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Domesticated Diversity

November 25, 2012

Diversity in the garden is something we hear about quite a bit.  But usually you don’t hear domestic in conjunction with wild or natural.  Nor do you hear domestic ideas paired with thoughts about diversity too often.  One thing I happen to think is a little too natural in my gardens are voles.  But, I know as a long time gardener that the voles are just part of the ecosystem that is our farmstead.  I also know that every carrot seed I plant will not necessarily turn into a carrot that will grown up enough to make it to the kitchen.

So rather than declare war and spend a lot of time thinking about how to eradicate the voles (won’t happen anyway), I try to lessen their impact on me and my foodshed.  I actually need them, like I need the deer and elk, the voles provide feed for others on the predator chain like the coyotes and keep the coyotes from feeding on our cats as much.  We have cats to keep the rodent population down.  Likewise, if I don’t hunt the deer, the cougars have something to feed on instead of calves.  There is no free lunch, if we take something away in one place, someone pays for it somewhere else… .  I have a freezer full of beef, so I don’t need to hunt.

Voles thrive in tall grass because cover is so important to them.  They also like hardpan with a nice sod cover, so I have no sod walkways in my garden, and I keep the areas between the rows open and weed-free during the growing season.  No mulch or living cover crops either.  I also keep the headlands mowed or grazed short year round.    Not having a permanent fence helps with this part of the equation – temporary electric fence allows me to graze the sheep right up to the cultivated areas, or mow with the tractor if I need to.

Another part of my approach to voles is hunters.  They also need access to the gardens if I expect them to hunt.

Another line of attack that I use is trap cropping, or planting vegetables that the voles don’t really care for at the edges of the garden where the voles are the most likely to enter.  In my garden the voles aren’t too keen on things like brassicas so this year rutabagas are planted along this edge to slow down the migration of voles from the sod headlands to the garden.  Last year I planted mangels here knowing that they liked them and would be not be very likely to go through the mangels then to the rutabagas and onto the carrot or winter beet rows.

One thing to keep in mind for new gardeners is that if you break sod for a new garden spot, you are likely moving into the voles habitat.  It takes a number of growing seasons with a multi-pronged approach to slow down the impact of the voles.  By planting more than you think you need, and employing a variety of techniques you can keep your blood pressure a little lower when thinking about voles.   Maybe 😉

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Dana S permalink
    November 25, 2012 10:40 am

    We benefit from neighborhood cats that hunt voles in our yard and the native growth area that our yard backs up to. I haven’t had a problem with any rodents near my garden or house (I also have mostly raised beds), but I DO have a problem with cat poop! The bird net I use to cover areas of my garden is never for birds, but only to keep the cats from using my dirt as a litter box. I feel as if I’m always fighting a losing battle. Do you deal with much cat/dog poop in your garden?

    • November 25, 2012 11:00 am

      Dana, the cats seem to prefer the dry soil in other areas, but we make sure they stay out of the greenhouse that’s for sure!

  2. November 25, 2012 10:56 am

    In my gardens I have been very fortunate to have had very little vole problem in the past. One thing that I have noticed that makes a huge impact is garter snakes. For some reason we have a very healthy garter snake, hawk and owl population and 2 small terriers that live to vole hunt. With all of these combined it somehow seems to keep everything in balance even in my garden next to hay fields and even in my garden with thick straw mulches. I seem to have more moles than voles. I sure hope my luck holds out : )

    • November 25, 2012 11:03 am

      Canned Quilter, I forgot to mention the snakes too, they do a great job, it takes a village I think. I don’t mind the moles too much and they don’t really seem to be much of a problem here, but the cats sure like to hunt them. I actually think we lose more cats to owls than coyotes since the owls like to really get in close to the barns and/or the chickens 😦

      Fingers crossed for your continued vole success!

  3. Nick permalink
    November 26, 2012 9:57 am

    I don’t remember my grandparents ever talking about field mice eating their garden crops. Do you think this is a new thing?

