The other day my phone's calendar pinged me with a cryptic reminder. I had no memory of setting it up a year ago, but my past self apparently determined the matter so dire that it needed to warn my future self: "Don't set pumpkins on porch."

"Huh," I thought aloud. "Why would I tell myself this?"

"Because!" my husband snapped. "You do this every year, and you forget about the squirrels."

Ohhhh. The cobwebs in my cortex began to clear. Pinterest-suitable memories of plump, shiny pumpkins on my doorstep were replaced by the truth: a bloodbath of pulp, seeds and rotting shell, all because of those rodents going hog wild on my festive gourds.

Just as pumpkin spice lattes and buffalo plaid come alive this season, so does my hankering for a touch of autumn on my porch. In my woodsy first-ring suburb, some neighbors flaunt pristine pumpkins all the way until Halloween, but mine are pulverized within days.

What do they know that I don't?

To get to the bottom of it, I called John Loegering, an extension wildlife specialist with the University of Minnesota, as well as Jessie Jacobson, owner of Tonkadale Greenhouse in Minnetonka. Both believed I shouldn't hesitate to decorate my porch with some delicious fall produce — as long as I went in with a game plan.

"One of the troubles with squirrels is — their brains might not be as big as humans' — but they're thinking about this problem 24/7," he said. "So they very often outwit us because we just haven't spent as much time on it as they have."

And the nut they're trying to crack at this time of year is how to fatten themselves up before a long winter.

Pumpkins and their seeds are far more nutritious than acorns or tree buds, Loegering explained. Squirrels crave calories, and those gourds have a lot of them.

To outsmart a squirrel this fall, here are some strategies to try. Remember, squirrels are persistent, so don't assume that just one approach will do the trick. Go with a multi-pronged defense, and set out your pumpkins confidently.

Taste deterrent

Think of your friend who orders curry at a Thai restaurant at the spice level of 0. A squirrel has a similar palate.

Covering your pumpkin with hot sauce, cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes can all work to dissuade the squirrel from digging in. Loegering suggests pouring a bottle of hot sauce to a spray bottle, adding about the same amount of water, and a couple drops of dish soap. Spray liberally.

You can also find commercial products sold at local garden stores or big-box retailers.

"The active ingredient is capsaicin, which is the compound that makes peppers taste hot," said Jacobson, who recently filmed a video for her store about how to make your pumpkins last. "It deters critters from chomping down because they don't like that spice taste. They wanted a pumpkin, and they got a pepper."

She recommends Bonide Hot Pepper Wax, which can be applied in your planters and gardens, as well.

Smell deterrent

The goal here is to make your property "smell really odd," Loegering said.

In the natural world, animals avoid offensive or different smells because it could signal danger. He recommends sprinkling some blood meal — which is dried blood powder, often from a cow or a pig that was slaughtered. Sprinkle the blood meal around the pumpkin. Maybe cast a spell and hold a seance while you're at it. It's Halloween, after all.

Don't use blood meal if you have a dog, however, as it will find this condiment delicious. Instead, try pet hair. You can collect it from your own pet, or ask a groomer for a bunch of dog hair. Lay it around the pumpkin. Squirrels will think a predator awaits.

You can also seek smell deterrents in stores. If it's designed to deter deer, it should work on squirrels, too.


Slathering something gooey like petroleum jelly or Aquaphor onto the pumpkin will lead to squirrels getting sticky digits, and they don't like that.

"It's just gross to get it all over your hands," Loegering said. "And it's not like they're carrying towels to wipe it off."

Choosing wisely

Scrutinize your gourds and squash before purchasing. Make sure they are firm, and there no "soft spots or sugary goo oozing out," Jacobson said, "because that's an indication that it's ripening or even rotting."

Don't let your pumpkins freeze on cold nights, or they will turn mushy, inviting more scavengers to feed on them. Jacobson also suggests opting now for the truly decorative squashes and gourds with pops of blue, green and stripes, and saving the orange carving pumpkins closer to Halloween.

Sacrificial feeding station

In this classic diversion tactic, lure the squirrels to another part of your yard with a feeder filled with cracked corn or sunflower seeds. Loegering says he's not fond of this strategy, which should be used as a last resort, because it puts a target on the squirrel's back: "Every cat, every fox, every predator in the world knows where that squirrel is going to be standing, and it makes them much more vulnerable."

The most ingenious hack of all ...

This pro tip is one used by Loegering himself, and he swears by it. It's relatively inexpensive, effective and innocuous: a motion-activated sprinkler.

"It scares the creatures. They just bug out," he said.

You can set the sprinkler so it sprays the steps of your house or right onto your porch.

Just make sure you turn it off for the trick-or-treaters. If your pumpkins have lasted by then, Operation Scared Squirrel was a success.

Come November, toss them into your backyard and let those outwitted critters chow down.