Critters Make Salad from Vegetable Garden

opossums:  mother and babies

opossums: mother and babies

For people with vegetable plots or fruit trees, the squirrel and the opossum are two garden visitors likely to evoke mixed emotions.
These creatures are cute and fun to watch as they go through their circus acts, the squirrel running along utility wires and the opossum hanging from tree branches by its tail. Yet these same animals, as lovable as they may seem, will feast pleasurably on your best garden-grown fruits, vegetables and sunflower seeds without the slightest sign of guilt.
Most of the squirrels we encounter in the Valley are gray squirrels, which are a type of tree squirrel. Contrary to what we may have learned from storybooks and cartoons, tree squirrels do not store their food in tree hollows, although they will build their nests in them. A squirrel nest or drey is most commonly found between two large branches about halfway up a tree, high enough to be out of the way of ground predators but low enough to avoid disturbing winds.
At this time of year, squirrels are engaged in scatter hoarding, a form of storage in which small amounts of food are buried in many different places as an insurance policy against some of the storage areas being plundered. That polishing and biting we see the squirrel administer to an acorn before hiding it is a tagging procedure; the scent acquired by the acorn will allow the squirrel to find it later on.
Since tree squirrels can jump as high and far as 6 feet, the simplest way to keep them out of trees is to make sure no tree limbs are less than 6 feet off the ground and that higher limbs are more than 6 feet away from structures, overhead wires and other trees.
The opossum, that other cute garden visitor, is the only marsupial native to North America. Opossums (some people call them possums) will build nests not only in trees but also in just about any comfortable nook they can find in a garage, old appliance, junk car, pile of leaves or stack of logs. After a gestation period of less than two weeks, the opossum gives birth to as many as 25 young, only 13 of which can live in its pouch. After the young leave their mother’s pouch, they can be seen clinging to her back as she scampers about.
Although squirrels provide no benefit to gardeners, the opossum does perform a useful service thanks to its diverse diet. The opossum will happily dine on your garden’s insect pests, snails, slugs and rats.
If you see opossums in your yard, it is unlikely you will see rattlesnakes. Opossums are immune to snake venom and will feast on rattlesnakes as gladly as they will feast on your overripe tomatoes.
Winter and spring are the times of the year when squirrels and opossums give birth, so now is when they are likely to be searching for nesting areas. If you hear squirrels running on your roof and have trees that overhang your house, you will want to keep the squirrels from climbing down into your yard. This can be accomplished by wrapping 3-foot-wide bands of sheet metal on tree trunks, 6 feet above ground level.
Pet food is a major attractant for squirrels and opossums. If you leave dog food outside, especially at night, you are likely to see opossums soon enough. Bird seed is highly prized by squirrels, so feeders should be kept fairly high up in trees and away from structures. Do not allow spilled seed to accumulate on the ground below the feeder.
If you have a problem with squirrels or opossums in a vegetable plot or berry patch, put fine mesh wire over your cultivated area to keep these animals at bay. Hold the wire down on either side of your plot with bricks, or bury it several inches in the ground.
It is possible to trap squirrels and opossums, although it is best to consult with your local animal control agency to find out if trapping is allowed in your area. You should call animal control, in any case, to find out how to handle these creatures after they are trapped and to find out where it would be best for them to be released. There are two companies with a national reputation for squirrel, opossum and other live animal traps. Contact Havahart at (800) 800-1819 (, or Tomahawk at (800) 272-8727 (

Photo credit: Monica R. / / CC BY

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