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Ground Squirrels! Conservation Center Garden Update

Article by Michelle Langmaid, Americorps VISTA Garden and Volunteer Coordinator, published April 24, 2017.

Must be they’re hungry…

We were all excited that the Mayo Garbanzo Beans had popped up and were leafing out beautifully. They were bright green, hydrated, and seemed generally healthy. Then suddenly, like we see in the movies, they were not fine. Some selective herbivore began to eat the foliage off of these precious seedlings. Not only does this creature go after the garbanzos planted outside of our high security enclosure, it is also able to penetrate inside of it! It’s worth noting that the chicken wire is buried 2’ underground, and reinforced at the base with ½” hardware cloth. There are no visible holes in the ground, but it’s still possible that a ground squirrel could be getting in somewhere..

Despite having seen the reptile pictured below strutting out from under one one our chicken wire enclosures, the nature of the damage points more to rodents. Theoretically, a small squirrel could climb up the hardware cloth and then squeeze through one of the hexagonal holes in the chicken wire (perhaps a roundtailed ground squirrel, which proliferate on this lot).

Moments like this can feel pretty defeating. So much water has gone into this project already. Not to mention labor and compost. It’s easy to cultivate feelings of rage towards the local fauna, but ultimately that won’t do any good. We’re located on a lot that doesn’t have an abundance of green foliage, so these garbanzos are probably a delight for the critters. In lieu of trapping or killing, we’re opting for coexistence.

Unfortunately, coexistence costs money in this case. Chicken wire is not adequate, so the more expensive ½” hardware cloth will need to be purchased. Another option is planting a trap crop (sacrifice crop) to feed the squirrels. However, there is not a lot of scientific literature on the effect of trap crops on ground squirrel populations specifically. We would need to experiment with which “ice cream” crop to plant for them. Perhaps timing is of the essence here, and we would need to plant a trap crop in the winter, prior to the widespread emergence of ground squirrel families in our area so it had enough time to grow beyond 2” high. Generally, they emerge in early February ready to eat! A passive strategy would be to remove all piles of dirt and rocks in the surrounding area. This narrows their habitat options a bit. It is also rumored that they dislike tall grass, as it makes it more challenging to spot predators. That said, it really isn’t feasible to plant tall grass on our low desert lot en masse. It would simply require too much water.

On a more positive note, the Guatemalan Purple Fava Beans (pictured above) are flourishing! For some reason the rodents haven’t resorted to eating those yet . One has to wonder, if the garbanzo beans weren’t there, would they have gone for the fava beans? I shudder to think. And our awesome volunteers finished building this terrific compost sifter. It is made using old bicycle wheel rims.

If you are interested in volunteering the the Conservation Center gardens be on the lookout for upcoming events or contact Michelle directly.  She can be reached at mlangmaid@nativeseeds.org.

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