Category Archives: Problems & Solutions

Undermining the Underminers
How I Won the War on Voles

Devastation Wrought by the Offending Party

My garden had become a place I no longer recognized. Huge swaths of ‘Guacamole’ Hostas had been replaced by large patches of bare soil. My Ward’s yews, the backbone of my shade garden, had turned completely brown and dropped every needle. Where hundreds of bright orange asiatic lilies once greeted me cheerfully each spring–nothing. My tulips, which, contrary to all the rules, bloomed dependably for me every year, poked anemically from my fern bed, where I know I did not plant them. And on and on. My formerly lush, mature garden– the one that was so full you couldn’t see the ground–had transformed itself into a place of death, destruction, and naked dirt. “I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHO YOU ARE ANY MORE!” I yelled at no one and nothing–and at everyone and everything.

Walking woefully through the epicenter, I noticed something utterly bizarre. There were holes everywhere, and the ground had been pushed up all over the place. “Frost heave and insects,” I told myself, but it wasn’t quite that. The holes were way too big for cicadas or Japanese beetles, and the ridges were so uniform.

Looking at what was left of my yews, I gave one of the crispy branches  a gentle tug–and accidentally yanked the entire shrub right out of the ground! Except that it wasn’t an entire shrub at all. It was dead sticks above ground but nothing below. “What in the world?” I thought. This yew had been seven feet across–where were its roots? I peered into the gaping hole that had once housed the yew’s feet and saw underground tunnels everywhere. And finally it made sense: I had been invaded by voles.

Voles are not the same as moles. Moles have velvety fur, long snouts, and cute little paddle-paws. Voles look like mice with short tails and big ugly yellow teeth. Moles eat grubs and earthworms. Voles eat worms and insects if they must, but they much prefer tree bark, plant roots, and bulbs. Moles dig tunnels. The good-for-nothing voles use the mole tunnels to move around in.  In my experience, they seem to be particularly fond of bulbs, tubers, hostas, yews, Japanese maples, and nandinas, and they are attracted to rich soil. Which means that while I was beating that rock I live on into submission to create a happy place for my plants, I was unwittingly inviting every vole in a twenty-mile radius to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

As usual when I don’t know what to do, I scoured the Web for answers. I discovered hundreds of home remedies, some promising commercial products, and more than a few wacko “solutions.” (One involved filling the tunnels with gasoline or propane and throwing in a match, effectively blowing up your entire yard. Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?) So after my initial search, here are the vole-eradication methods I deemed affordable and sane enough to give a whirl: castor oil, garlic juice, garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, pepper spray (nearly choked to death in the process of applying it), partially chewed Juicy Fruit, predator pee, my pee, cigarette butts, dog hair, cat hair, removing all of my mulch (it gives the voles hiding places), my neighbors’ cats (who spend more time at my place than theirs), and, as a very last resort, my neighbors’ cats’ used kitty litter (terrible idea). Guess what worked? None of it. I considered traps and poison, but I just couldn’t bring myself to use them. The thought of collecting and emptying the traps did not appeal in the least, and I hated the idea of accidentally poisoning something that wasn’t a vole–like a chipmunk, an owl, or my neighbors’ cats, on the off chance that they ever decided to give hunting a try.

By this time it was early summer, and my remaining hostas were fading fast. I continued my online search. For hours I surfed, trying to find a realistic solution, preferably from someone who had lived it and wasn’t just trying to sell me something. Finally I stumbled across a gardener’s website, and what I learned amazed me. The answers had been right under my nose all along.

You can plant vole-susceptible perennials in pots, then plant the pots in the ground. Working at Moore & Moore gives me access to thousands of black growers’ pots, which would virtutally disappear against the soil. Then I read about using landscape fabric to line planting holes to keep the thugs away. And finally I read about a product called VoleBloc, which also goes by the name of PermaTill. PermaTill?! I know PermaTill as an excellent amendment to loosen clay. How could I not know it deters voles? We carry PermaTill! I got to work.

