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. My dad found a nest of voles in his car’s air filter! The clue was the trail of dried corn by the car. Lesson learned: keep any kind of birdseed in an inaccessible place, even if it’s in the garage. I keep mine in an old cooler.

  2. Karla says:

    You’ll be seeing a post from me later next week about mice’s habits in our cars as well. What is it about little critters and cars? Oh well, better the car than the house!

  3. Laura says:

    Just this morning, on my way to pick up our newly diagnosed diabetic cat, I was greeted by a scurrying mouse when I opened the car door! Believe me, it is traumatic to drive knowing you have that kind of company.

  4. narf7 says:

    We used to have a rat problem along with a snake problem and this year it is supposedly going to be terrible for snakes. We “had” a snake about 2 months ago that we must have disturbed when we were clearing up some debris in the garden but the local feral cats killed it. They also kill all of the rats, mice, rabbits, small wallabies and possums on the property. Maybe the best answer for your voles and mice would be the simple purchase of a family friend?

  5. Deborah B says:

    Ugh. I hate this time of year when the field mice start trying to move into the house. Our laundry room is off the garage, and it has one of those not-so-lovely dropped ceilings right out of the 70’s. Last week I came into the room and turned on the light and heard distinct scurrying sounds overhead in the ceiling.

  6. Joanna says:

    I wish clearing around trees would be useful here in Latvia, but we have to protect young tree roots with a good thick layer of mulch to protect against the deep drop in temperatures.

  7. Jay says:

    How to stop moles, voles, mice, etc from girdling trees and shrubs by eating their bark, and more often than not, their roots as well, when the trees and shrubs are in ground cover like vinca or pachysandra on a steep hillside where ground cover is needed to hold the soil? Hydrangeas and hosta wilt in full summer glory, and investigation finds that their entire roots are eaten away by these critters. HELP!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jay. In areas where I have issues, I consistently (year round) have traps (the boxes in this story) — and have for years. I don’t do this in the wilder area away from the house, of course, but try to keep the population in the key garden beds and nearby them to a minimum.

  8. Betsy winters Russell says:

    Does anyone have any tips to know when to harvest horseradish roots in the fall?
    Also, any tips or ideas on easy prep for the horseradish roots?

  9. BlueSwimmer says:

    My dog is also a great mouser but I worry that she might eat one that has ingested poison put out by a neighbor. We have trained her that she gets an extremely tasty treat (a great use for stinky cheese rinds, which she loves) if she gives up the mouse.

    Years ago, I had a mouse get into the air conditioning system of my car. I heard a “clunk” when I switched it on, so I repeatedly flicked the switch to get the AC started. Apparently I turned the AC into a mini-cuisinart and pureed the mouse. It was a very expensive repair to get mouse parts cleaned out of my AC to get rid of the smell. My lesson- no eating Cheerios in the car!

  10. Marilyn says:

    My voles seemed to get wise to mouse-type spring traps under flowerpots rather quickly and avoid them, but I like your design and will try it. A few years ago I connected a garden hose to an adapter on the exhaust pipe of the car, and poked the hose down vole tunnels for about 10 minutes in each hole with the car running. That year I had very little vole damage. You can buy that adapter at a hardware store or auto supply store.

  11. Beverly, zone 6 eastern PA says:

    I have used snap traps under weighted flowerpots with great success. I have been trapping voles, mice and the occasional shrew for 6 years, counting each minor victory. I am up to 367 rodents eradicated. (About 20 of these conquests were attributed to my excellent mouser of a dog who stalks and catches mice in the groundcovers.) I never would have believed the number would get that high. I live on a 1/3 acre suburban tract in an established neighborhood from the 60’s. There is no end to the invaders.

