garden cleanup: targeting mice and voles

ANDRE JORDAN’S DOODLE up top is funny, but I don’t have much sense of humor about mice (because of their strong link to the chain of Lyme disease transmission) or voles (who are relentless chewers of bark—as are mice). How I work aggressively year-round, but especially in fall, to reduce the garden’s population of mice and meadow voles.

As with any animal or insect pests, the work starts with reducing habitat—especially places they can overwinter. Close-cutting the entire lawn here is one of the final things I do in late fall, lowering the deck to 3 inches to reduce places to hide in general.

For mice and voles, it’s essential to install fine-gauge hardware-cloth collars (or heavy plastic ones) around young trees, in particular, though these and other rodents will chew wood young or old if hungry. It’s especially to make sure that the immediate area at the base of trees is clear. Friends with orchards do not allow turf to grow right up against their trees, for instance. Mow low around woody plants that are planted in grassy areas, or remove the immediate circle or strip of turf, and also remove weeds so there’s a ring of bare soil or at most a little mulch around the base.

I trap all year in areas around the house, and in spots where I see evidence of activity. Then starting late August each year, I accelerate my trapping of these rodent pests before everyone looks for winter digs. I have some tricks—including an idea for a box built to enclose mousetraps that I borrowed from the sustainable farming expert Eliot Coleman—who recommends baitless traps for voles. I use peanut butter. I never use poison bait, known as rodenticides; releasing that into the environment is anything but natural or organic, and represent a  danger to pets, children and also to wildlife.

The boxes are very simple, with a mouse hole in one or two sides, and a removable lid (above, the lid upturned shows how it has small pieces of wood screwed to each side to make it fit when set in place). Mine were made of scrap lumber. Coleman likes Intruder-brand traps; I’m a Snap-E fan (below). Both brands are reusable for a long time and can be washed, and you can find them at a great cost savings if you buy in bulk, as you will need a dozen or more even for a smallish garden (I buy a box of 24 every couple of years).

I prefer to put a couple of traps in each of these simple wooden boxes with removable lids, rather than out in the open, because it mostly keeps other animals out, and also keeps the traps fresh in foul weather. I have a very old house with a stone foundation, so I also place trap-filled boxes right beside its perimeter to catch would-be invaders thinking my basement might be a nice place to visit.

I found Coleman’s design in this Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners story. I use the trap boxes year-round where I see activity, or in especially sensitive areas (such as where I might be growing potatoes or sweet potatoes, which rodents love to gnaw at, spoiling my hoped-for harvest).

more on voles (vs. moles) and ‘nuisance wildlife’

from Missouri Botanical GardenCAN’T TELL signs of a vole from a mole, or have other “nuisance wildlife” issues, from rabbits to woodchucks to who knows who? This interview with Marnie Titchenell from Ohio State University may help. (Above, photo of voles’ surface tunneling in turf from Missouri Botanical Garden, where they have more on voles and mice.)

  1. rocky says:

    I have a stone foundation and so try to keep the mice from getting too out of hand.
    Snakes seem to have been scarce this year.
    I like this wind-up trap with a hopper so you can catch more than one without re-setting it. You can release or “reuse”. I drop the thing in a bucket of water for a few minutes then feed them to my chickens, who love to eat them.
    Kind of horrific I know, but I must admit kind of satisfying.

  2. Carole says:

    Although I understand your need to reduce the mouse population, I’m concerned that your preparations are also destroying the insects in your yard, including bumblebee habitat and the food birds will need to eat during the winter and feed their young in the spring. Read Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Talamay

  3. bavaria says:

    I think your stone deck would look lovely with a hunting hawk perched and ready to swoop into action. And by the way, what’s with Jack? Is he laying down on the job?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Bavaria. Lots of hawks here…and they do a good job, but I am in thousands of acres of state forest and parkland with (on top of all that) farm fields full of grain across the road (neighbors are dairy farmers) so oh, boy, do we have lots of EVERY animal here! :) And Jack? He loved voles. LOVES. But irascible cat that he is, he waddles ACROSS THE ROAD and hunts for them in the state land, then brings them up to the kitchen door to feast upon. “Why not catch OUR voles?” I ask, and he looks at me with scorn. Apparently, the woodland ones are tastier. Damn.

      1. Rita Wilson says:

        Margaret, I know this is an earlier post, but Jan 2014 is my first time to read and I loved your reply post about Jack the hunter of voles across the street. Now, that Jack has passed, remembering these past posts must bring a smile. It’s a cold snowy day in KS and I’m reading “A Way to Garden” words of wisdom. Fun! I know I have mice, moles, voles or all three, driving my dog crazy. They must be under the house, as she wants to remove the electrical outlets and I hear nothing in the walls and see no signs of them anywhere, except for those humps of disturbed soil around the house. My first winter in this place and I’ll be ready for them come this summer and fall. Good reading. Thanks!

