working around wet spring soil (and self-sowns), plus mole and vole issues: q&a with ken druse

HOW TO WORK around wet spring soil without damaging it (or crushing desired self-sown seedlings)? What to do about moles or voles in the garden (and how to tell them apart)? Time to tackle some of the pile-up of Urgent Garden Questions you’ve been madly posting in blog comments, on Facebook, and in emails with help from Ken Druse, in the monthly Q&A episode of my public-radio show and podcast.   

My longtime friend Ken, an award-winning garden photographer and author of many books, including “The New Shade Garden” and “Making More Plants,” produced his own “Real Dirt” podcast for 10 years, all available on KenDruse dot com.

Read along as you listen to the May 15, 2017 edition of the program using the player below (or at this link). The May show is a doubleheader, and includes a whole “overtime” segment (starting at about 24 minutes into the audio file), which I’ve separated into its own transcript and is at this link (and includes questions and answers on what to do next, after you pull or dig invasives like garlic mustard, and growing bulbs such as pineapple lily in pots, among other topics).

the may q&a with ken druse

[podcast url=” http://podcasts.am1020whdd.com/~am1020wh/shows/mp3/A_Way_To_Garden_With_Margaret_Roach-May_15_Q_And_A_With_Ken_Druse_Overtime_Edition.mp3″]

Q.  Did you put down your shovel and put on your headset or are you still digging while we speak, Ken?

Ken. I was weeding, actually.

Q. Weeding at the desk?

Ken. No, I was weeding outside and I put down my hands and my gloves and my wheelbarrow.

Q. And your muddy knees of your trousers—how are they looking?

Ken. I like them that way.

Q. I know, but I have ruined a lot trousers in my life. [Laughter.]

Ken. And then you have to go somewhere and you forget that your pants have brown knees.

Q. I know. [Laughter.] The indelible mark of a gardener. I’ve taken a turn for the colder the last 10 days—it’s been like October or early April here. You?

Ken. We had two days of frost warning, but thankfully it only went down to 36. You can still get a frost at 36, but thankfully we did not. I’m kind of enjoying as long as it doesn’t get a frost, because spring holds on so long.

We’ve had lots of rain, so everything’s really big, and you know what happens when thing’s really big, besides the weeds being really big, too? If we don’t continue to get the water, things don’t look so good.

Q. Because they’re all succulent and juicy, and needing to be juiced all the time.

Ken. Yup. And then comes August.

Q. As long as the “H” word doesn’t happen; I shouldn’t even say it out loud, but as long as hail doesn’t happen. That’s the thing that scares me the most. But when things are fresh and tender and succulent and beautiful, I have had hail once or twice [as in the 2013 video above out my window] where I garden in New York State. That’s really the end of everything. So now that I have really depressed everybody…[laughter.]

Ken. Isn’t that the way with gardeners? We either complain, or apologize.

how to work around wet soil without compacting it

Q. Exactly, exactly. I think we have a caller on the line, Ellen, and I think she has a question that’s related to the weather. Where are you calling from?

Ellen. I am calling from Rhode Island.

Q. Oh, beautiful Rhode Island. Ken and I have both spent time there and have many garden friends there.

Ellen. Well, it is beautiful, but right now it’s very wet—and that’s what my question is about, as you said. With all of the rain we’ve had, I am getting really behind in my spring chores. Do you have any tips or tricks for working in wet beds without compacting the soil around plants?

Q. Ken is a more strategic advanced thinker than I am, aren’t you Ken?

Ken. I don’t know, am I? [Laughter.]

Q. Don’t you have little places in your beds that are pre-planned for this eventuality of muddy soil, wet soil? [Above, a stone landing pad in a bed at Ken’s garden.]

Ken. I have some places where I have—talk about strategy—strategically placed stepping stones. And even sometimes I lay down a piece of wood, either a small piece of plywood or a plank, and just walk on that. Sometimes that’s on top of plants, but you try not to make it so.

I guess if you are planning the bed, if you can plan for this possibility you could put in some stepping stones or even pieces of wood. You can remove them or even leave them, since everything will grow over them and you won’t even see them—kind of utility paths.

Q. We don’t want to be marching around in the beds anyway, because you could be crushing potential self-sown seedlings [above: annual poppy and Nicotiana volunteers arising at Margaret’s] or all kinds of things that we can’t even see early in the spring.

With the impromptu one, the wood you use if you really need to get into a bed that’s not quite ready for foot traffic—that kind of temporary use of a piece of plywood, for instance: It kind of distributes your weight, as opposed to your heel sinking in in one spot 4 inches. That’s the idea—it’s a temporary landing pad to distribute your weight.

