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 Huge swaths of ‘Guacamole’ Hostas had been replaced by large patches of bare soil.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.