I dug up my hostas and replanted them. I put some in landscape fabric and others in pots as a test to see if one method was better than the other. The hosta roots were so tiny, I figured it was a lost cause, but in a few weeks, my  hostas started to rally! And now, more than a year later, they are bigger and more beautiful than ever. And so far, the pots and fabric work equally well.

Obviously, it’s not practical to dig up and replant established trees and shrubs, but you can use PermaTill to create a protective barrier around the roots. Apparently, voles hate to scurry and dig through PermaTill because it hurts their delicate little feet. (Cue the violins.) So you dig trenches or moats several inches deep around the bases of your prized trees and shrubs, then fill them with PermaTill. I tried it on my half-eaten Japanese maples and chewed-up nandinas. I used it to surround the new fall bulbs I planted to replace the old ones. And I used it as mulch to keep the insurgents from digging new holes into the root systems. (More info on these methods here.) And my garden is not only surviving, but thriving.

My last plan of attack involves restraint–something that is very difficult for a plantaholic. When plant shopping these days, I stick to the ones that voles burrow on by, at least in my expereince. You can read a list of which plants have worked for me here.

So that’s my story. The traces of the war that raged in my garden last year are barely visible. The plants’ scars have healed. My PTSD counseling is nearing its completion. And the voles have moved on. Good riddance, rodents.

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Undermining the Underminers, Parte Deux:
If They Don’t Like It, They Won’t Eat It

Hateful Creature


Like many Middle Tennesseans, I have been under attack. Over the last year or so, voles have eaten their way through my garden, murdering about a dozen hostas, three nandinas, scads of vegetables, several red and blue lobelia, thirty or forty asiatic lilies, five balloon flowers (Platycodon), at least twenty square feet of Sweet Flag (Acorus gramineus), a Ward’s yew, a Peppermint Willow Tree (Agonis flexuosa), and probably more that I forgot I even had. In another post, I described my battle with these varmints, the various controls I tried in vain, and what finally worked for me.    

One of the most important steps I’ve taken is to choose plants that voles don’t consider delicacies. This is not a scientific study by any means–it is simply a list of what survived the Vole Onslaught of 2010 in the McPherson landscape. And it’s what I will be planting to replace everything the voles devoured.    

Even though the voles didn’t go after the types of plants listed below, they (or the moles or chipmunks) did tunnel underneath just about everything, which separated the roots from the soil and left big air pockets. I had to practice diligent vole patrol, which meant simply stepping on the raised mounds (and wishing like mad that I was squishing a vole mid-munch) or using my hands to firm the soil back down.    

And so here, without further ado–and in no particular order–are the types of plants that the voles have eschewed in my garden:    

Blue Lobelia


Native, perennial, annual–all came through just fine. I was surprised that the little monsters didn’t dine on the asparagus fern roots, which are quite bulbous, but they left them alone.    

So tasty to us; so distasteful to voles. Exception: Common chives (Allium schoenoprasum). Totally bewildering, since they turned up their snouts at my garlic chives and tunneled right past the scads of onion grass that heavily populates what passes for a lawn at my place. Which brings me to…    

Kinda bittersweet, because I could do with several hundred fewer violets, wild strawberries, red cedars, and honeysuckle vines, but whatever. The vast majority of native trees, shrubs, ephemeral wildflowers, and perennials suffered no damage in my garden, and I have no idea why. Voles in the wild have to eat something, right? It must be Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), which is a shame, because I had a lovely drift of it, and it’s somewhat difficult to find these days.    

I adore salvia–every last species of it. I suppose it could be included in herbs, but here I’m talking about the ornamental varieties–azurea, greggii, guaranitica, leucantha, microphylla, nemerosa–all of it. I love it because it blooms so profusely, even in our Saharan summers, and the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds flock to it, but pest insects want nothing to do with it. And neither do the voles.    

They’re tough, they bloom in winter, they’re evergreen, they thrive in dry shade, and the voles (and deer and rabbits) scurry/walk/hop on by. What’s not to love?    

Ornamental Grasses
Another favorite. Four seasons of interest, and they add grace and movement to the garden. Exception: Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), which I suppose isn’t technically a grass, being in the iris family, but that’s how I use it, so that’s what I call it. And the weird thing is that the voles didn’t really eradicate it, they just moved it around. Some clumps disappeared, and new ones emerged at the complete opposite end of the garden. I suppose the birds could’ve had a hand in redesigning my garden, but at this point, I’m blaming every bad thing that happens in my life on the voles.    

