Dealing with furry, unwelcome visitors in your garden

Meadow voles, or field mice, willl feast on most any edible you grow


A homemade vole trap in the author’s yard. (Barbara Damrosch)
Contributor August 13

Our Belgian endive row looked lush and healthy, promising a good fall crop for winter eating — except for one plant, whose broad, strap-like leaves had withered. I pulled, and it came up easily, with no resistance. No wonder. Where once a deep taproot had been there was now a deep, narrow cone-shaped hole in the earth. Every trace of root had been consumed.

The culprit? Surely a meadow vole, and this seemed a good time of year to assess not only their current plunder in the garden, but also the possibility of future raids.

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.” View Archive

Also known as field mice, these furry creatures are larger than house mice, and brownish rather than gray. Unlike moles, which mess up your lawn with their burrows but ignore vegetable crops, voles will feast on most any edible you grow if they’re hungry enough. They have a sweet tooth, nibbling any strawberries the birds have left for them. Root crops are special favorites, too: sweet parsnips, sweet beets, succulent baby turnips — and endive roots most of all. When fall frosts arrive, making the carrots extra sweet, these too may become orange-tinted hollows in the soil, where a crop once thrived. And don’t forget the salad course. Cold frames, greenhouses and any protective covering for tender winter greens such as lettuce and arugula will become vole playpens if we don’t make plans now.

Vole mamas can have a litter every three weeks, all summer long, and all winter, too, if they find a good place to feast and hide. Hiding is essential. A host of larger creatures find them tasty snacks, both the hawks and owls that hunt from the air, and ground-stalkers such as foxes and snakes. Keeping grassy areas around garden beds closely mowed helps expose voles to predators and keep their population in check. But if you spot numerous shallow runways in the garden, notice vole damage to crops, or glimpse the scurrying rodents themselves, it’s best to take precautionary measures.

We’ve found trapping to be the best solution. Ordinary mousetraps placed perpendicular to the runways are effective, but unfortunately they catch ground-feeding songbirds as well. Our most successful strategy has been to place unbaited traps where they will not only interrupt a vole’s mad dash to safety but also provide what looks to them like a safe haven.

We’ve used plastic boxes designed as bait stations for rats but have also had great success with a homemade version. It’s a simple wooden box, screwed together, with a bottom and a removable lid.

Using a jigsaw, we cut little mouse-sized openings in two opposite sides of the box (They look just like the ones in the Tom and Jerry cartoons), then set our mousetraps just inside these entrances, where a vole in a hurry to escape a hawk’s eye can’t help but land. (Birds do not enter.) The lid is easily lifted off to look for, and remove, both voles and the occasional mouse. An upright stick attached to one corner helps us to find the box amid tall garden greenery. You can even tie a flag to the stick if it’s still hard to see. The trap we use is an easy-to-set one called the Better Mousetrap from www.intruderinc.com.

We’re looking forward to crisp little heads of Belgian endive this winter, grown outdoors, then forced in a dark cellar for a winter treat. Unless someone else gets to them first.

Tip of the week:

Tired hedges and ragged, overgrown shrubs are best replaced in early fall, so plan now for clearing beds and choosing fresh plant material. Take the time to do your homework, matching future plantings to soil and light conditions and, not least, available space. Sometimes the right decision is not to replace one woody plant with another, but to use perennials instead. — Adrian Higgins

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