Reducing Damage From Moles and Voles

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Are moles or voles tunneling through your lawn?  Are your newly planted perennials disappearing into a vole tunnel?

We have been doing quite a bit of stomping on tunnels and filling of holes this spring.  In fact, a pesky little vole ate half the roots of a newly planted Columbine earlier this week, before I saw the damage and rescued it to a pot!  I planted a lovely Hellebore seedling in its place, only to find the opening of the tunnel widened the next morning, the rejected Hellebore lying beside it.

You know why the vole didn’t want the Hellebore, don’t you?  It is poisonous!  Planting poisonous bulbs and perennials seems to be our “go to strategy” in this wild garden, to foil the wildlife.  But there are a few other tricks that work as well.

Our spring time battle with the voles inspired me to update one of my first 2013 posts to Forest Garden, about our battles with the voles and moles we found here.  If you missed it then, let me invite you to take a dive into the Forest Garden archives and read it now.  You may find a useful idea that works for you, too.

When Your Garden Looks Like Swiss Cheese:  Living With Moles and Voles
Woodland Gnome 2018
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Edgeworthia in the Garden

Our Edgeworthia in February, its first spring in the garden.

Our Edgeworthia in February, its first spring in the garden.

Early in the spring of 2013, friends invited me over to see their Hellebores in bloom.  We had discovered our common interest in these beautiful winter blooming perennials.

This was a special treat since they had just redone their garden, and they gave me a complete tour.  As we walked around, an unusually beautiful shrub, in full bloom, drew my attention.  “What is that? I’ve never seen anything quite like it!”

Our Edgeworthia in late February.

Our Edgeworthia in late February.

Elegant smooth branches glowed in the afternoon light, each holding clusters of tiny creamy flowers.  This large, sculptural shrub commanded attention in the center of a network of pathways.

Our Edgeworthia open and fragrant, now, on March 15.

Our Edgeworthia open and fragrant, now, on March 15.

This was the day I fell in love with Edgeworthia chrysantha We encountered one another again, only a few weeks later, at Homestead Garden Center.  They helped me find the Edgeworthia among the huge variety of shrubs in the nursery.

As much as I wanted to grow one, I hesitated.  I couldn’t visualize where it would have the correct growing conditions and place of honor it deserved in my garden.

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Our newly planted Edgeworthia in mid September.

It is a very good thing I hesitated back in April.  Little did I know then how completely a June storm would transform my front “woods”, or that I would soon have heavy equipment rolling through my yard day after day disassembling our forest.  Now the work is finished, and I”m getting used to the changes, including the change in light.

Which brings us back to Edgeworthia.

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It likes a mix of sun and shade, and now it can grow well in any number of spots along the edges of the big, sunny open space where my Afghan figs will soon be growing.

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Back at Homestead on Friday, when Dustin and I were looking at shrubs for the pot garden, we found three Edgeworthia left in stock.  Even better, these shrubs were grown locally  by the Patton family, and all three were healthy and beautifully shaped. September 14 Edgeworthia 003 - Copy

We chose one for the pot I was planting for This Century Art Gallery, and one for me to plant in our garden.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea growing with Black Eyed Susans.

When I plant a shrub out in the garden, I generally plant it as the centerpiece of a new little garden bed.

Like constructing a quilt, I expect that one day these little islands of beauty will flow into one another to make something grand and beautiful.  It is also a pragmatic approach.

Once I learned that every part of a daffodil is poisonous, including the roots, I began planting them around every new shrub.

Daffodil bulbs, ready to be planted in a ring around the Edgeworthia.

Daffodil bulbs, ready to be planted in a ring around the Edgeworthia.

The garden has been infested with voles since at least the day I planted the first anything in the ground here.  I’ve lost too many new plants down their tunnels, and had too many shrubs stunted by voracious gnawing on their roots to put anything in the ground without protection.  Daffodils are my insurance policy.  I plant a ring of them around everything these days.

So once deciding where the new Edworthia would be most admired and enjoyed, near the drive, and shifting that spot several times to avoid major roots, I dug a hole large enough to accommodate the shrub and a ring of daffodils.

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There are so many different views on how to prepare a planting hole.  When I first began gardening, I learned, “Dig a $5 hole for a $1 plant”.  Advice was to dig an area at least twice the size of the root ball, half again as deep, and generously amend the soil with compost and fertilizer.

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Lately I’ve read experts who say that is unnecessary, and in some cases harmful.  They recommend digging a hole just the right size, using the same soil taken out as back fill, and going lightly on the fertilizer.  I think it depends a lot on the growing conditions in your own particular garden, and also on what you are planting.

