Tag Archives: gardening

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 Huge swaths of ‘Guacamole’ Hostas had been replaced by large patches of bare soil.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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Basil 101

'Purple Ruffles' Basil

Here at Moore & Moore, we plant geeks thrive on the obscure, rare, and downright weird cultivars, and that holds true for culinary plants as well. Take basil, for instance. As the herb buyer here, I try to bring in as many new and exciting varieties as I can find.

Sometimes, however, it only leads to customer confusion. Since there are so many varieties of basil out there–some better for certain dishes than others–I thought I’d give a quick rundown of the different types of culinary basil we typically carry.

Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is the most common type of basil and by far the best seller of the bunch. Its rich flavor sometimes takes on a hint of licorice, but it can become bitter if overcooked. Of the sweet basils, ‘Genovese’ is the preferred variety of many chefs, thanks to its true, sweet flavor. Sweet basil is best used fresh (not dried or cooked) in pesto, salad dressing, and on tomatoes with mozzarella.

Bush Basil (Ocimum basilicum minimum) is a group of rounded basils with small, very aromatic leaves. Because the leaves are so diminuitive, little chopping is required–most people just crush the leaves slightly to release their exceptional flavor. Bush basil is slower to bolt than common basil, which means you can harvest it longer. In addition, most bush basils are easy to overwinter indoors. ‘Boxwood’ is a cute little ball of a basil that resembles the shrub, but it only gets about a foot tall and wide. Use bush basil as you would common sweet basil–fresh.

Columnar Basil (Ocimum basilicum var.) grows quite tall–three to four feet–but not terribly wide and has a very strong flavor. Imagine basil infused with cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and citrus. Because of this, columnar basil is not the best basil for pesto, but it is fantastic in hearty soups and stews. Columnar basils do not bloom, so their flavor stays true all year, and they are pretty easy to grow inside given adequate light. ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ is a beautiful variegated variety.

Purple Basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Purpurascens’) is just what is sounds like. Many people grow it just for its gorgeous deep purple leaves, but more and more are discovering how delicious its delicate flavor is in pesto, salads, and even beverages. (For an amazing basil lemonade recipe, click here.) ‘Purple Ruffles,’ pictured above, is a personal favorite.

Lettuce Leaf Basil (Ocimum basilicum crispum) has huge leaves, and its flavor is significantly milder than other green basils, which means it’s great for long, slow cooking. It also dries amazingly well. Toss torn leaves into salads or wrap whole leaves around chicken or fish prior to grilling–yum! The ‘Napoleatano’ variety is a staple here at the garden center.

Scented Basils (Ocimum basilicum odoratum) are a group of basils that taste like basil infused with another flavor. ‘Mrs. Burn’s Lemon,’ lime, cinnamon, and ‘African Blue,’ which tastes strongly of anise, are just a few of the many varieties available. All can be used just like sweet basil where you want a little extra zing, and you can use both the leaves and the flowers to flavor foods. Lime basil is delicious in salsa, lemon is superb in sorbet, cinnamon makes scrumptious scones, and African Blue adds depth to biscotti.

 With so many varieties of basil available–and we’ve barely scratched the surface–it can be hard to decide on which one to grow. So do what I do, and plant several: a sweet one for pesto, a lettuce leaf for tomato sauce, a scented one for salsa and beverages, a bush or columnar variety that will overwinter indoors, and a purple one because it’s just too pretty to pass up. Happy gardening!

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Salt Like an Egyptian

I love learning new things, especially when they pertain to gardening or cooking. Even better when the new info covers both. And I recently discovered something that rocked my world.

Fresh herbs can be dried and preserved in salt or sugar, and this method maintains nearly all of the flavor and aroma of fresh herbs. How could I not know this? I know salt is used to preserve meat and fish, but herbs?!? This is huge!  

Think about how different, bland, and downright wrong some store-bought dried herbs taste. Dried rosemary, for instance, is reminiscent of school yard dirt. Dried basil–sawdust. And they cost a fortune for a tiny little jar, especially if you buy organic.

The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used salt to store their herbs, which is weird, because I watched HBO’s Rome religiously (and repeatedly), and I don’t remember anything about herbs in salt. Incredibly buff men in togas, yes; herbs in salt–not so much. But I digress. These advanced civilizations enjoyed almost-as-tasty-as-fresh herbs whenever they wanted. And so can we!

Salt-preserving couldn’t be simpler. Just  rinse your herbs, then blot them dry with paper towels, or lay them out to dry for at least a half hour. If you’re a serious foodie, you can use that salad spinner you bought yourself for Christmas. However you do it, make sure there is no water left on the herbs before you start preserving them. If you like, you can strip the leaves from the stems at this point, or you can wait until you are ready to cook with the herbs to de-leaf them. Totally up to you.

Next, grab a clean canning jar, cookie tin, plastic tub, or pretty much anything that has an airtight lid. Pour about a half-inch layer of coarse sea salt, kosher salt, or non-iodized salt into the bottom of the container. Add a layer of herbs, then a thin layer of salt–just enough to cover the herbs–and press down firmly. Keep alternating layers, pressing down firmly after each salt layer, until your container is full. The top layer should be another thick, half-inch layer of salt.

Cover the container, and store it in a cool, dark place. Your herbs should be dry in about a week, and they will keep practically indefinitely. When you need herbs for that culinary masterpiece you’re creating, simply grab some leaves, shake the salt off, chop, and add to your dish. Bonus: although the herb will absorb little if any of the taste of the salt, the salt will absorb the flavor of the herb, giving you herbed salt, which you can also use to enhance foods and impress your friends. Imagine serving tarragon salt with poached eggs, rosemary salt with roasted potatoes, or lemon thyme salt with asparagus. Your friends will think you’re Martha Stewart!

The best herbs for salt-preserving are basil, chives, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, thyme, savory, and tarragon. For sweeter herbs like mint and lavender, use the above method, substituting sugar for salt. You can then add the herbs to baked goods or sorbet, sprinkle them over fruit salads, and stir a spoonful of mint- or lavender-laced sugar into your tea.

I am positively giddy. Never again will I be forced to buy a whole bag of fresh marjoram when I only need a teaspoon, then watch in despair as the once-lovely leaves turn to slime or grow fur in my (poorly named) crisper drawer. Nor will I let my lush basil plant just die at the first frost because I know it will turn black or puke green if I freeze- or oven-dry it. No, fellow gardeners, I will salt like an Egyptian and enjoy inexpensive, delicious, healthy herbs on demand–starting in about a week.

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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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