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Kip Anderson
Gardener Kip Anderson

April: Voles

As Kip gets started on his spring chores, he discusses a common garden pest, the vole
by Kip Anderson

In late March I was in the vegetable garden turning under the winter rye I'd sown in our raised beds last fall. This particular spring chore is hard work because it is done with a spading fork — the idea is to invert the sod, not to homogenize it with the soil, as a rototiller would do. Anyway, I was working on a bed of rye grass, and when I pulled up my fork a large mole was impaled on one of the tines.

I was surprised for two reasons. First, because I probably couldn't have aimed so well if I had deliberately tried. And second, because in four years of working at our new Victory Garden site, I had never seen a single mole or any signs of one.

Let's be clear: moles are insectivores and do not eat plants; the damage they do to lawns simply has to do with the unsightly tunnels they create in order to get to the insects. But another animal, a short-tailed mouse-like rodent called a vole, is perfectly happy using mole runs to get at plant roots which they love to eat. As fate had it, I was spared having to decide whether I wanted a mole in the garden or not.

Voles are pernicious animals who enjoy foraging under mulch or under snow cover. Although they sometimes tunnel into the soil, typically they create networks of shallow runs right at the surface of the ground. There has hardly been a spring when the perennial border hasn't suffered considerable damage from voles. One year they chewed to shreds the crowns of all my Echinacea plants, destroyed the root systems of most of the rose bushes interplanted with the perennials, and ate 90-plus percent of the hundreds of species of tulips I had planted at the front of the border two years earlier.

The vegetable garden usually gets hit in the summer. Voles love to feast under the heavy straw mulch I place around potato plants, and for a change of pace, I suppose, they like to gnaw the tops of carrot roots poking out of the soil.

Also, voles are capable of killing young fruit trees by eating the bark (and especially the tender cambium) at the base of their trunks.

There comes a point when a gardener must decide whether gardening is worth the struggle, and if so, how far he or she is willing to go to protect the often considerable investment. Tactics used to defeat voles include baited rodenticide, wrapping tree trunks with hardware cloth, and getting a couple of hungry cats. But if you have voles in your garden, there's a good chance you've had to deal with other voracious animals, including squirrels, rabbits, woodchucks, and deer. I'd love to hear from any of you who have found innovative solutions to any of these garden pests.

Kip Anderson has been the Victory Garden's head gardener for over 20 years.

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Published August 31, 2007