Monday, October 7, 2013

The end of the voles? Eliminating voles from the garden ...

Spoiler alert, this blog post includes photos of dead voles in traps. Don't read on if that's not your bag.

In the last month, I've mentioned a couple times that I seem to have developed a vole problem in the back garden, off the studio. Last summer, there was a friendly and totally cute chipmunk in that garden, who used the drainpipes and patio pots as convenient hiding and perching spots. This summer, I've never spotted the chipmunk, and instead, nasty two-inch sized animal holes started popping up in unexpected places. They seemed to pop up and then disappear in the yard, but in the garden, they popped up and stayed, mostly masked by the growing zinnias. When I weeded, in July, I found three or so.

This was combined with a weak spot in the yard, just outside the studio garden, that started slowly sinking. And then one day without warning, the area developed into a sink-hole about two feet in diameter and a foot deep. We plugged it with a log, temporarily, and then filled it in with dirt, and lo and behold the next day another small exit hole popped up beside it.

That was when I realized we had some sort of critter issue. I started looking online and, fairly quickly, determined that the problem must be voles. I learned that voles like to eat the roots of plants as well as tulip and crocus bulbs, and that they love hostas. I went and explored the one hosta in the angle of the studio garden off the patio, and sure enough, something had been munching around its base:

It doesn't take much poking around on the web to realize that there are many ideas about encouraging voles to leave the garden, and no agreement about what works, except for trapping. Multiple sources suggest that the only real way to eliminate voles (short of poison) is to trap them. They are apparently prolific, and not dealing with a vole problem can apparently result in a population explosion in a very short time. And everyone agrees that feeding birds enourages the critters.

I thought about that for a few weeks, finally stopped feeding the birds, and another week later, rummaged around and found my little stock of mouse traps, baited them with peanut butter and put them in the garden, unset, to see what was what. Something ate the peanut butter.

I let the traps sit for a week in the garden, untouched. Then last weekend, Capel and I pulled them back out of the garden, wearing gloves to try to avoid scenting them up with the odor from our hands, baited and set them and put them back.

Nothing. I went out the next morning and the peanut butter had been eaten from one, which remained unsprung. The others had been moved slightly, but were otherwise untouched. I left them alone, disappointed.

Then this weekend, my fall bulbs arrived. I'd ordered them back in mid-August, before I realized I had a vole problem. Now, I thought, I really have to deal with these voles. I'm not going to plant dozens of bulbs only to provide a tasty winter smorgasbord for the critters.

Saturday morning, out we went for a laundry list of weapons to combat voles: 1) traps, 2) granulated castor oil, 3) spray castor oil, 4) sharp gravel, 5) hardware cloth and wire to make bulb boxes.

I came back and waded into the studio garden. Those disappointing traps? There were dead voles in two!

So. I waded into the zinnias. Pulling them up from the roots and watching holes multiply under my eyes. Areas where the ground was soft and gave way, where either the voles were living or eating roots, or just multiple exit routes from a den? I don't know.

It all got dug up. Then, I dumped in a couple of bags of sharp gravel, which apparently they don't like to dig through, and mixed that up into the top 3-4 inches of garden soil.

Interestingly, just to the right is a bed of naturalized grape hyacinth, that hasn't been touched at all. So it is true that some bulbs discourage the voles. I had been doing research in the evenings, and learned that several of the bulb types I'd ordered are poisonous to voles, and so those got planted throughout the bed. No tulips. No crocuses. Only the bulbs that voles won't eat.

Last, I dealt with the largest entrance hole, which seemed to be the "main entrance", so to speak, to the den. 

Sure enough, underneath it and in the vicinity were several areas of empty air, about a foot down, between the yard and the garden, and with a convenient "exit" into the garden directly up into a tangle of oregano:

Capel helped to fill all that in entirely with dirt. And I added gravel there, too, for good measure.

Then I planted my "poisonous" bulbs:  lycoris radiata, and fritillaria meleagris. All of this fol-de-rol took up the whole morning. 

Meanwhile, Capel had fashioned tulip boxes out of what is called hardware cloth. Cloth is a misnomer. It's like chicken-wire with small, square holes. Nasty on the arms. 

Instead of sprinkling my tulips around among several beds, I decided to concentrate them all in the new corner garden in the front yard, and protect them with homemade tulip boxes. There hasn't been any sign of voles up front, except for near the front porch. But, I figure, if I eradicate them from the back garden, the nearest place to go is, you got it, the front garden!

Since I put that garden in this spring, there are no spring bulbs in it. So this is my chance to protect them once and for all. Except the lilies, that is.

Long-story later, boxes ...

These are made with 1/4" hardware cloth, wired together. The tops are a separate square of 1/2" hardware cloth. I filled the boxes with tulips and dirt (and hyacinth and crocus, in a few cases), then wired the tops on with red twist-ties, and covered the tops loosely with a bit of dirt. I'll go back and mulch them for the winter. In the spring, I'll take off the mulch and the tops, to let the tulips sprout. And then after the tulips flower and the foliage browns and dies, I'll put the box tops back on.

It got dark long before all the bulbs were in. It's much slower to plant them by digging up entire foot-wide squares of garden.

So yesterday morning, in a driving mist, I planted a few more, and then went back over the studio garden with granulated castor oil.

Capel is quite proud of his handiwork. And, for a guy who doesn't like to garden, it's a pretty big investment in the health of a couple dozen tulips. So, let me advertise his vole boxes, custom crafted, handmade by ... The Ossining Vole Box Company. Cheap, except for the labor (10 boxes, two sizes, 6 hours).



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