July 2014
Homeplace & Community

Attack of the Voles


After such a wet, cold winter, which seemed to linger much too long, I was thrilled when my perennials began to pop up. Each morning, I found something new to delight me. Bees and butterflies arrived, and I even spotted a hummingbird on the feeder, so I knew the spring flower parade had officially begun.

I enjoy all kinds of flowers, but I especially look forward to the arrival of the hostas. I had never seen a hosta until the late 1990s, when I visited my daughter-in-law’s family on Sand Mountain. Hostas were everywhere, and I thought they were so beautiful. I came home, ordered some hosta bulbs and started a shade garden on the southern side of my porch. In all that time, the hostas have never disappointed me. From small shoots, they spring forth, strutting their showy foliage, dancing in the wind, and then sending forth scapes that spiral with lavender, white and purple flowers. Each year, it seems as if the hostas try to outdo all the other plants around them and, usually, they succeed.

My hostas were especially beautiful this spring. Their dark, green leaves seemed almost blue, and my yellow-striped varieties looked as if an artist had individually brushed each leaf with sunlight. One morning, as I drank coffee on the porch, looking over the breathtaking display in the shade garden, I noticed one of the plants had a broken stem. I picked up the leaf and quickly blamed my three cats, who enjoy playing in this area. That afternoon, the plant had even more broken leaves and it had lost its healthy glow. I looked more closely and discovered the leaves had tiny bite marks on them. I also found several small holes near the plant. I then dug the plant to find that the roots had been bitten and chewed. Using a flashlight, I aimed light into the nearby holes. I saw no movement, but the dirt around the holes indicated something had been in and out recently, dropping tiny pieces of the hosta leaf along the way. Something was attacking my beloved hostas. I knew I had to take action quickly or I could lose all of them.

Healthy hosta   After vole attack

Grabbing my iPad, I Googled for the possible culprits and soon identified my attackers. Voles! A vole is a small rodent resembling a mouse. Its body is somewhat stouter than a mouse, and it has smaller eyes and ears. The head of a vole is not as pointed as a mouse, and its tail is shorter and more hairy. They are sometimes known as meadow mice or field mice. These rodents are very prolific, with one female producing 10 or more litters a year.

Many people confuse voles with moles. Moles are carnivorous, but voles are herbivorous. Even though both burrow underground, their burrowing habits are different. Moles leave visible molehills, while voles do not. Moles leave ridged runways on top of the ground as they travel beneath. Voles travel deeper, leaving a number of telltale burrow openings. Voles may use mole tunnels, however, to escape predators.

One vole can eat its weight in plants in just 24 hours. I discovered, even though voles love the leaves of hosta plants, they can also burrow into the root systems of trees and shrubs, killing the plants. This really frightened me because my beloved hydrangeas were nearby. I had lovingly rooted each hydrangea from an older plant found in the yard of my husband’s grandmother. The thought of these family heirlooms being attacked made my blood curdle!

I immediately declared war on the pests, vowing with the determination of a valiant soldier not to let them destroy any more of my hostas. I planned my attack on all fronts! First, I would gather all the information that might give me an advantage in this assault. My iPad, a quick call to my pest-control company and advice from some of my gardening friends gave me the "intelligence" needed to begin a frontal attack.

Because I already had the infestation, eradication of these pests was now my only option! I visited my local Quality Co-op for my weapons: d-Con, ZP Gopher Bait and mousetraps. I try to use eco-friendly products on my flowers, but this pesky varmint was unlike any other I had ever dealt with. Since I would be using poisoned bait that could have adverse effects on pets and birds, I took extra precautions. To prevent damage to my cats and guineas, I carefully placed the poisoned pellets deep into the holes burrowed by the voles and used a stick to make the pellets go even farther down. I set the traps using peanut butter as bait. Then I covered the traps with cardboard boxes. I used fencing to cover the area so my pets could not get near.

With my careful mulching and composting last fall, I had unwittingly "aided and abetted the enemy," giving this stealthy little rodent a great place to hide. I remedied this by removing the old mulch from around my hostas and nearby shrubs. Next, I trimmed some limbs to let more light into the shaded area. As a last resort, I placed coyote urine around the plants, as I learned that coyotes are one of the voles’ natural predators. Unfortunately, with so much rain this spring, the predator repellent quickly dissipated and had to be replaced often. Even worse, the putrid aroma permeated the porch area where I love to sit and enjoy my flowers. It also drove my playful cats from the porch. They would peer nervously at the porch, as though the coyotes that yelp around our pond at night had suddenly taken residence on the porch. Needless to say, this "weapon" proved ineffective and had to be retired.

I am still "fighting" to save the hostas. Regretfully, I must report I have lost four plants since this skirmish began. I don’t think two others will make it. The entire bed looks as if a dark cloud has blanketed the area. Gone is the vibrancy seen in early May. Instead, the hosta bed looks war-torn, bleak and sad.

Though weary, I return each day to my shade garden with the dedication of General MacArthur. I look for new burrow openings or other signs of chewing in the hosta bed. Then I search for any telltale signs that the voles may have moved into other areas of the garden. So far, I believe I have contained the infestation to only the hosta area. 

My war with the voles continues! Up to this point, I have never seen the enemy I so relentlessly pursue. I have found no enemy casualties, no bodies in the traps and no signs of withdrawal. I replace the pellets two or three times a week, but, alas, I have seen no signs that the poison is working.

I am resigned to admit that the voles are a formidable enemy, but I will not give up the fight. Even though I have lost some battles, I have not lost the war. Whatever it takes, I will not be deterred. I am determined not to merely endure but to prevail! My hostas are depending on me!

Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville.