Pesky voles love the snow cover

Meadow voles find sanctuary beneath the snow cover, wreaking havoc on plants' root systems.

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    Voles can do a number on your yard, chewing through even the hardiest of roots.
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Those of us who live in Virginia have been spoiled by usually mild winters, but this year reminds me of the old days in New England. Snow does provide good moisture in the ground for the coming spring season if it doesn’t melt all at once and flood the place.

I keep tossing the benefits of snow around in my head. The perennials and the fig are protected from the biting cold temperatures by the insulating layers of snow – now only 2-1/2 feet high in my yard. I've shoveled a path for my dog and the outdoor cats several times.

But the voles are on my mind. Meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) are voracious eaters whose high metabolism requires eating volumes of vegetation: roots on perennials, bark from young trees, garden treasures. They are well protected from the hawks, owls, and cats under all of this snow. Their above-ground tunnels will be visible once the snow has gone and the damage will begin to appear.

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Voles are a fact of life here. With three to six babies for each of up to 10 litters per year, they’re not likely to go away. My vegetable garden beds have rat-wire on the bottom of the wooden frames to prevent the voles from tunneling up under the Swiss chard and eating the roots.

Often I will buy a wonderful new perennial, only to plant it in the garden and find a few days later that the voles have gone to work. At first, it only seems that the perennial has wilted, but watering doesn’t help. When I go to touch the plant, the top comes up in my fingers – root free!

Living on the side of a forested mountain with acres of undeveloped land gives the voles a natural advantage. While the outdoor cats occasionally present me with a dead vole, the balance never seems to change. They have me outnumbered by several orders of magnitude.

Fortunately, they seem picky. They don’t go after the tomatoes, and the magnolias have survived well. But I can almost hear their tiny teeth chewing under the snow.

Maybe I should start my tomato seeds today.

Donna Williamson is one of eight garden writers who blog weekly at Diggin' It. She's a master gardener, garden designer, and garden coach. She has taught gardening and design classes at the State Arboretum of Virginia, Oatlands in Leesburg, and Shenandoah University. She’s also the founder and editor of Grandiflora Mid-Atlantic Gardening magazine, and the author of “The Virginia Gardener’s Companion: An Insider’s Guide to Low Maintenance Gardening in Virginia.” She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

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