Valerie’s anti-squirrel apparatus was necessary to keep the birdseed safe.

by Stan Cutler

Valerie’s enemies list includes squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, starlings, cats, mockingbirds, cowbirds, aphids, white flies, powdery mildew and now (BREAKING NEWS) – the Spotted Lantern Fly (SLF). My wife is not an aggressive person, but she is determined. She cares a great deal about her hundreds of plants and the songbirds who feed in our backyard. She has a vigilant microfocus on the places where enemies might lurk, ever watchful for threats.

She has achieved an uneasy truce with the squirrels. She dislikes them because they dig up bulbs, sample tender shoots and, worst of all, try to steal the birdseed. Years ago, she asked me to construct a bird-feeding station. I bought lengths of white metal pipe, threaded at both ends. I inserted a 10-foot pole with two horizontal branches at the top into concrete about 20-feet from our back door. To prevent bending, I cabled the pole to the fence with utility wire. She typically has four or five feeders hanging from the branches, taking a suet feeder down when the fat melts in the heat. She has defeated the squirrels on the birdseed front, but it hasn’t been easy.

She installed a sheet metal cone about eight feet from the ground, designed by the manufacturer to thwart squirrel attacks from below. It usually works, but occasionally a squirrel will scramble over the cone. Because they are amazingly athletic, they look for nearby branches to launch attacks from above.  We can’t get rid of the squirrels because we love the maple trees they live in, producers that provide thousands of seeds, a bounty that sustains the fuzzy-tailed critters through thick and thin.

Valerie hung plexiglass domes above the feeders to block the diving attacks and to protect the birdseed from rain. Every now and then, a young squirrel will try a dive, but ends up on the ground, embarrassed. And every now and then, one of the squirrels succeeds in climbing the pole, scrambling over the cone and jumping onto a feeder. Valerie’s solution is to grease the poles, the domes, the cone and the wire with Vaseline. If she spots a squirrel trying not to fall off the pole, she laughs. It makes her day. She has to reapply the grease every couple of weeks. Don’t mess with my wife.

The mild winter of 2019-20 caused the chipmunk population to explode. In years past, we would catch an occasional glimpse of one scurrying through the plantings. This year, we see them all the time. Valerie doesn’t like them because they dig into her pots and flower boxes. I think they are just looking for places to burrow. Whatever their reasons for messing up Valerie’s pots, they have recently been added to her enemies list. Her defense consists of broken chopsticks poked into the potting soil. She reasons that the little varmints won’t dig holes if they find the real estate unsuitably crowded. We’ll see. I have absolute faith in my gardening warrior – she’ll find a way.

In 2014, the Spotted Lantern Fly, an Asian transplant, began attacking trees and grapevines in Berks County. Newspaper reports of their threat became more alarming year after year. At this point in time, gardeners all through the mid-Atlantic region are on full alert, hoping to decimate the SLF population before it destroys their trees and shrubs.

We’ve got them in Chestnut Hill. Now, in June, they are in a larval stage as tiny, black, beetle-like hoppers with white spots. When we see them on the rose bushes, we try to squeeze them to death, but they are very fast and usually hop off before we can kill them. We definitely want to kill them because thousands of them can invade a single tree as inch-long winged adults, sucking the sap under the tree bark, weakening the tree. They poop sugary excrement on which fungi thrive, another threat to the trees. SLF – bad, bad, bad.

There are ways to manage the creatures and safeguard the trees. Be vigilant for their egg clusters in Fall, Winter and early Spring. You’ll find them as rectangular gray patches of up to fifty eggs laid in neat ranks on tree bark or any hard surface: concrete, car fenders, even trashcans. Often, the eggs are invisible under a thin layer of mud. If you find a cluster, scrape it off. When they reach adulthood, most of the insects will climb the trees – not fly into them. If you put a band of sticky tape about four feet from the ground around the trunk, they will get stuck before they can do any damage. For instructions on how to do that and other methods of destroying the pests, visit Penn State’s Ag Extension website – extension.psu.edu/spotted-lanternfly-management-for-homeowners. Not unlike the coronavirus, managing this pestilence requires everyone in a community to participate – you, too.

Stan Cutler is a local novelist, gardener’s helper and volunteer for the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library.

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