Pests and Diseases: Moles and Voles

The mole and vole population is booming here in the Mid-Atlantic gardening region…I’ve spoken to three people about control measures within the last 24 hours. There seems to be much confusion about moles and voles so let’s talk about the differences between the two.


moles and voles
Photo courtesy of TermiGuard Pest Services


Moles have a face that only a mother could love. They are beastly looking little creatures even though they are only 6″ or so long (and that’s a big one…the ones that my kitty brings home are usually in the 3″ to 4″ range). You’ll notice their large front feet that are adapted to moving a lot of soil. They dig with their front feet and then push the soil behind them with their back feet. The tunnels that they leave behind in your lawn are a sure sign that trouble lies underfoot. It’s interesting to note that the tunnels that you witness aboveground are their temporary tunnels. The main source of the action lies farther underground where the moles have their permanent residence. The temporary tunnels are used for gathering food and once the mole has had a nice dinner, the tunnels aren’t usually used again by the moles. So what’s for dinner? Grubs, snails, earthworms, insects, spiders, that sort of thing. The moles are NOT eating your plant roots but that leads us to our next suspect…voles.


moles and voles

These mousey-looking creatures are the bane of many gardeners’ existence. Generally speaking, voles are lazy and they use the mole tunnels to get to your plants’ roots. I all but gave up gardening here at my home several years ago. I had beautiful, 3′ diameter hostas when I put the garden to bed in the winter. When the garden awoke from its winter slumber in spring, I had 3 leaved hostas…literally. Those little monsters ate almost all of my hostas in a single winter. The tell-tale sign of voles is a hole where your plants used to be. Not a large hole…the hole is usually 1″ or so in diameter but that’s all that it takes for them to decimate your plants. Plants aren’t the only things that voles eat but it’s the only thing that matters to gardeners. They can eat all of the fruits and nuts they want without any complaints from me…just leave my plants alone!


moles and volesHere is my best defense against moles and voles. My kitty Bilbo (about the name: we thought that her and her sister were boys so we named them Bilbo and Frodo from the Lord of the Rings. Turns out they were both girls so Bilbo is now known as Bobo and Frodo was better known as Frodie). Back to control options…You just can’t beat a good mouser for vole control. I have to thank Bobo and Frodie and Kiki for knocking out the vole population at my house. The hostas that the voles didn’t eat that fateful winter owe a debt of gratitude to these girls.

Another option for controlling voles is peanut butter baited mouse traps. I know a local landscaper that caught over 100 voles in a single season using this method. A word of caution: cover the traps with a pot that your pets and birds can’t readily flip over or you’ll have another set of issues to contend with. Put the traps near the holes that you find and you’ll likely have great success.

There are all sorts of poisons that are touted to kill moles. If you choose to go this route, understand the repercussions of your pets getting hold of the dead voles. Consult your local garden center if you decide that this an option for you.

To control moles, you really need to focus on controlling their food supply. Now that doesn’t mean that you go out and kill every living insect on your property. Hopefully you know that I would never recommend something like that. But you should make an effort to control the grubs. Japanese beetle and June bug grubs seem to the creme-de-la-creme to moles. If you want to treat for grubs, spring is NOT the time to do it. As with most insects, it is much more effective to kill them when they are young. At this time of the year, the grubs are large and you just won’t get the same effect as you will if you treat them in the fall when they are smaller. I don’t give chemical recommendations but I can refer you to the Virginia Cooperative Extension Pest Management Guide which has treatments for virtually any problem you may have. In fact, download the free pdf before you read any further. You won’t be sorry. A more environmentally friendly treatment is milky spore but it takes awhile to be effective. Milky spore is a soil dwelling bacteria that kills the grubs and then reproduces in the soil. There are lots of products that contain milky spore…again consult your local garden center for product recommendations.

I hope that I’ve helped you determine if you have moles or voles and what you can do about them. I know that other Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers have suggestions for how they’ve dealt with moles and voles. Leave your comments below or e-mail me at If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy mole and vole-free gardening!


Plant Profile: Lords and Ladies or Arum italicum ‘Pictum’


The frost has killed off the foliage on my hostas and they resemble little more than pathetic blobs of brown mushiness. But a winter friend has reared its head and that friend is Arum italicum ‘Pictum’, otherwise known as Lord and Ladies.