  4. antje m. adam says:

    i consistently find mice in my barbeque, attempting to build a nest there. i have used snap traps successfully, which my husband does not like. one of the catches reminded me of ‘the scream,’ but i do not see any other way. i am also away for long periods of time.

      1. Jeanie says:

        The mice took up residence in my grill this fall, after cleaning out the nest I tried a cloth soaked in peppermint oil. They supposedly hate the smell. I have used on steel wool in small holes in foundation and had good luck.

  5. Dick Hemingway says:

    The whole business of feeding birds and storing birdseed is bound to attract creatures that eat the seed. Bird feeders also render birds extremely vulnerable to cats and other predators. Growing native plants and leaving the seed heads on late into the season is a far better solution. Warblers and finches swarm the seed heads of plants such as Rudbeckia and Echinacea. When we had a bird feeder we often saw rats competing with squirrels for the seed.
    On the other hand I wish our garden had snakes and voles–I would be delighted to see wildlife in the garden. I would also like second the suggestion that the book Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas Tallamy belongs on the gardener’s bookshelf.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Dick. Lots of seed-laden plants here too; the garden is like a giant feeder. I am happy to say in 25+ years I have never seen a rat, thankfully!

  6. Barbara says:

    I am desperate to get rid of the moles and voles in my fenced garden. In autumn I build up the beds with leaves, straw and chicken litter which makes a rich soil that attracts earthworms in spring. But by planting time those little critters have eliminated all the worms and other goodies and the soil is back to hard pan. ! GRRR.
    This year they ruined the whole potato crop, the plants were heavily covered with straw, as usual. Where normally we would harvest 80-100 lbs of potatoes for our yearly use and re-planting we got about 5 lbs of tiny potatoes. GRRR.
    They also killed some heritage tomato plants.

    In spring we dug up the ground and planted a row of about 14 red raspberry plants, mulched them, and kept them watered in the hot summer months. They all died.
    Voles had eaten all the roots!!!!!!!GRRR.

    Our 2 cats love to catch and eat voles. They spend hours hunting IN THE FIELDS and enjoy all they want of those tasty treats. But not in the garden, WHY not in the garden?? Maybe it’s because the ones in the garden are too hard to catch! GRRR

    1. margaret says:

      I am not a vole-lover, either, Barbara….and my cat loves them, but like yours, guess what? He walks across the road into the state parkland and catches them there. NOT the ones in my garden usually. As you say: GRRRR. :) I highly recommend the Eliot Coleman trapping boxes.

    2. Barbara. When you are putting down straw you are basically building a vole Bellagio Hotel. A food source and shelter all in one. Eliminate the straw as a mulch. Also build your soil elsewhere and then put it on the beds after it’s fabulous. These have both worked for me.

  7. Dahlink says:

    This whole thread reminds me of a wonderful cartoon that appeared in the New Yorker years ago. Jaunty cat heading for the door says to his little old lady owner “I’m going out. Do you need any voles?” I also love one in which the cat has presented his owner with a gift-wrapped box and says “Read the card! Read the card!”

  8. Carole Clarin says:

    Today my husband placed his 2 carefully constructed boxes to catch voles and mice. I’ll report back with good results I hope!

  9. Julia Hofley says:

    We use Plantskydd Animal Repellent over the winter to stop the chewing and browsing by voles, rabbits and deer. Put the granular formula in the hole with your bulbs and top dress the reapplied soil. Spray the root flare of all plants-at-risk, like roses, hard wood shrubs, tree root flares, etc… with the RTU spray. If it is applied on a dry plant, that stays dry for 24 hours after application, it will remain effective for 6 months over winter on dormant plants. It must be above 35 degrees when applied. This gives the vegetable oil the time it needs to adhere to the plants. It is a blood based product that makes the animals think there is a predator in the area and they move on to another place. It is OMRI approved organic too. We’ve been able to control browsing problems on many plants over winter without reapplying.

  10. G. Leigh says:

    I have found chickens to be my best tool in hunting down the voles. They like to eat them. My cat doesn’t really care to hunt. I have been building wire baskets from hardware cloth, and using raised beds with heavily lined bottoms and hardware cloth as well. They are still persistent but at least I’m not using poison. Can’t convince my neighbors that poison is a bad idea for all sorts of reasons, but I keep trying to be an organic example. It helped them understand better, when I explained that it would hurt our bees, and pointed out that bees equal money. A financial argument was one they understood better than an environmental one.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, G. Leigh. Did not know that chickens ate rodents! My bullfrogs do, too. (And of course so do hawks.) Good idea, the money argument. It crosses all political belief systems, I guess! :)

    2. Joanne says:

      This is my concern as well. Voles destroyed absolutely EVERY plant in my veg. garden last year, but poison is out of the question, as there are Bald Eagles nesting near by, and Red Tailed Hawks as well as foxes. I bought some Plantskydd to use this year, but my son was visiting and his 92 lb. Husky found it on the top shelf and chewed the top of the bottle neck off. I don’t know how much he ingested, but he sure did stink. He seems ok today, but we are watching closely. I will try using what’s left in another spray bottle, and see if it repels the voles or not. The dogs sure want it though.