I don’t plant a lot of annuals. I love them–I just don’t have the space these days. But I always manage to squeeze in some Coleus. And the new sun varieties perform equally well in sun or shade. You’d think that, as thirsty as they are, their roots would be especially moist and tempting during the dry summer months, but either the voles don’t know what a Coleus is, or it just tastes bad to them. Either way, yay for me!    

Vines and Groundcovers
This category crosses over somewhat into natives and ferns, but not one of my many, many vines and groundcovers succumbed to the voles. Besides, they’re ridiculously easy.    

A Very Few Select Bulbs and Rhizomatous Perennials: Daffodils, Elephant Ears, and Irises
We all know that daffodils are critter-proof, but elephant ears, with their big fat juicy bulbs? The bulbs many people of the world mash and eat as Taro? Well, it turns out that Taro is toxic when eaten raw (it causes kidney stones), and apparently the voles know this. Bummer, because I would happily sacrifice my elephant ears if it meant painful urinary issues for voles. But I plant elephant ears by the truckload, and they not only survived, they multiplied. Same with my Bearded Irises. You just can’t kill ‘em.    

I’m sure I’m forgetting something, and that’s why I’d love to hear which plants the voles ignore at your place.  Maybe if we all pull together, we can wipe these beady-eyed beasties off the face of the earth run these rodents out of town.

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The Toughest Plants I Know–and Grow

The road to Moore & Moore's bulk lot became a river during the flood.

Two thousand ten was not a kind year for gardeners in Middle Tennessee. For whatever reason, Mother Nature decided to unleash a Reign of Terror on us, starting on January 1, and continuing through the end of the year. 

January blew in with an arctic blast. The first  thirteen days of the month tied a sixty-eight-year-old record for the coldest start of any year ever recorded in Nashville. The top foot of my three-feet-deep pond froze solidly enough to skate on. And the marginally cold-hardy plants I’d put in a very protected area, which is typically about Zone 8b? Dead. Good-bye, gardenias. Ta ta, Tradescantia pallida (Purple Heart). Sayonara, Sweet Box (Sarcococca ruscifolia). 

Next came the May flood, which has been called a thousand-year event. Many people lost everything. Gardens were an afterthought to homes, furniture, and irreplaceable mementos, but when the houses had been gutted and the possessions hauled away, gardeners began to realize that their lovely landscapes, which had sat in toxic, fuel-polluted water for days, had not made it. 

I was incredibly fortunate not to have had any flood damage to my home, but I did lose quite a few of my xerics. They literally drowned, even though they were planted high in fairly well-drained soil. Rattlesnake Aloe (Agave virginica ‘Spot), Artemisia arborescens ’Powis Castle,’ and too many creeping sedums to list just rotted away.  

Little did we know that the twelve-plus inches of rain that innundated us on the first two days of May would be our last significant rainfall for months. Nor did we expect the next ninety straight days to bring temps of ninety-plus degrees. In spite of diligent watering, many marginally heat-hardy plants could not handle the onslaught. The ground was so hot that adding water literally steamed some roots to death. In my garden, Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata),  ’Purple Gem’ Rhododendron, and Astilbe burst into flames and bid me adieu. 

Hosta x. 'Guacamole'

Meanwhile, underneath it all–the frozen ground, the foot of water, and the inferno–an army of voles was silently devouring the roots of many trees, shrubs, and perennials, killing them one after another. My huge, lovely ‘Guacamole’ hostas shrank from five feet wide to about ten inches. Some hostas disappeared entirely. Tulips, transported via underground tunnels, started coming up in my shady fern bed, where I know I did not plant them. Many bulbs never came up at all, most likely having been digested months earlier by those voracious voles. By the time I figured out what was going on, it was far too late for many of my beloved plants. The ruthless killing machines had left my once lush, mature garden with big blank swaths of soil. 

