Secrets of Jeff Ball’s Perfect Lawn – Week 15 of 2010
The arrival of spring is supposed to be a happy event, freeing us from cabin fever. Unfortunately, when the snow melted this year, spring brought bad news to many homeowners. Parts of their lawn looked like some alien used a laser beam to leave a squiggly maze-like message on their lawns. Unfortunately it was earthly creatures — voles — that had their way with many of our yards.
Voles look a lot like mice. While mice have pointy noses and long tails, voles have blunt noses and short tails. Voles experience a major population explosion every four or five years, This phenomenon is rarely noticed unless it coincides with a winter like we had this year, with extended snow cover in many parts of Michigan.
The vole damage manifests itself several ways. Sometimes it looks like wavy paths of dead grass about 2 inches wide. More often, the paths become little ditches of bare soil about ½ inch deep. The devastation can cover 500 square feet or more.
And there’s more bad news. When the snow melted, the voles didn’t go away. They’re still on the property, living under mulch, in weedy areas, or somewhere undercover hiding from their predators — cats, hawks, and owls.
Voles are vegetarians and they can munch their way through a lot of additional plants after messing up lawns. So if you did suffer vole damage on your lawn, keep an eye on your perennials this spring, especially hostas. If they don’t come back, they were probably lunch for some voles. Tulips planted last fall that don’t show up this spring were probably snacks. Voles also love to dig down and eat the tender roots of newly planted trees, shrubs, and flowers, so keep an eye on new transplants. The good news is voles don’t eat daffodils
Getting rid of voles is the next step to saving what’s left of your lawn and garden if you’ve been victimized.
Some folks rig barriers around trees and shrubs using hardware cloth, but that approach requires a fair amount of time and trouble. While there are repellents to get rid of voles, they haven’t worked very well for me.
I recommend trapping voles with those old fashioned wooden snap traps, just like the ones my grandmother used to catch mice behind the wood stove 60 years ago. Voles won’t go near a trap set in the open. It has to be covered with boards leaning on a stone or even better in upturned clay flower pots. While peanut butter bait is often effective, apples are a special treat for voles. The technique begins with putting a slice of apple under five or six upturned clay flower pots set at least 10 feet apart in areas where you suspect voles to be hanging out – garden beds, weed patches, or mulched areas adjacent to the damaged lawn areas. Set a brick or rock on top to keep the raccoons from interfering. If in a day or two, you find an apple slice with little teeth marks, you then place a snap trap under the pot with apple for bait, but do not set the trap. After providing the voles a buffet for two or three nights , you set the trap. That is when you begin a serious reduction of your vole population. This may seem like a lot of work but you are dealing with cagey critters.
Do this again in late September and October and you can reduce the chances of being faced with lawn damage next spring.
Meanwhile, don’t assume that those vole paths in the lawn will disappear naturally as the grass plants reproduce. If you don’t do anything, you’re just inviting weeds to grow in the bare spots. The area damaged by voles needs to be overseeded. Don’t do that job until the weather and the soil warms in May.