For bare root roses, I dig a huge hole, tinker with the soil quite a bit, and do all sorts of interesting things.   It can take half a day!

The many roots in this garden settle the question for me.  I dig the biggest hole I can, remove the fewest established roots I can get by with, build up a little hill of compost on top of the ground around the root ball, which is generally high, and hope for the best.   Somehow it works out.

September 14 Edgeworthia 005

This Edgeworthia got lucky.  The spot I finally found allowed me to dig a hole 4″-5″ deeper than the root ball, and a bit wider.  After cutting out the displaced roots, I poured in a generous serving of pea gravel, to greet the voles’ little hungry mouths, and a generous serving of Plant Tone.

All of this got mixed into the loose soil at the bottom of the hole, and then mixed again with a good bit of compost.  Just like planting a pot, I smoothed this amended soil up the sides of the planting hole, and adjusted the depth so the root ball sat level with the surrounding ground.

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This Edgeworthia had more root growth than the one which went in the pot, and a lot of roots were showing on top of the root ball.  Since the weather is still warm, and its buds are forming, I didn’t want to shock it by pruning the roots back, but I did lift them gently away from the ball with the tip of my pocket knife.

Roots on the sides and bottom of the root ball need to be loosened before planting.

Roots on the sides and bottom of the root ball need to be loosened before planting.

“Roughing them up” a bit is actually a good thing as it encourages new growth out into the surrounding soil.  Breaking up the roots on the bottom of the ball is as important as loosening the roots on the sides.  All of this is done in the shade, of course, and just before planting.

Gravel and Plant Tone ready to be mixed into the bottom of the planting hole.

Gravel and Plant Tone ready to be mixed into the bottom of the planting hole.

Once the shrub was set in the hole, I added a little more gravel, and then began back-filling.

The soil that came out of the hole was surprisingly good:  a nice mix of loose clay and dark rich dirt.  I layered the soil with gravel and compost to a depth of about 6″ from the top, and then planted the first ring of bulbs.

Daffodil bulbs planted at a depth of 8", and about 6" apart all around the root ball to protect it from voles.

Daffodil bulbs planted at a depth of 8″, and about 6″ apart all around the root ball to protect it from voles.

Their bottoms need to be about 8″ deep, and so each was pushed down into the loose back fill.  Once they were planted and covered, I watered the hole well to allow this much of the soil to settle and wash out any air pockets.

When the water drains, the rest of the hole can be filled, again in layers, ending with a light layer of compost covering the exposed roots on top of the root ball.  A shrub should be planted at the level it grew in the pot, but when the roots are exposed, I put a light covering of compost over them as a mulch.

September 14 Edgeworthia 014

Next, I circled this initial hole with a second ring of daffodil bulbs; an Autumn Fern ready to move from the pot its grown in for a year to a more spacious accommodation in the ground; and the ground cover Creeping Jenny growing with it.

I dug a fairly large hole beside the shrub for the first two bulbs and the fern, backfilling with compost and the original soil.  Then I spaced additional bulbs wherever I could dig a large enough hole, about every 8″ around the entire shrub.  All of those lovely poisonous daffodil roots will grow together to make a protective ring around the shrub’s roots while it establishes.

Edworthia, surrounded by two rows of daffodil bulbs, an Autumn Fern, and Creeping Jenny, will settle in for a few weeks before I add Violas and more spring bulbs around this planting.

Edworthia, surrounded by two rows of daffodil bulbs, an Autumn Fern, and Creeping Jenny, will settle in for a few weeks before I add Violas and more spring bulbs around this planting.

 Finally, I broke up the remaining root ball of Creeping Jenny,  put hunks of it on top of the outer ring of bulbs, and covered the whole outer ring with additional compost.

Now,  this is a totally unorthodox planting method- planting on top of the ground.  But it works.  Creeping Jenny are very tough.  They root from every leaf node along the stem.  I’ll keep this watered until they take hold, and soon they will form a beautiful chartreuse ground cover around this entire area.

After watering everything well one more time, I left the new planting to settle.  In a few weeks, I’ll come back with 6 packs of violas and small bulbs of Grape Hyacinths, Crocuses, perhaps some Siberian Squill; and develop the area around the shrub a bit more.  By the end of October, this entire area along the drive will be planted in violas ready to bloom their hearts out all winter and into next spring.

All photos by Woodland Gnome, 2013-2014

 

Learning to Garden in a Forest

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Just starting out…

When we purchased a home and moved to a neighborhood near Williamsburg, Virginia, several years ago, I was filled to the brim with ideas for gardening on our beautiful property.  It appeared that we had a wonderful combination of shady woodland areas, a deeply shaded ravine, and a meadow which enjoys full sun for most of the day.  We could see that the original owners had loved flowers and left behind “good bones” of camellias, dogwood, now struggling azaleas, drifts of daffodils, and mature peonies and hibiscus.

