to lessen the amount of breakage that can happen because of squirrels, but you will still want to take steps to deter and exclude squirrels from the garden to save your harvest.
Squirrels Will Eat Tree Bark And Buds
Maybe the most surprising addition to this list is tree bark, buds, and sap. Especially during winter, when the stash of nuts and seeds is running low and plants are all dormant, squirrels are sometimes forced to get creative to stay full.
While squirrels will eat some tree bark, it is actually the sap underneath that they are likely after.
You will be able to identify damage from squirrels if large pieces of bark look as though they have been stripped away, with the inner wood exposed.
If more than a quarter of the bark is eaten away, the branch is at greater risk of disease or worse, and if the whole branch has been stripped all the way around, you are better off just pruning off the branch to prevent further harm to the tree.
They Also Eat The Buds
Bark and sap are not the only parts of the tree that squirrels will feed on.
In the early spring, squirrels have actually been known to feed on the new green buds that form at the tips of the branches.
These tree buds are much softer and easier to consume and contain many nutrients and hydration that the squirrel has likely been missing from its diet all winter long.
The biggest issue is if the squirrel does not have access to other food sources and it eats too many of the new buds, stunting the growth of the tree.
Nuts Get Squirrels Through Harsh Winters
Probably the biggest plant component that makes up a squirrel’s diet is nuts.
They often prefer wild nuts including acorns, hickory, walnuts, pecans, and oaks.
They love nuts because they are high in fat and nutrient-dense snacks that will keep fat on the squirrel, insulating it from the cold winter weather. The high fat and nutrient density also supplements the lack of nutrients available while the plants are dormant.
They Keep Nuts In Burrows
Squirrels will stash nuts in a variety of places from filling up abandoned burrows and tree hollows to burying them underground.
In fact, one of the major issues that gardeners have with squirrels is that they dig up the garden in order to stash nuts and seeds.
Sometimes these seeds are forgotten and will even sprout in the spring, leaving you to deal with a tree growing in your flower patch.
Here are some places that squirrels go during the winter, so you have a heads up as to where they may be storing them!
Flower Bulbs Like Tulips And Crocuses Are Favored Snacks For Squirrels
Speaking of digging, squirrels will also exhibit this behavior in order to get to the bulbs of certain flowers such as tulips and crocuses.
The squirrels will dig up and eat these spring bulbs before they flower. This not only destroys your flower patch but causes damage in the garden by the numerous holes they will dig to get to your flower bulbs.
Interestingly, Colorado State University tells us that daffodils, although they grow from bulbs, are toxic to squirrels.
The squirrels are aware of this and will avoid eating them. One thing you can do to deter squirrels is mix daffodils with your other bulbs to prevent them from getting to the ones they prefer.
Sunflower Seeds Are Another Favorite Of Squirrels
Just like nuts, seeds are another source of fat, protein, and nutrients that squirrels love. Sunflowers become huge banks of seeds as they mature, attracting squirrels and birds throughout the late summer months.
Squirrels will scale the tallest of sunflowers in order to reach the seeds, using the large disk-like flower heads as a platform where they gather as many seeds as they can carry.
Much like with tomatoes, this can actually damage the flower with the weight of the squirrels causing them to bend and snap.
Sunflowers grow from a single stalk and will not come back from this kind of damage, so it is a good idea to take steps to protect or reinforce your sunflowers, especially as the seeds develop and the flowers become heavy even without the added weight of the squirrel.
Mushrooms Are Another Squirrel Food Source
While not technically a plant, mushrooms are another common food source for squirrels. Squirrels will eat mushrooms when they are fruiting, during fall and early winter, and in early spring.
Mushrooms are a fairly innocuous food source for the everyday gardener because most people aren’t growing them for food, they just happen to grow on the decaying matter in the soil and plant debris.
However, as we learn more about mushrooms and all that they can do for the health of the soil and garden as well as what they can do for our health, more gardeners are planting mushrooms intentionally.
If that is the case, you will want to take steps to protect your mushrooms from squirrels.
Squirrels Can Cause Damage To Gardens and Homes, Even When They Aren’t Eating Your Plants!
Squirrels can damage more than just plants in your garden and landscape. Especially when preparing for winter, squirrels can move into chimneys, attics, or other warm crevices they can gain access.
While in the home, squirrels will chew through wiring, insulation, or even siding and the structure of the home.
Squirrels will also dig up and damage seedlings and disturb or damage bird feeders. As we talked about, squirrels will often damage gardens by digging up or burying seeds. This can cause damage to roots or they can inadvertently dig up smaller plants nearby.