But you have designed in some that are there all the time, with stone. It’s not a walkway as much as a landing pad here and there artfully placed—and as you said, the plants grow over them, but you know they’re there if you need to get in.

Ken. In the worst cases I have actually straddled the bed with a 2×12, which is not very comfortable, but if you have to get in and you don’t want to step on everything, I’ve put a concrete block at one side and one in the front, with a 10-foot piece, and actually it will probably support even me.

Q. Even you?

Ellen. [Laughter.]

Q. Let alone me, Ken?

Ken. [Laughter.] It will hold four of you.

Ellen. Scaffolding. [Laughter.]

Q. Ellen, we’ve had a lot of rain but if that sort of aberrant excess weather hadn’t happened, is your soil well-draining in general?

A. I believe so. I haven’t had any standing-water issues. But it hasn’t let up [laughter]; it’s just been a really wet spring. This is really helpful. I will try that.

Q. And think about it as Ken is saying as the forever thing—because it will happen again someday.

Ellen. I have that in my area where I have herbs and vegetables, where I have stepping stones, which I have planned. So I think I like the idea of putting in something that is permanent and then I can step around it.

Ken. Right. You’re reminding me: I always wish I had a sky hook.

Q. A sky hook? [Laughter.] Is that gardening equipment really?

Ken. And while I’m at it, I’d like a laser pruner, too.

Ellen. This is the wishlist.

Ken. A sky hook with like sort of a sling so I can hang over the beds—it sounds comfortable.

Q. Who’s taking notes on what we’re ordering from Amazon dot com? [Laughter.]

I think it’s a very timely question, Ellen, and whether wet or not, some people have areas of the garden that have precious little things, or as I was saying before, self-sowns. I have a lot of Nicotiana, for instance, that in certain areas I like to let self-sow. I shouldn’t be stomping on those to go clean out that bed.

Ellen. We have several areas like that, too, where you’re trying to encourage it.

Q. So it can work for other-than-wet soil. It can work as a landing pad for working in a bed where there are precious little things, unseen things, self-sowns you want to have develop. Good question.

Ken. Can I ask a question, Margaret? When you have the self-sowns and it looks like a haze of green, do you ever try to thin them?

Q. OK, so Ellen won’t hang up yet.

I’m not good at doing it when they are teeny-weeny. I usually wait a little longer, almost like I’m doing a row of salad I’ve sown too thickly, and I was going to eat the thinnings. But not 6 inches tall—an inch or something. I find it’s hard with the teeny ones, where like you said it’s almost this covering of flat things. They don’t have enough of a root system, and if I’m too rough I don’t know if I can get them planted back in well. I almost want it to have “true leaves” like a vegetable seedling in a community pot, and I’m going (as they’d say in England) to “prick it out.” [Note: In the audio I mistakenly said “prick it off,” as if conflating pricking out and hardening off seedlings, but thankfully a sharp-eared reader noted my glitch.–Margaret.]

Ken. Maybe I’ll thin it with a scissors.

Q. Ellen, I’m glad you called, and now that you have been subjected to even more of our random thoughts as we ricochet from your question to editing self-sowns [laughter]…but that’s all right, yes?

Ellen. [Laughter.] Absolutely.

Ken. I do want to say that Rhode Island is beyond-belief beautiful, and people don’t know.

Q. It’s the Mecca.

Ellen. It really is

Q. If people haven’t visited when there are Open Days and such, it really is spectacular and Ken and I have both spoken at public gardens there. Totally worth visiting.

mole and voles: what to do?

Q. So Ellen’s question about wet soil, and moving around in soil, makes me think of one of the most popular—wait, that’s probably a bad word because that sounds positive…

Ken. [Laughter.]

Q. …one of the most dreaded questions on Facebook and the blog recently—I think I have three or four just this last week:

Ellen on Facebook is saying: “I have moles and I’d like to know how to get rid of them.”

Shirley, also on Facebook: “Do you have any suggestions on how to get rid of ground moles? I have been battling this problem for over two years now.”

She even got a couple of cats—and she is saying moles with an “M,” as was Ellen.  She said one part of her yard is so bad it’s like walking on sponges, and the bulbs she planted? “Forget about it. They chewed them up too.” She wonders: “Would a really heavy lawn roller help?”

And Kathleen on Facebook was very succinct and just wrote the word in capital letters:

“VOLES!” with a “V” and an exclamation point: “VOLES!”