April

My last garden was a level, fenced suburban lot with a high water table in zone 8.  It was originally a dairy farm, and I could practically throw a shrub or a handful of seeds out of the door and know they would grow. So, I was disgustingly confident in my ability to create a lush garden of roses, herbs, perennials, and flowering shrubs on our new property.  That was before we had met many of our new neighbors, and learned it just isn’t that easy here…

New flower bed

As soon as we unpacked, we began making trips to the local garden centers. Over those first few months we spent hundreds of dollars and many happy hours planting away in our new garden.  As I got to know folks, the older and wiser residents of our neighborhood tried to warn me with a gentle smile, but I was determined that I could make roses grow in a desert.

Reality sets in…

Hardy Hibiscus and Rose of Sharon shrubs dominate this border in late July.

Hardy Hibiscus and Rose of Sharon shrubs dominate this border in late July.

Well, our first clue that something was amiss came the morning we admired our new hedge of camellias along the street, and realized all of the buds were missing.  By the onset of winter, most of the leaves had followed into the mouths of hungry marauding deer.  Now I’ve learned that flower buds are really “deer candy”, and the Bambis are delighted to nibble the buds off of roses, camellias, lilies, impatiens, violas; or most anything else that blooms.   We were lucky that the camellias had a strong will to live, and threw out new leaves in the spring.  They were too cautious to produce new flower buds that fall, and we’re still waiting to see them bloom.  The dozen or so hybrid hollies we planted weren’t as hardy.  The deer must have been starving to strip the hollies of leaves, but they did, and all were dead by April.

Azaleas badly pruned by hungry deer.

Azaleas badly pruned by hungry deer.

The voles love to tunnel under newly planted areas to feast on the roots of plants.

In addition to the deer who cruise the yard, there is also a thriving colony of voles. Deer nibble leaves and flowers; the voles devour roots.  That first spring, as I planted new herbs and perennials, within a day or so many were struggling.  Regular watering and generous soil amendments weren’t enough to get them off to a good start.  I soon noticed the raised, cracked earth leading to each dying plant.  The voles were happily tunneling everywhere I had dug and then noshing away on the tender tasty roots.  Some plants just disappeared completely, leaving only a large gaping hole leading to a tunnel.

Butterflies and hummingbird moths love this beautiful tree in the edge of our ravine.

Butterflies and hummingbird moths love this beautiful tree in the edge of our ravine.

Our acre of forest also hosts rabbits, whose appetites lead them beyond the grass to the flower beds and low pots, and thousands of digging squirrels. A healthy population of ticks and chiggers, who prefer the very blood of the gardeners to the smorgasbord of the garden, hitchhike in on the deer from May until September.  Turtles dig in the soft ground to lay their eggs, frogs hide in flower pots, and skinks sun themselves on the sidewalk.

Mountain Lauren in our front yard in May.

Mountain Lauren in our front yard in May.

It’s the journey…

Purple Coneflower, Echinacea, feeds hungry bees and butterflies.

Purple Coneflower, Echinacea, feeds hungry bees and butterflies.

I’m not relating this tale from self-pity, but rather to help all of those other aspiring gardeners who move to similar properties.  We have such a beautiful wooded neighborhood full of hummingbirds and butterflies, waterfowl, skinks, frogs and song birds that the urge to go out and make a garden is strong.  After nearly five years of experience on this property, I’ve finally learned to work with the steep slope; poor soil, erosion, hungry animals, and shade to grow a productive garden full of plants I love.  Now I’d like to share a little of what I’ve learned about Gardening in a Forest with others, in hopes that I’ll continue to learn more in return.

"Josee" re-blooming lilac, in its second flush of bloom in late June, is appreciated by all the nectar lovers in the garden.

“Josee” re-blooming lilac, in its second flush of bloom in late June, is appreciated by all the nectar lovers in the garden.

A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeding on Buddleia in the butterfly garden.

A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeding on Buddleia in the butterfly garden.

A large box turtle visits each summer.

Walking the quiet streets of our neighborhood, it’s clear that there are those who have learned to cope, who have learned the secrets of creating beautiful gardens, even in this very challenging environment.  I learned to seek out these generous gardeners as my friends.  And so now I’ll share a little of what I’ve learned from neighbors, a little study, and from making lots of mistakes.  I hope you will find a useful idea, and perhaps leave a comment with your own creative solutions to our common challenges.

The beauty is worth the effort.

The beauty is worth the effort.

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