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Catching winter critters

The vole trap. (Barbara Damrosch/for The Washington Post)

The corn stalks are pale brown and tattered, with the black shapes of crows flapping among them, making a racket. They’re after the last of the field corn we grew as winter food for the chickens. Clearly, there are some ears we missed.

Every critter out there is hungry. A cardinal is picking off the last of the crabapples in the tree next to the house. The filbert trees are a blazing orange color, but the squirrels long ago made off with the last of the nuts, and every bird and raccoon has raided the grapes on the arbor. It’s the time of year for storing up calories for migration, hibernation or just day-to-day survival. Come spring, we’ll find rodents’ little secret stores — piles of dug-up lily bulb scales hidden in the garden, and seed collections in the pockets of clothes left in the barn.

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.” View Archive

We’re busy laying in our winter supplies, too. The root cellar will soon be stacked full of root crops such as potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots, celery roots and even cabbages. Our inclination is always to leave edible roots in the ground as long as possible, because the earth is the perfect keeping environment for these natural storage organs. Parsnips will stay there until spring, and other crops might, too, if they were not so popular with the community at large. One year when we left the carrots in, we found nothing there by winter’s end but a series of orange-colored tunnels — the table scraps of feasting meadow voles. And some years, the voles are so plentiful that there’s a race to get any food into the cellar at all before they devour it.

What can you do? Until someone develops a new breed of cat that’s voracious about voles but leaves songbirds alone, we’ll stick to trapping. Over the years we have developed a system that works quite well, with no poisonous rodenticides involved. We don’t use baits others favor (cheese, peanut butter, Juicy Fruit gum) because they can smell suspicious to a vole that’s been around the neighborhood awhile.

What we do is place simple wooden boxes in the places where voles are likely to be, such as the beet rows, the Swiss chard rows and the turnip row. Each box has little mouse holes cut in two opposite sides, with unbaited mousetraps placed just inside these entrances. A vole, always in a hurry to take cover and hide from predators, will make a dash for the hole and land on a trap. The boxes’ removable lids let you inspect them easily and clean out the traps. This isn’t fun to do, and it might sound cruel. But after the work of growing our food, we have a right to it, so out we go to check our traps. And grab the last of that corn.

Damrosch’s book “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook” will be published in March.

Tip of the week

Sow seeds of Shirley poppies now for winter germination and spring flowering. The poppies will grow ground-hugging rosettes as long as they get good seed-to-soil contact — avoid sowing in mulch. In sunny and free-draining soil, the poppies will self-seed and return annually.



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