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Moles? Voles? Let's call the whole thing off...

Friday - 4/13/2012, 11:32am  ET

Voles make small holes in the ground and eat lots of plants. (Courtesy Hilton Pond Center)

Voles dig holes in your lawn

Mike McGrath, WTOP's garden guru


Mike McGrath,

Well which one is it?

"Hopeless in Amissville" writes, "I seem to have a mole infestation. There are an insane amount of tunnels, and some of my flower and veggie plants have disappeared down the holes. I've tried the spikes that emit sound to no avail. Can you offer any suggestions to get rid of these pesky creatures?"

Well, it depends on what kind of pesky creatures you have, "Hopeless." Moles make raised tunnels, especially in lawns, but they don't eat plants. Voles make small holes in the ground and eat lots of plants. And really big holes that plants "disappear down" could be a sign of groundhogs. Identifying the pest is job number one, although those ultrasonic devices won't work against any of them.

"I see both," writes back the "Hopeless" one, "small holes and tunnels." Well, then you might well have moles and voles and keep an eye out for groundhogs! The first thing I'd try is a castor oil repellent. Sold in both liquid and powder form as mole and vole repellents at most garden centers, you apply the concentrated castor oil over your entire landscape -- not just in the holes or over the tunnels -- and it imparts a smell underground that urges both of these subterranean nuisances to move on.

I would also put out a lot of snap traps baited with peanut butter to knock the vole population down. Place them alongside raised bed frames or under the cover of leafy plants. Voles don't like going out in the open so check the traps often. And I'd also consider spraying beneficial nematodes on the lawn to knock out any grubs the moles may be feasting on. Gardens Alive is one good source of the microscopic predators, and you'll find a lot of other suppliers online.

‘Yes' to mulch! 'No' to wood, bark and root mulch!

Scott "in Belmont Bay on the Occoquan" writes, "I have a good amount of landscape area with evergreens as the primary plants. I need to provide a covering to prevent weeds, and I believe you always say 'no mulch,' but to use an organic compost instead -- am I right?"

Mostly right, Scott. "Mulch" is essential for keeping down weeds and retaining soil moisture, but wood, bark and root mulches are the worst choices. They breed nuisance molds and plant diseases.

Compost does make a great mulch, but the phrase "organic compost" has no meaning -- just make sure you get yard waste compost and not so-called "bio-solids" or other euphemisms that mean sewage sludge. Pine straw is also an excellent mulch, and would look great under your evergreens.

Prepare the surface well and your sod will be super!

Clare in D.C. writes, "I'm going to lay grass sod in my yard; what should I put under it to help it grow?"

Good thinking, Clare! Sod is a great choice for small areas in the spring. It gives you an instant lawn at a time of year when seed always falls short.

First, you want to prepare the surface by tilling or loosening up the soil to help the sod get off to a good start and to cure the compaction that can kill even the best-laid lawns.

Then you typically might have to remove some soil to accommodate the height of the new turf. You want the soil line of the new sod to match any adjacent pathways or walkways.

If there's room afterward, an inch of yard waste compost would be an ideal addition to the understory. In fact, the smart money would say to remove lots of your existing dirt to make room for compost.

Last step: Level the new surface perfectly to insure clean cuts in the future -- an unlevel surface gives you a lawn that will never be able to be cut correctly.

Turn potted bulbs into outdoor plants!

Melisa in Waldorf writes, "We attended a wedding where potted Hyacinth flowers were the centerpieces. The bride and groom insisted I take several of these home, which I did. But now I'm at a loss as to what to do with them. Should I plant them in my flower bed now or wait until fall?"

The advice is the same for all spring bulbs in pots, Melisa. Place the pots outside in full sun and water them normally. When the flowers fade, clip the flower stalks off at the top (not down low), and leave the green leaves alone. Feed the green leaves with a gentle balanced organic fertilizer and continue watering.

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