Voles are cute and yet, I want to kill them. My thoughts weren’t so violent before I discovered just how destructive those little buggers can be. They ain’t so cute anymore. In early October, we had a wicked storm, the kind where the rain falls sideways, trees bend like licorice sticks and wind bellows like an Amtrak train at full throttle. When the storm finally moved on, we were left with water damage between the first and second floors (which insurance won’t cover since they attribute it to faulty installation when the home was built 20 years ago!) and one leaning magnolia. I’m more upset about the tree.
I have two Centennial Blush star magnolias that flank the corners of my patio. I planted them in 2016 and the one on the east side always seemed to struggle. When the leaves began to yellow, I suspected chlorosis. The veins were the only green parts on the leaf. Chlorosis can occur when a plant is deficient in iron, manganese or zinc. Poor drainage, compacted or damaged roots, and high alkalinity are other common causes. Unfortunately, my garden checks all of those boxes. It’s a struggle. I sent photos to the Morton Arboretum to get a second opinion but that was inconclusive.
Had I looked closer, like get down on my knees and check out the soil closer, I would have had a clearer picture of what was happening. Instead, I observed only what was happening to the leaves and started reading up on how to treat chlorosis. I even bought the granulated Sulphur and was ready to make the first application based on the arboretum’s chlorosis treatment plan this fall when the storm hit and revealed the culprit. In my defense, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume the magnolia was chlorotic given that they are susceptible to it, particularly in heavy clay soil. And I have plenty of that!
Voles vs. Moles
There is a difference and the giveaway is in the first letter of each word – V=veggies and M=meat – as well as in the way they travel. Voles feed on plant roots, while earthworms, centipedes, grubs, crickets and spiders are on the mole menu. Moles don’t destroy your garden by what they eat, the destruction occurs in the way they travel. Tunneling underground in search of food destroys root systems. Mounds in the grass are evidence of an active mole. The tunnels also provide easy access to your plants for other critters like voles.
They’re fascinating in their specialization. With large shovel-like front paws for digging, a streamlined snout and silky soft fur, I imagine moles must slip through soil like a hot knife through butter. Maybe not my soil. That must feel like swimming in cement. Over the years, a few have fallen into our window well and I’ve caught them in buckets and released them back into the woods. I can’t kill them.
Voles travel above ground or very close to the surface, leaving runways on top of the grass but beneath the snow. They’ll tunnel enough to get to plant roots and take advantage of tunnels created by moles to gain access to food. Vole runways occur when the rodents eat the grass blades and travel the same route, effectively beating a path.
Protecting Your Garden Against Vole Damage
So here’s my plan of attack. I’ve staked the magnolia to give it support through the winter and will hope for the best. It’s formed buds already as magnolias do and though they’re small, I hope they’ll open come spring. For now I’m cautiously optimistic. The trunks of the smaller trees like the vanilla strawberry hydrangea, the Northwind Japanese maple, and the Beijing Gold lilacs will be wrapped to prevent rodents from gnawing on the tender bark. I’m also careful never to pile mulch, or volcano mulch, trees in the garden. Not only does it encourage disease, a deep layer of mulch provides easy access to roots.
I decided against mouse traps as the neighbors cat has been frequenting our yard lately and I think she’s dealing some death. I love that cat. There are more humane options that allow you to catch and release but I’m not feeling very humane these days. Just in case you are, here’s a link. Keep in mind that you’ll have to relocate them if you go this route. Some states have laws against the relocation of wildlife so you’ll have to check that out before you move forward. Poison baits are another option but wouldn’t work in my situation. These baits contain a blood anticoagulant that causes internal bleeding and death. I like my dog and the neighbor’s cat too much to put them in harm’s way.
To see just how destructive voles can be, check out my video on the Here She Grows YouTube channel.