    The terra cotta flowerpot hides a peanut butter baited trap. It’s ideally located near where rodent activity has been observed. A small flat rock props up the flowerpot, allowing the vole or mouse to get underneath it , but no so high that a bird would be tempted. A larger flat rock sits on top of the terra cotta pot so the pot can’t be turned over easily. Nor can it be turned over if the rodent is dragging the trap away – the edge of the pot prevents this, aided by the weight of the rock on top. I have reused traps over and over because they are not dragged away. (Sometimes, though, local cats will take the struggling rodent and the trap together and make off with the prize.)

    I like the box design from Eliot Coleman. I am tempted to try that in the future. I echo your sentiments about not placing poison bait into the environment. There are so many aspects of gardening one can’t predict having to deal with! Thanks for all your great advice, Margaret!

  12. Kathleen Johnson says:

    We live in zone 4 and have a Jack Russell who dutifully dumped his recent field mouse catch on the doorstep yesterday. Jack Russells do survive very well in zone 4 and he does a good job of keeping the squirrels at bay and gophers and mice in respectable numbers and the deer away from the grounds (when he isn’t napping).

  13. Linda B Secrist says:

    best control-outdoor cats, had some move into my yard 5+ years ago from a farm that was empty and since i have had NO voles, moles or mice and as i live surronded by woods that is great. They ignore the birds to the point that they watch the blue jays eat their food. Each year they will lay their “gifts” by the back door for me

  14. Donna B. says:

    Oh Margaret, what perfect timing for this post! I will be delving deeply into the conversation for some help and tips!
    My neighbour does have an outdoor cat that he deemed the mouse-catcher for his working garage – but they’ve since relocated to my residence because I am a catless house, and I have two dogs that have no clue what to do when they see a mouse.
    [a pit bull terrier mix and a hound mix that don’t know what to do with rodents… what a shame, haha!]
    I don’t like poison either… I used a sticky trap… once. I’ll never use that again! Purchased some plastic snap-traps earlier this year… but now I can only find one of them. Hehe! I place it near my dogs food bowls because the critters like to steal their dry kibble at night! Pesky things…
    I will also have to create some of these mouse-houses! Place one under my back porch… I think somehow they’ve found a hole in my foundation and is entering my house through the basement… !
    Thank you SO much! ♥

  15. Leslie says:

    We live in the San Francisco Bay area. We WANT snakes! Gopher snakes–as well as other snakes– are great and eat gophers and any other small tunneling creature they can find. Apparently they can become quite large, but we seldom see them at all in any size. I do not think it is a good idea to rid your garden of snakes!! They are extremely useful. I think it would be better to get rid of your fear.

  16. Audrey says:

    I know gardening can be a war sometimes and Lyme disease is certainly an issue but I would like everyone to consider that we are part of the natural world and killing off the competition has gotten us to the point of a man made mass extinction world wide.

    I love my cats but a domestic cat can kill many endangered songbirds as well as mice.

    Margaret I think your suggestions about cleaning up the garden and removing places for nests makes a lot of sense, but at the rate mice reproduce you are never going to win that war, especially as you are surrounded by forest.

    I’m wondering if you have investigated any other kinds of more humane methods to discourage them from taking up residence.

    I like you blog very much and enjoyed your book. I do admire your energy!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Audrey. Hear you for sure — and I never trap anywhere but in the immediate area where I live and garden. Not the outer reaches. And as you say, I try to reduce the invites first (long grass etc.) so the trapping is minimal by comparison to if I didn’t do all the hard work of keeping things tidy and less inviting. I think refusing mice to live inside the house and mice and voles to eat a bed of potatoes is the amount of pushback I have to assert — and actually this routine really does keep it manageable. Not trying to eradicate the species, just coexist. You can live trap of course and relocate them if you prefer, which would be another option.

      Hi, HW. I don’t have the stomach/heart/whatever to snap-trap chippies, as many people do with larger traps. However, when the population goes mad, as it does occasionally, I do pay the licensed local nuisance wildlife professional to relocate a few out of the garden proper, deeper into the woods. It’s illegal for me to move them myself (illegal to move any wildlife in my state and many others, though oddly you can kill them!), though I do know how to trap them in a live trap using birdseed (which takes about 2 minutes because they cannot resist), and I have on occasion done that after agreeing with Mike when he would come so they are only briefly in the traps. Again, you would need a licensed person to help with this.