[Photos above from Wikipedia, left to right and also top of page: Eastern mole by Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University, and meadow vole.]

Ken. These are two very different things. [Laughter.]

Q. Indeed, and I thought it would be good to talk about, because you and I have both experienced them—most gardeners have, I think. So whether it’s an “M” or a “V,” we’re talking about two very different animals, so where do we begin?

Ken. Let’s begin with moles, with an “M.”

Q. “M” for Margaret, and moles.

Ken. I don’t do anything for moles, but moles are carnivores…

Q. They’re insectivorous, exactly.

Ken. Right. So if somebody ate plants or plant root, that probably wasn’t the mole. I’ve had tunnels a few times, and it drives you crazy, and it’s like walking on sponge exactly. I just walk on the tunnels—which are not really tunnels because they are under the lawn. They’re eating grubs, which is great, and you don’t want Japanese beetles, and that’s the thing they probably eat the most…and earthworms. [Above, from Ohio State’s Marne Titchenell, lumpy turf from moles, left, and mole hills, right.]

Q. Earthworms are the thing they eat the most.

Ken. And earthworms are another big story. But I just walk on the tunnels.

Q. And they’re a fossorial animal—one that lives underground, right? They rarely come up above the surface for any purpose; they don’t come up to feed or anything like that. These sort of humps and bumps beneath your lawn…

Ken. They go on for awhile. [Laughter.]

Q. Yes. So that’s their burrowing for their “insect” dinner [Note: of course, earthworms are not technically insects]. Sometimes your lawn can go brown, but it’s not that they were eating the grass but that they separated the roots from the soil in their tunneling.

Ken. I haven’t had that happen and I was thinking as you are speaking that maybe it aerates the soil, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Q. They are great soil aerators, and that’s one of their jobs. You can squish it down, like you said—those are their feeding or foraging, but the moles can go much deeper than that. And sometimes you will see a little mound, like a mini-volcano of soil, because they’ve got to push that stuff out somewhere if they’re just below the surface. During their excavation they have to get rid of some of the debris, so you might see a “mole hill,” and to me it always looks like a giant anthill, grainy like.

But voles, on the other hand…

Ken. On the other hand…

Q. …they are not fossorial, not creatures that live underground, and they are not insectivores, are they? They’re a rodent, and herbivores.

Ken. They will eat plants and I have only had a couple of experiences with them, with their damage. They love Siberian iris, and I guess two years in a row they just ate the Siberian iris. They started in the middle and went out and just ate the whole thing.

Q. If you are a vegetable gardener, and you try to grow sweet potatoes, for example, or for that matter white potatoes—something tuberous. Or you were just talking about a rhizomatous thing, something juicy and succulent underground. If you were trying to grow a yummy thing like your iris that’s thickly rooted, at least, depending on the type of iris.

Sweet potatoes: I have sometimes had a raised bed of sweet potatoes, and it comes time for harvest, and I have all this lush growth and it’s all fabulous, and I thought, “I’m going to have so many sweet potatoes, it will be great; I’ve got to get my bushel basket.” I’m imaging this bumper crop, and every single one is just gnawed; it’s been gnawed. [What voles eat, and their life cycle and management, from University of California IPM Program.]

Ken. Eeew.

Q. And mice will do that, too. But I can tell a mouse from a vole. So with voles, you don’t have such a benign plan of attack if they attack you? You said with moles you just stomp down the tunnels.

Ken. I haven’t had them in a few years, and that could be because this place floods—and you never know who’s being driven away by that.

Q. We should explain that you are on this island in a river, sort of, and sometimes have these periodic floods that would be difficult for an animal like that. [Learn about Ken’s garden and see photos on his website here.]

Ken. It hasn’t happened in awhile, but when I had the voles a couple of times I took used clay cat litter…

Q. Whew, stinky! [Laughter.]

Ken. …and I sprinkled it around the Siberian iris. And by the way it’s very easy to get used clay cat litter.

Q. Because all your friends are willing to help?

Ken. Oh, they’re happy to give it away.

Q. I can’t imagine why. [Laughter.]

Ken. I read once it’s supposed to be male cat litter, but it actually worked with just cat litter. And it clay, which kind of degrades. I sprinkled it around especially on the Siberian iris, and that seems to have repelled them.

from Missouri Botanical GardenQ. I have a terrible vole problem. I’m in a rural area with a lot of fields—surrounded by woodlands, with farm fields and meadows adjacent. Hence one of the species we have, the meadow vole [laughter]. This winter I had some very deep snow late in the winter, and when it melted I saw the telltale sign of voles with a “V,” which is these surface tunnels. [Above, photo of surface tunnels of voles from Missouri Botanical Garden; their vole and mouse how-to is at this link.]

