Attorney Defends Fruit Trees With Armor

David Tillotson knew the steep lot he bought in Washington, D.C., as a site for a new home would pose a construction puzzle, especially because he wanted to include a lap pool. He also was optimistic about the project, having seen buildings go up during a vacation on the sharply tilted south coast of Spain.

The architect he hired was up to the task and the house erected in the early 1980s looks like it would fit right in on a Mediterranean edge. Embedding the house in the slope turned out to be only one of the challenges of the place, which he found out when he started growing fruit trees.

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REPOSE: A placid view hides a gardener’s fruit tree struggle. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

Tillotson, 75, a broadcast communications attorney who had been living in an apartment, planted apricot, peach and pear trees, which was the easy part, compared to the trials and errors of protecting the crop from the squirrels.

Tillotson tried trapping, using cages. “How many squirrels could there be in the neighborhood? If there are five or six, I could catch, and release, them a couple miles away. Didn’t work.” He underestimated the population.

It also turned out that the squirrels had their own Washington counsel, with animal protective services appearing at one point. “Someone complained there was a squirrel in the cage for several hours in the hot sun. They came and rescued the squirrel that was in the trap and took the cage,” he said. “I gave up on that.” A fake owl didn’t seem to do much deterring either.

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ANTI-SQUIRREL ACE: David Tillotson of Washington, D.C., checks up on the metal he wraps around the fruit tree to give squirrels the slip instead of a grip. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

Eventually, the security job called for a special kind of mettle. He pruned the limbs from the lowest four feet or so of the trunk and lashed on gutter pieces or wraps of wide flashing. “They can’t climb tin,” said Tillotson, a native of Chicago. One long peach tree trunk flows beside a wall of the house like a crooked downspout.


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TRUNK ARMOR: Gutter pieces lashed against a fruit tree are intended to protect fruit in the branches from ground assault by squirrels. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

Tillotson said he uses minimally invasive methods to secure the metal to the trees so that harm is minimized. A few shallow nails and wire suffice. He said the system has been an effective barrier, although, in some spots, the tight landscape has offered resourceful rodents a variety of routes to fruit. “I had them throwing themselves off the wall to get to the tree.”

If everything works out right, Tillotson says he can harvest enough fruit to last the year, including what he dehydrates and stores. “That’s why you wonder: Why do people spend all their time on grass when you can grow useful things – like food.”

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WAITING GAME: Apricots, in early May, start to swell and tempt. Photo Credit: John A. Bray