  17. The voles are so bad in our garden this year; we’ll have to try this. Our dog (an English Shepherd) did eat the mice, which we didn’t like, but we weren’t always there to stop her.

    I also worry about Hanta virus where mice are concerned, so I can’t tolerate them inside the house. We have many acres of land where they can exist how they like (because ultimately, I see them as food for hawks, foxes, and owls); like you, we just don’t want them in our shed, garage, or basement. And yes, we do keep our seeds and chicken feed inside large metal trash cans with tight-seal lids.

  18. Jason says:

    Good post. I don’t do anything about the mice unless they come inside, which they’ve already done this year. We’ve caught two with mouse traps so far. After reading this, though, I’m going to think about taking more proactive measures outdoors as well.

  19. Carole Clarin says:

    So many interesting stories and suggestions and we’ll definitely try the boxes for our vole problem. I did purchase 2 non-toxic kinds of powders online, one to sprinkle near the foundation to keep mice out and one to put into holes where there was vole activity. The smell is supposed to deter the rodents but I don’t think I sprinkled often enough and it wasn’t economical. I also bought a solar device to use against voles and will try that too.

  20. Janice Yee says:

    Hi Margaret,
    After 17 years of gardening here in the Pacific Northwest with little to complain about, except not enough sun during some years, we have been overrun this year with moles. We have been appalled by some of our neighbors who have used gasoline and other toxic substances to rid their yards of these pests, in favor of non-toxic but slower remedies. After trying several things including plugging holes with garlic, dog hair, chewing gum, and the beeper device that’s supposed to ward the critters away without success, we finally hit upon something that does seem to work. My husband found a recipe online that uses a small amount of Murphy’s oil soap and castor oil which is then mixed with water in a watering can. We poured it down the holes and immediately flushed each hole with several minutes worth of water and after going through this process twice, it seems to be working. Our fingers are crossed but it’s the only thing that’s made much of a difference for us…and we are happy to no longer be a source of entertainment for our neigbors, a la “Caddyshack”!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Janice. I have read about soap and castor oil! Moles (unlike voles or mice, which are rodents) are insectivores — meaning they are tunneling around looking for grubs, and especially worms, etc. They dislodge plants but are not herbivorous like the others; the plants aren’t their targets. Tricky to get rid of them — and because they are beneficial, you don’t really want to…you just kind of wish they’ve move outside the garden. :)

      Hi, Helen. Here, too. Mickey Mouse rules. Well, except that I am fighting back at the moment. Wishing you luck!

  21. Dahlink says:

    Our two rescue cats are great mousers, and recently they found and eradicated a family of rats in our garage {{shudder}}. Once in a great while they leave me a chipmunk, which I don’t like, but haven’t been able to convince them that chipmunks are not in a category with mice and rats.

    Last winter a pregnant squirrel made her way into our home and made a cozy birthing suite in the walls of our guest room. Our neighbor later reported seeing three little ones shimmying down the drainpipe from the third floor. We just finished a week with a licensed wildlife exterminator who set up one-way traps and checked them daily. No squirrels detected, so now the entrance is sealed off (knock on wood!) I’m hospitable, but you have to draw the line somewhere!

  22. Helen says:

    I keep my birdseed in a 30-gallon Rubbermaid trash can with a snap-on lid. I don’t have bird feeders out yet, because bears are still around, but I like to put out a few seeds on the deck railing for a few chickadees. This trash can is kept in my mud room. Yesterday I went to get some birdseed, which was in a small bag at the bottom. Oh yuk, the smell was awful. There were 4 dead mice at the bottom, and they had cannibalized each other. It was absolutely disgusting. It’s been a terrible year for mice. Also problems with red squirrels and chipmunks eating potted plants on deck, blueberries. It’s a battle that I’m tired of fighting.

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