To make a long story short (I know–too late) and get to the point of this blog, listed below are the plants that withstood everything Mother Nature threw at them and not only survived, but thrived. They are the toughest plants I know–and grow–and will use to fill in all the holes. 

‘Grey Owl,’ ‘Blue Point,’ and ‘Nana’ all came through with flying colors. The other varieties we carry at the garden center, such as ‘Daub’s Frosted,’ ‘Blue Star,’ and ‘Icee Blue,’ fared equally well. 

No, not the hybrid teas that require constant coddling, but the Knock Out, Oso Easy, and Carpet varieties that are highly disease-resistant and bloom for months. Give them plenty of sun and food, and they’ll repay you in spades. I’m looking forward to trying the new Drift cultivars that we’ll have in this spring. 

Yes, they needed lots of water, but they didn’t seem to mind the steam baths one bit. They flowered their heads off, and their leaves remained spot-free till well into fall. 

Elephant Ears
Again, they needed plenty of supplemental water, but the hotter and more humid it got, the bigger they grew. 

I adore salvia, so I plant lots of it–both annual and perennial. All of it bloomed for months, and none of it needed additional water. And there doesn’t seem to be a pest or varmint that enjoys the taste of it, but the butterflies and hummingbirds flock to it. Some of my favorites include ‘Pineapple’ (Salvia elegans), Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha), ‘Wild Thing’ (Salvia greggii), and ‘Black and Blue’ (Salvia guaranitica). 

Whether it was a tree, a shrub, a bulb, or a perennial, the natives did not miss a beat last year. Daffodils, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Bottlebrush Buckeyes, and Cedars all performed exceptionally well. 

Ornamental Grasses
They’re tough, they provide year-round interest, add movement to the garden, and are virtually pest- and maintenance-free. What’s not to love? I’ve experienced excellent results from several species of Carex, Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis), ‘Blue Dune’ Lyme Grass (Leymus arenarius), and Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum), particularly ‘Northwind.’ 

Yes, it’s disappointing–not to mention expensive–to have lost so many mature plants, but I love gardening too much to give up. Rather than focus on the negative, I’ve decided to practice what I preach to our customers. This is not a disaster. It’s a gardening opportunity.

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Basil Blues

Anita Bailey writes: Is there any way I can save my basil? I make pesto every year and give for Christmas gifts and my final harvest is looking iffy. And there’s no time to grow more before cold weather. Two of the plants have completely died. Is there an organic spray or something I can do to salvage the other 7 plants?

Solution: Thank you for writing, Anita. You should be able to salvage at least some of your basil.

First, basil is a sun-loving, thirsty plant. If these have been in containers since spring, they are probably quite rootbound and will need to be watered every day. And give them as much sun as possible–at least six hours is best.

Second, cut your plants way back, and use whatever leaves you can to make pesto. Don’t cut the basil to the ground; just remove everything above the lowest set of leaves.

Next, give the basil some food.  Although a lot of people think herbs should not be fertilized, we fertilize ours regularly–and so do our growers.

For basil, parsley, cilantro, and other leafy herbs, we recommend Dried Blood. This is an organic source of pure nitrogen, which encourages foliar growth but won’t promote budding. (Dried blood is also great for any plant on which you want a lot of leaves but few or no flowers–ferns, ivy, lawns, house plants, etc.) Sprinkle about a tablespoon around the base of each plant, scratch it lightly into the soil, and then water it in. You should notice some new growth within a week, and in two weeks, your plants should be completely transformed into happy, healthy herbs.

Sweet Aussie Basil

It’s hard to tell from your picture if your basil has any fungal problems, but there are certainly organic fungicides you could use if you think fungus might be the culprit. Here at Moore & Moore we offer several options, so please stop by, and we’ll figure out the best solution for you.

Finally, you might want to consider planting a hardier variety of basil  next year. Sweet Aussie (Ocimum x citriodorum ‘Sweet Aussie’) did exceptionally well for us here, in spite of the tremendous heat. The plant grew to about two feet tall and one foot wide, kept its deep green color all season, and, as of last week, had still not bolted. The flavor is just as delicious as the common Sweet Basil, if not more so, with added floral and citrus tones.

Thank you again for contacting us. Please let us know how it goes.

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