March 23, 2011

Pride Goes Before a Fall

Don't get too smug.  Pride goeth before a fall.

I have been guilty, not of sinful pride so much as stupid smugness in my garden.

I was awfully sure that I had no vole problem in the narrow strip of garden that borders my front walk.  Having no vole problem in New England is the same as gardening indoors with houseplants.  It just means you haven't been outside.

But for the first three years, I was able to create a nice mosaic of low plants in a hot dry strip along the garage wall, where bulbs and shrubs were not bothered by voles at all. 

I was proud of the effect I had created, especially in spring.  I had alliums: tall purple globes and small golden garlic and some sweet pink rosy garlic too.

And tulips!  'Queen of Night' and 'Triumphator' made a nice black and white study in early spring, and the voles left them alone.  Surprisingly, the tulips came back each year.  I even added some pink and green viridiflora 'Groenland' tulips this fall.

Planted among the bulbs I had little bun shaped false cypresses and last summer I added two iteas -- Virigina sweetspire 'Little Sprich'.  There were sedums -- 'Angelina' and 'Red Carpet' and a tall sedum with white and green foliage called "Frosty Morn', and a frothy Amsonia hubrichtii with gorgeous yellow fall color.

My theory was that the voles, which plague our lawn and gardens, would not cross the cement walk to get into this narrow strip.

My second theory was that all the the alliums I had planted here discouraged the voles with their strong oniony scent.

Whatever the reason, I had no problem with voles, and when I read Frances at Fairegarden's problems in her wall garden, I smugly thought: "Ha, I don't have to do that!  Poor Frances....."

Fall color was nice too, with the garnet red of the iteas shining against the brick wall.

Then, last fall, disaster struck.

Everywhere I looked there were tunnels.  Entry and exit holes and piles of excavated dirt.  Tall sedums toppled over, their roots gnawed off.

The little bun shaped false cypresses kept losing the lowest branches from underneath.  Every time I touched a plant or deadheaded or did anything in that area, the plants wobbled.  By late November the whole strip was a disaster, with plants keeling over.

Entire  branches of the young iteas were chewed off and left lying next to a vole hole. The woody iteas were easily upended from the earth, and on inspection, bereft of most of their roots. 

I added sharp gravel all over the area, since voles have soft bodies and won't cross a gravelly barrier.  ha.

I sprinkled peppermint oil down the holes, and used the old chewing gum trick, and various obstacles stuffed in the tunnels.  ha.

Mouse traps baited with peanut butter were raided, the bait completely eaten, but the traps unsprung.  ha.

I was so smug.

Humbled now, I know I have to dig up the entire strip.  I have to dig down 18 inches, add inches of gravel, not just a sprinkling, and lay down a sheet of hardware cloth.

Then I will add soil and replant what can be salvaged that might still have some living roots.  Or I will buy new plants.  More gravel on top.  A big friggin' project.  Fortunately I have Frances's Wall Project post showing how to do it, complete with pictures.

What was I thinking?  Of course I have voles in this garden.  I even see them, brazenly scurrying around my ankles as I try my escalating levels of rodent harassment and murder.  I have heard high pitched squeaky laughter as I work to salvage this devastated garden.

The tulip bulbs surely brought them in.  They just waited a few years until I was proud of this space and smug about what I had created.  Then they moved in.

Humility is a lesson I am still learning.


  1. What a disaster:(!!!I'm so sorry,the area looked absolutely astonishing before they attacked,so beautiful in every season...Well,sometimes gardener's life is a battle,but we fight,won't we:)

  2. I am so sorry, Laurrie! Your garden choices were inspired and lovely, the red leaves especially, and the tulips and all of it. Thanks for the linkage! I am still watching the bulbs arise from my anti-vole project, so far, so good. But I am not smug or for one minute think I have the upper hand. But the hardware cloth might at least give them pause. I see the voles scampering from wall to wall, sigh. We can't win, you know that, right? :-)
    Good luck!

  3. The high-pitched laughter really adds insult to injury. :( I'm sorry to hear about the loss of so many plants. The garden strip looked beautiful, which is no doubt why the voles found it so irrestistible.

  4. I have lost many plants to voles, so I understand your pain! Those varmints deserve everything the owls and snakes (my garden friends) do to them. Good luck with all your hard work! Your garden was so beautiful, and I know it will be so again.

  5. Oh, Laurrie, not fair! I agree that your side garden was just too pretty to resist. Best of luck with the rebuild.:)

  6. Welcome to my world. Now we can do voodoo vole dances together ... though I wish such exercise were not necessary and I doubt the magic will work.

  7. So sad the voles got the best of your side garden. Sneaky little buggers. Good luck on the redo. I run into this problem a lot and they are darn hard to eradicate. Our city living stray cat population takes care of it for us. They keep the cats alive through the winter.

  8. Humility is a hard learned lesson. Two years ago much of my garden was literally carried away by leaf cutter ants. I would leave in the morning only to come home to an entire 5 ft. okra plant shredded. It was completely humbling.

  9. Where did you get so funny? I need to find more funny garden blogs and I think I've hit the jackpot. Good luck with the vole invasion.

  10. OMG!!!! Don't tell my you have a link to Verlyn Klinkenborg?! I love that guy. Timothy was one of my favorite books. You have great links. I have to add your blog to my blogroll.

  11. Tiina, we do fight many elements in the garden, but I wish we didn't have to!

    Frances, I'll be interested to hear whether your wall project really does deter them. Thanks for the instructions and inspiration to fix the vexing vole problem.

    Sweetbay, sometimes I hear that high pitched vole laughter in my sleep. Frightening.

    Deborah, send me your vole hunting owls and snakes.. I need their help!

    Garden Ms. S, thanks. It isn't fair is it!! I do all the work and they destroy it . . .

    Joene, a voodo vole dance may be just the thing. We surely need some kind of black magic against these plant enemies.

    Donna, I just wish our resident cats would go out there and patrol the front sidewalk. But they are indoor cats and princesses as well, and voles would scare them.

    Cat, I hope you solved the leaf cutter ant problem, or at least can live with it. What destruction!

    Roberta, thanks for visiting. I enjoyed a tour of your blog, very amusing! Do chickens go after voles? If so, I might consider getting some.

  12. Those little rascals sqeek at me when I am just sitting on the patio resting. They act like it is their garden. Best of luck with your rodent wrangling.

  13. I had no idea it could be that bad. Heck I had no idea of their existance a year ago. I'll be watching your vole posts very closely as I've seen lots of vole damage in my yard now the snow is receding. Is there anything they won't eat?

  14. How awful, Laurrie! This area was so beautiful, I think I would just sit down and cry--then get infuriated. I wish you luck with your extermination plans. If you lived closer, I'd lend you my gardening "staff"--getting rid of voles is one chore they actually excel at:)

  15. Hi Laurrie, At least you are not alone in your misery. Humility is a lesson all gardeners have to learn. I dread to inspect my front garden after the snow finally melts. Last year they feasted all winter and left me with no spring bulbs at all.

  16. Lisa, so many gardeners from all over have problems with these rodents! Sorry to hear you do too.

    Marguerite, the voles eat plant roots from underneath where they tunnel, and they gnaw bark off the trunks of small trees and shrubs at ground level as you've seen in your yard. There is no particular plant that is "vole resistant"... they eat all plant roots. But they love bulbs.

    Rose, boy do I need your staff. They would be a big help here in vole land!

    Jennifer, spring inspections can be so discouraging. I hope you have better luck than I am having this year! Thanks for the "company" in this particular misery : )


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