Unlike the humps and lumps, can’t-walk-on-it things like the moles, you see almost as if someone has scraped out these surface tunnels, and your grass is missing, and you can see these actual runs from bed to bed, or squiggles in the middle of the lawn–because they are herbivorous and will chew on plant material. But they just make surface tunnels, and don’t go super-deep.

And they love in the winter what’s called the subnivian layer—that little air space, that insulated little world between the soil surface and the bottom of the snow, if that makes sense. There is a whole little world going on down there under the snow. They’re one of the creatures that is active in there.

I have a big problem with them, and I am going to confess that as with mice, I do trap, with snap traps—that I put in wooden boxes with a removable lid that have a mouse-hole opening at one end. I put the traps in boxes to protect other animals that might otherwise be attracted to them, other wildlife that wouldn’t go in the dark place of the box like the voles. [More about the mouse and vole boxes and traps. For detailed information about trapping and otherwise managing moles by methods Ken and I do not use, the University of Nebraska has this factsheet.]

Ken. What’s your bait?

Q. I just put peanut butter in the traps, but I don’t think that actually is the trick. I think Eliot Coleman, the great organic gardener and farmer and author in Maine who I copied the boxes from, who grows edibles year-round in poly tunnels and hoophouses so he has a year-round problem with them getting at his crops—I believe he puts no bait in the traps inside the boxes, which he puts along the edge of his greenhouses. I put peanut butter as just a holdover from my mouse-trapping, I guess.

Experts like Marne Titchenell from Ohio State University, a wildlife-control expert for the Extension there, says that with voles you’ve got to really hammer them—trap, trap, trap like mad with more traps than you can imagine. And trap till you see no more; not that you will eliminate all the voles in the area, but in that high-pressure garden area you can, where they are interested, you need to trap heavily. It’s kind of a gross thing, but voles are tricky. I have tremendous lawn repair this spring that needs doing—where their surface tunneling has just removed the grass and all that’s left in certain places is these weird patterns of brown in the lawn. Not good.

So moles versus voles: Our questioner Shirley saying about the spongy conditions—she was right, she had moles. But as far as her bulbs being eaten, it wasn’t that they ate the bulbs, it’s that they dislodged them when they were tunneling probably.

Ken. Unless it was also voles or some other creature.

Q. And I have certain areas where I have voles, moles, chipmunks, mice…

Ken. And squirrels.

Q. …lions, tigers and bears, oh my.

Ken. Do you have problems with spring-flowering bulbs when you plant them getting dislodged or eaten. The best is with the little ones—I can’t even grow crocus—the chipmunks or squirrels just to be spiteful, as soon as it flowers  they will cut off the flower and lay it down on the ground, next to the greenery. [They sometimes decapitate small bulbs just before bloom, too, as above, in Margaret’s garden.]

Ken. Oh, that’s polite.

Q. Oh yes, very polite. They’re making floral arrangements on the ground I guess.

Ken. [Laughter.]

success with christmas cactus

Q. We have enough time in this first segment before we go into overtime to do one quickie. Tibs, in a comment on the blog, asks:

“Are Christmas cactus succulents?” Reason that she asks: She has had the “same one in the same pot for over 20 years with no feeding, weekly watering” and it’s happy, happy, happy.

Ken. They’re succulents; they’re cactus, actually.

Q. And I think some of the genera are epiphytic where they live in nature in the Brazilian rainforests or wherever. I think that’s probably why they don’t care if they have fresh soil. I think they live in trees [and on rock outcrops].

Ken. Well, she is doing everything right, whatever it is. I’ve had plants that all of a sudden just croak and I don’t know why. I know that they would like a nice lush rainforest (and I don’t happen to have a rainforest).

Q. So lthey ike humidity but not having their roots in the wet.

Ken. But some of them do very well, and I have a Christmas cactus and a Thanksgiving cactus and an Easter cactus and it’s amazing—they bloom on the day.

Q. So they’re happy with you.

Ken. Yes, but what did she say: She’s had it for how long?

Q. Over 20 years with no feeding…[Here’s how the Royal Horticultural Society says to grow Christmas (or Thanksgiving) cactus properly, and how Logee’s Nursery suggests growing Easter cactus.]