  11. Jeanne says:

    I too have a mole and vole problem, alas. I garden in Bonn, Germany near a forest. (I’ve contacted the local nature society (NABU) as to eco-friendly means of deterring them, but have only received a reply saying I should not expect an immediate response as they’re mainly volunteer-staffed. That was almost 6 months ago.) The solar-powered mole deterrents have been reviewed as useless and I’ve also tried bottles stuck into the exits (apparently the wind passing over the open bottle tops creates some sort of disturbance), but these didn’t bother my resident mole or vole, as a new exit was dug just next to it.

    I’m now going to try a few plants suggested as deterrents by several sites online. Alliums and other other bulbs such as daffodils, Scilla sibirica, and Fritillaria imperialis; the castor plant (Ricinus), which some people may object to as being toxic if ingested; the Caper Spurge (Euphorbia lathyris, also known as the mole plant); and Tagetes minuta (also known as Huacatay, a herb much used in Peruvian and other South American cuisine).

    I love Allium flowers so I shall try them first, and Tagetes minuta. An additional benefit from the Tagetes minuta is that a bed of it grown by English gardener Sarah Raven apparently got rid of bindweed and goutweed, both of which I also wish to get rid of without chemicals. I know that other Tagetes species control nematodes, and perhaps this species may do so as well.

    I shall let you know if the Alliums and Tagetes minuta work.


  12. Chris Baswell says:

    A couple of feral cats live between my barn and wood pile, and they do offer the benefit of keeping rodent population down — in my six years in this very old house, I’ve seen signs of only one mouse indoors, and there’s no vole damage that I notice. While the cat population shifts from time to time, the number remains stable at two. I don’t try to catch or alter them; there are too many elsewhere in my village neighborhood for that to make a difference. I expect the cats must do some bird damage, but I don’t find bodies. I feed via berried shrubs and plant seed heads, and the bird population (and variety) seem quite good. It’s always such a complex trade-off.

  13. Laura says:

    I’ve had a few mice in my house over the years, but they were easy to catch and remove (either by me or the cats). The voles travel through my yard, but don’t seem to damage the plants much(1.3 acres of woodland and shade gardens). It’s the chipmunks that do the damage! They tunnel under the garage apron (I live on a slab) and it is starting to crack – I filled their one entrance with a cement slurry, but they kept moving it out until I set a large rock on it. I need to remove them, but hesitate to kill them.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Marsha. I have not trapped rats, or had them here, but the basic idea: You will need larger traps (not mousetraps), of course — and how high the box needs to be depends on what kind of rats you have (not all rat species are created equal!). The boxes I made are 14x14x6 high (including the lid and base, so probably just 4.5 inches clearance inside height-wise). The hole in one side will need to be to be slightly bigger (you can put one on each of two opposite sides like Eliot Coleman does if you like).

  14. jen says:

    How do you get the voles to go in in the first place? We’ve had success trapping before (made a little 3 sided “covered bridge” that went over a snap trap—- but we always placed it directly in one of their trails/runs. so they would be merrily running on their way and then WHOOPS, get snapped in the trap….

    Do you find that the voles will deviate from their established paths and still go in your box??

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jen, and welcome. I do place the boxes where there is activity, as you do, and also have boxes stationed near each building, so the “mouse hole” in the side of the box is against the side of my foundation (of the house or barn) because they love to scuttle alongside such things, it seems, if on the move. Here’s another story that goes into more detail.

  15. Lesley O. says:

    I like this idea but have no carpentry skills. I am thinking of repurposing some nursery pots by cutting a doorway in the pot’s rim. I’d anchor the pot with a bamboo stake through the drainage hole, and place the upside down pot behind the foundation shrubbery.

  16. Sallie McNeill Rynd says:

    Please help if you can!!! This year my garden is being torn apart by chipmunks; for some reason I have been invaded by them! Pots are being emptied and plants upturned. My herb pot which was full yesterday is all over the deck today. Should I trap them? I do not use chemicals of any sort but I am getting frantic! Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Best, Sallie McNeill Rynd

  17. Anne Plante says:

    We have been in this house for 17 years and never have seen a vole anywhere. Our neighbours get them every winter, but this summer, it seems we are over run with voles. Our yard is somewhat like a Japanese garden done by a professional (no loner in our Province). He planted a large amount of cedar low spreader bushes and this is where we found the voles, front and back. The cedars are so heavy and thick we can’t get in to see where they have the holes. by the way we are in our 80’s so it hard to do much around these bushes. When we step on them, it’s like standing on springs. Not very safe for old people. How can we get rid of them. The little beggers will run out right in front of us and head the the cedars. HELP!!!! please.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Anne. When you say like stepping on springs I am thinking that is moles, not voles. Voles leave surface tunnels — like the earth where they ran along just under the ground is disturbed (or grass is missing). Here is more on how to tell which is which and what to do: at this link and also at this link. In both stories you will scroll down till you get to the mole-vole question.

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