If you’re having a squirrel problem, we have some following tips that can help keep them at bay! However, we recommend contacting a professional to help you!
How To Control Squirrels In Your Garden
There are many good reasons to try to manage squirrels around your garden or home. Luckily, we have some effective strategies you can use to protect your plants.
Read on to discover some helpful tips for keeping squirrels out of your garden.
1. Give Squirrels An Alternative Food Source
Because these hungry critters would go to great lengths to find food, one of the better ways you can redirect them is to provide an alternative food source.
By stocking a feeder with plenty of nuts, seeds, and corn kernels, you can actually make friends with the squirrels and keep them satiated enough to avoid your garden.
The only drawback is that you may find that the squirrels are still burying the food in your garden come autumn and winter. To avoid this, you may still want to use some of the other methods in this post to fully protect your plants.
2. Scare Squirrels Away
The element of surprise could help you in keeping squirrels out of your garden by using a motion-activated sprinkler such as the Orbit 62100 Yard Enforcer Motion-Activated Sprinkler to scare away hungry squirrels as well as other pests like deer, mice, or rabbits.
Squirrels are not big fans of water aside from a shallow pool of drinking water, especially when it comes to ricocheting out of a sprinkler by surprise.
This method, while still humane, will help you to relax, knowing that the motion-activated sprinkler is doing the work for you in scaring squirrels away from your garden any time they try to approach.
Just make sure to shut it off before you go out to work in the garden or risk a very wet surprise!
Another way to scare squirrels away is to use sound! We have an entire article dedicated to how to use sound to repel squirrels, that’s a must-read!
3. Scent Repellents Can Keep Squirrels Away
Squirrels have sensitive noses that they use to locate edible plants, seeds, and nuts. Use their sense of smell against them by using or planting strong-smelling things they don’t like.
Squirrels are repelled by strong-smelling herbs such as peppermint, garlic, or onion.
You can plant these as border crops to keep squirrels out of the garden or you can even apply I Must Garden Granular Squirrel Repellent which has a garlicky smell directly to the soil.
Repel Squirrels By Making Their Target Plants Taste Bad
Another method to prevent squirrels from eating your plants is to apply a foul-tasting spray.
Squirrels are sensitive to spice and some of the most effective repellents contain capsaicin, which is what makes peppers spicy.
Spray Bonide Hot Pepper Spray on the foliage of the plants being targeted by squirrels. Like scent repellents, capsaicin will degrade over time and with water, so remember to reapply every couple of weeks or after rain, irrigation, or even heavy watering.
For more information on how to use capsaicin to keep squirrels away, check out our article! We give you an in-depth look at how this works since it’s one of the best ways to keep squirrels away for good!
4. Use Physical Barriers To Keep Squirrels Out
Finally, the physical exclusion of squirrels may be the best option to protect your plants.
You can use a one-inch wire mesh layer just under the soil to protect seeds and bulbs from being dug up, or use chicken wire or mesh cages around larger plants to prevent squirrels from reaching produce items
SunPro Garden Netting is another good option to cover your larger crops and prevent squirrels from reaching the tasty produce inside.
That’s A Wrap!
Squirrels can be incredibly persistent pests in the garden, and although they mostly consume nuts and seeds, their diets can actually be quite varied.
The most common plants that squirrels like to eat are,
- Succulents and cacti
- Tree bark, buds, and sap
- Sunflower seeds and other seeds
- Flower bulbs
Because squirrels can be relentless in their pursuit of a meal, we have to be just as determined in protecting our gardens and keeping them out.
The most effective methods to repel squirrels are providing an alternative food source, scaring them away, scent and taste repellents, and physical exclusion through mesh cages and fencing.
Hopefully, this post has been informative about what the squirrels might be going after in your garden, and what you can do to stop them.
Liman, E.R., Jacobs, L.F. (1991) Grey squirrels remember the locations of buried nuts. Animal Behaviour. 41(1), 103-110.
Moller, H. (1983) Foods and foraging behaviour of Red (Sciurus vulgaris) and Grey (Sciurus carolinensis) squirrels. Mammal Review. 13(2-4), 81-98.
Smith, C., Follmer, D. (1972) Food Preferences of Squirrels. Ecology. 53(1), 82-91.
Peacock, M.M., Jenkins, S.H. (1988) Development of food preferences: social learning by Belding’s ground squirrels Spermophilus beldingi. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. 22, 393–399.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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