  • [Continue to Part 2 of the May Q&A show at this link, where we talk about what to do after you remove invasives like garlic mustard, what the color of soil is telling us, growing bulbs like pineapple lilies in pots year to year, and the pros and cons of hosting garden tours.]

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 15, 2017 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.

[podcast url=” http://podcasts.am1020whdd.com/~am1020wh/shows/mp3/A_Way_To_Garden_With_Margaret_Roach-May_15_Q_And_A_With_Ken_Druse_Overtime_Edition.mp3″]

  1. Edward Walczykowski says:

    Voles just killed 3 of my Japanese maples, and probably a 4th. Two of them were over 25 years old. All were in pachysandra. The voles ate the bark up to 6″ completely around the trees. The 4th is 3/4 chewed around, so it may be a goner. A young maple was 2/3 chewed around two winters ago under snow cover, but is doing okay. That was not in pachysandra. I was shocked they killed trees that had 6-7″ diameters above ground level. Never touched them before.

    1. margaret says:

      Wow, Edward, I am sorry. The last two years I have a lot of voles, more than ever, but most of the damage is lawn and perennials, not so costly or painful as yours.

  2. Dianne says:

    For years I have had a problem with what I thought were voles. They ate most of my bulbs (but not daffodil or day lily), roots of small shrubs, vegetable garden plantings like beans, and their gourmet meals are hostas. I have been trapping them with a mouse trap with peanut butter dusted with oatmeal. I took a picture of one of the critters and someone told me it wasn’t a vole but a shrew. On further research I am sure that it is in fact a shrew. I also have moles, chipmunks and squirrels, which although bothersome don’t bug me like the voles, er shrews.

    As Edward above says, voles do kill trees. We have lots of folks around here that volcano mulch trees, sadly, and voles burrow in and gnaw at the bark. Lots of dead trees as a result, especially in commercial plantings.

    1. margaret says:

      Yes, we have various shrew species here as well, and like moles they are in the order Insectivora — not Rodentia like mice are. Many (most?) shrews’ primary diet is insects, so they have an important role to serve of their own. They are distinctive looking, with long pointy heads.

  3. Carolyn says:

    I live in SE Ma. where we have a lot of stone walls, excellent homes for voles! Last year I had a couple of garder snakes living in the walls. This year my tulips made it thru the season and I think maybe the snakes helped me out. So don’t get freaked out by the serpents!

  4. Erin Bailey says:

    I have spent a year in the UK and have watched their garden shows for over a decade, and I never heard of “pricking off.” I had to laugh, it sounded like a curse.

    I HAVE heard of “pricking out” which is what they call moving a seedling from the seed flat to a pot when it has a few true leaves.

    So I have to ask, Is there really a “pricking off” term for moving seedlings with a few leaves to the compost heap?! =)

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Erin. Nailed! I totally said it wrong, since I never hear anyone say it any more! It’s properly pricking out, as in moving tiny babies from a community pot to individual quarters or their next destination, whatever that is. It’s like I merged pricing out and hardening off, huh? Thanks for the correction.

  5. Nora Sirbaugh says:

    We have been at war with Voles. They killed a large vitex and a stewartia and a dogwood before I got REALLY proactive. Between them and the rabbits, I have learned to put wire mesh around my prized woodies in the fall to protect them. The winter is when they go after the woodies. And we trap like crazy. It works. Have knocked them back but always a battle.

  6. Liane says:

    Try rolling up sticks of juicy fruit gum near vole holes. It appears to have worked for several gardeners I know well. Moles, on the other hand, must be trapped.

  7. Virginia Leary says:

    Thank for all the info re voles, moles, and shrews. I live in the Hudson Valley 60 minutes north of NYC. Been here over 40 years and this is this first year there have been voles eating my plants. My son bought me 100’s of allium bulbs for the last 2 years and because they are in the onion family I thought they would be off limits for anything to eat. Well, boy was I surprised! So to my question. I thought installing fine metal mesh wire around the area where bulbs are would at least diminish them from getting at the bulbs. How many inches do I need to insert vertically around plants? 4-6″ ending level with the surface or deeper?? I would really appreciate your input. Thanks!!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Virginia. I have seen commercially sold cages for bulbs that are like maybe 6 inches high (like this example) and I have seen people dig deeper, larger holes and line them on all sides and bottom with the wire mesh (then covering the top with wire too after planting/backfilling). If it is voles they are moving around near to the surface, so 6 inches should be OK…but if it is moles who are disturbing the bulbs with their tunneling (but don’t really eat the bulbs), they go much deeper.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.