    • November 26, 2012 10:13 am

      Nick, more than likely your grandparents canned or preserved everything at the end of the growing season and didn’t leave any winter feed for the voles. We used to can everything and only leave cover crop in the garden, which in turn didn’t leave any tender tasty morsels in the garden for the critters. Our garden has morphed over the years to storing a lot of crops in the garden over winter which is a lot less work and energy expended and allows us to have fresh vegetables instead of canned vegetables. However the downside is that we are providing winter feed for some rodents 😦 If you read up on canning vegetables though, say in Nourishing Traditions, the idea of canning at high temperatures is a relatively new process in the scheme of humans preserving food and is probably best used in moderation. So I can a little, and try to live with the voles…

      A lot too depends on where your grandparents gardened – our soil doesn’t really freeze so that leads us to leave vegetables in place. The quickest way to get rid of pests is to remove their food source.

      • November 26, 2012 11:43 am

        Oh if only freezing would get rid of the little varmints. Our temperatures can get pretty low, but they don’t seem to care as they burrow away under the snow, safe and sound from even minus 25F (-32C)

        • November 26, 2012 12:04 pm

          Joanna, I know, snow is the worst here, it really keeps them insulated and protected from predators. I know we just didn’t worry about them when we pulled all the veggies from the garden by fall. Now since we have “fed” them, they lead a fairly cushy existence. They do go in cycles here though, so hopefully that translates to Latvia as well 🙂

  4. November 26, 2012 1:43 pm

    Plant more than you think you’ll need. Cows and pigs don’t care if the rodents got to the carrot first.

    • November 26, 2012 2:28 pm

      HS, they do when there is nothing left… . We don’t have that big of problem, but some folks do – our neighbors have quite an infestation, first potatoes, all other root crops and then leeks and onions. No garden left – at all.

      • November 26, 2012 6:34 pm

        Can’t imagine. Well…I can imagine but don’t want to.

        I have bigger things eating my fall crop of pullets. Seems my solar charger isn’t getting fully charged.

        • November 26, 2012 9:36 pm

          Ah, yes the solar charger conundrum. I like my 12 volt marine system myself…and the fact that we winter housed our laying flock, with Thanksgiving being the benchmark for moving them inside the greenhouse on deep bedding. The predators are just too hungry once the rodents start to stay under cover. Pasturing hens in the winter is asking for it IMHO.

  5. November 26, 2012 5:21 pm

    We always have voles, but this year was terrible. I felt at times my garden was floating…over a mass of criss-crossing vole tunnels. I wondered if it was because I did a lot of rototilling in the spring. Spring being kind of non existant actually. Planting was late, but the weeds didn’t care, so I’d just quickly run the rototiller over the bed to keep the weeds down. I wondered if I just created this wonderful fluffy space for them to move into.
    My carrot bed was a disaster, I think they were chewing off the little roots as the carrots were forming, and I’d see the tops just wilt over.

    • November 26, 2012 9:38 pm

      Karen, I feel your pain, hopefully next year will be better :p Buggers!

      • November 27, 2012 5:25 pm

        Buggers is right:) I called them that more than a few times this last summer.

  6. SweetTatoLover permalink
    November 27, 2012 9:18 am

    Oh did they get my sweet potato crop this year. I was so excited because the sweet potatoes went crazy, the greens being almost hip high. When I went to harvest, so many of the sweet potatoes were eaten away. I’d say we got about half the harvest, and they got the rest. Can you plant through a layer of hardware cloth or something?

  7. November 27, 2012 7:59 pm

    I have gardened for many years, but two years ago was the first time that voles really did major damage. The fact that we were cat-less may have been a factor. I lost about half the garden. The worst to me is when they chew through the base of a pea or bean plant. This year was not so bad. We do have a cat again, and I created raised boxes with wire cloth at the bottom.

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