Arum is a fascinating plant in that it is summer dormant and waits until cool weather to emerge. It is a perfect companion plant for shade loving perennials such as hostas, deciduous ferns and astilbes. When the cold weather has become too much for these spring and summer beauties, Arum decides to emerge to take over the show. Its beautiful arrow shaped leaves are mottled with white veins that seem to catch sunlight and reflect it back in the winter garden. It will emerge through fallen leaves so it can be naturalized in wooded areas, perhaps along a garden path or sitting area that is enjoyed on those warm winter days.

Arum is accented with light green to white spathes in spring that resemble those of a peace lily. As summer draws closer, the spathes transform into bright red seed heads that stand out in the shade garden. After this final performance, Arum goes into its summer dormancy and waits again for the cool weather. For this reason. it’s a good idea to mark or otherwise note where your Arum are so that they aren’t uprooted during the summer.

A bonus of growing this plant is that it is also deer and vole resistant. Reported to be poisonous, it’s no wonder why the four legged critters, both above and below ground, steer clear of it. Arum will form quaint colonies over time that are easily separated to either move to other areas of your garden or to share with friends. While they prefer moist but well drained, humusy soil, they will certainly tolerate much less, including the usual drought that the Mid-Atlantic summers offer. This is a must have plant for winter gardens…surely you can find a place in your garden for a plant otherwise known as Lords and Ladies! If you have experience with Arum italicum ‘Pictum’ in your garden, let me know by leaving a comment or e-mailing me at I’ve received some reader questions about deer resistant plants so I’ll be tackling that subject tomorrow. Happy gardening!

November 30, 2011Permalink 5 Comments

Plant Profile: Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis)

G.A. Cooper @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Daabase


Today I thought that we would take a look at Helleborus orientalis, or Lenten Rose. Hellebores are fantastic plants that are hardy to Zone 4, meaning that they can withstand winter temperatures down to -30 degrees Fahrenheit. They are evergreen and bloom during a time of the year that little else will; they begin blooming in December and bloom up until April in Zone 7.

The Lenten Rose obtained its common name from the season in which it blooms. The word Helleborus can be broken down into its Latin roots as “hellin” which means to kill and “bora” which means food. It is true that Hellebores are poisonous so this makes them ideal for areas that have deer problems or pesky voles. They are generally only considered mildly poisonous if they are ingested and thankfully, there are plenty of other greens for me to eat in the winter. I would take care if you have cats or dogs that tend to graze on your plantings. Animals are usually very good at quickly determining if a plant is toxic but I’d hate to think that Sparky would have an upset tummy because of me.

Lenten Roses make great partners to other plants in the shade garden. As you go further north of Zone 7, you can push them into a little more sun but watch for leaves that start to burn. Just as animals have instincts that we don’t, plants will do their darndest to let us know if they are unhappy with their location. Unfortunately for them, they aren’t able to pick up and move if they are getting sunburnt so we have to watch for signs of distress. They enjoy a moist, well-drained soil that is loose and friable. They can certainly make do with much less but if we’re discussing ideal locations for them, a soil with a generous amount of organic matter is the ticket.

Much effort has been invested in the hybridization of Hellebores in recent years as they fetch a fairly hefty price in the garden center. In the Richmond, Virginia area a 3 qt. container will sell for around $12.oo retail. There are many wonderful color variations available now, including pinks, reds, whites, yellows and purples. Pine Knot Farms, located in Clarksville, Virginia has succeeded in breeding Hellebores that go beyond the attractive greenish-white colors that permeate many of the Lenten Rose’s flowers.

helleborus orientalis

The flowers are often freckled and develop into handsome seed pods if left on the plant. It is these seed pods that spring forth the next generation of Lenten Roses. If the plant is happy in its location, you can expect upwards of a hundred new babies the following year. They transplant easily enough if allowed to obtain a little size before moving.

When you’re looking at adding a few new perennials to your shade garden, why not consider the Lenten Rose? It is a workhorse in the garden that will have all of your friends, gardeners or not, asking what is the plant that is blooming in the snow outside your door. And you can kindly reply that it is a killing plant, better known as a Lenten Rose.

If there are other plants that you would like to see profiled here, please e-mail me at and let me know.

November 18, 2011Permalink Leave a comment