Saturday, March 12, 2016

Garden losses, or Voles Suck

Baptisia 'Purple Smoke', a hybrid of dwarf blue indigo (Baptisia minor var. aberrans)
and white indigo (Baptisia alba), introduced by the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill.

There's a war being waged in the garden right now. Me vs voles.

For years I have used 3 gallon plastic pots with the bottoms cut out and gravel
on top for the baptisias and had very few losses, until recently. Last year I
had the most losses ever and the best baptisia show, all at the same time.

I had finally made sure that all of the seed-grown baby baptisias had all of the light and air they needed, rather than allow them to be crowded by the Brazilian blue sage and Monarda 'Raspberry Wine' that had taken over the big bed. I had also purchased some good-sized cultivars: 'Starlite Prairie Blues', 'Blueberry Sundae', 'Lunar Eclipse' and more 'Purple Smoke', because while the seedlings had a beautiful range of colors, they also came in a big range of habits, from dwarf to skinny to awkward to full. Only a small percentage of my seedlings had the same nice round habit as my established alba and 'Purple Smoke'.

Starlite prairie blues, which I first saw on gail's blog and
fell in love with the ageratum blue and white flowers.

clockwise from top: a seedling; 'Blueberry Sundae', 'Twilite Prairie
Blues' and alba; a closer look at 'Blueberry Sundae'; another seedling

The two below are more home-grown seedlings. Most of the seeds came from blue and white
baptisias that I purchased from Niche Gardens, but I think I got some seed in trades too.

'Blueberry Sundae', which like 'Purple Smoke' has B. minor heritage.
B. minor is basically a miniature blue baptisia with large flowers.

This year the voles went right into the middle of four of my largest baptisias. Two are large albas that I've had for years, the one in the foreground and the one in the background in the picture below. I don't think the voles got very far into the one in the foreground, so I covered the top with gravel and then placed a tent of metal hardware fabric over the top of the pot so the voles can't get in and the buds won't be crushed by the metal mesh when they start pushing up. The other alba was quite chewed up so I potted it up to try to save it.

I hope the alba I left in the ground is OK.

It's in the background of this picture and was beautiful last year. It took a few years to
get to that size. Hopefully the alba in the foreground will be that size too in a few years.

Glimpse of the chewed-up white baptisia with 'Hansa' and 'Foxi Pavement' in 2014. The 'Foxi
Pavement' is gone now as well, and can't help but what if the voles are responsible for that too.

The voles also got into 2 of my most prized garden plants, the 2 'Purple Smoke's I've
had for years. They still have buds but the main roots were gone. I potted them up but
I don't know if they will make it. The garden will not look like like it did last year.

'Cl. Old Blush' with 'Purple Smoke'

I don't know if I can save a large baptisia that has had the main roots chewed off.
I had an australis/alba hybrid grown from seed that bloomed as usual in spring 2014

and the next winter the voles demolished it. I was able to save two pieces of it, a large piece and a small piece. I noticed that the remnants did not grow new roots over the summer. In the fall a vole crawled up into the pot and finished off the large piece, so now all of the pots with baptisia in them are topped with gravel and I will have to wait and see if the small piece does anything next year.

I'm trying to figure out how to keep the voles from eating them, if that's possible. I tried mousetraps baited with bread, oatmeal, peanut butter, molasses and butter and only caught a couple of voles. I have put metal mesh over the pots, and while this will likely work over the winter, I'm still going to have to remove at least part of it so that the stems can come up. Most of the losses do seem to occur over the winter, but I still want to protect them as best I can all year. I just didn't want to have to work this much to do it. After putting down the gravel and metal mesh, my garden best resembled a construction site with some daffodils in it, so I spread a thin layer of compost over everything so that it looks like a garden again.

So I'll just have to hope the newer baptisias can make up for the loss of the oldest ones, and that my new labor-intensive strategy for dealing with the voles works.

Young Baptisia alba

Even with all of the newer baptisia, I am sad that I won't have those
big 'Purple Smoke' in my garden this year. They were really beautiful.


  1. All so beautiful! That house is lovely in those surroundings.

  2. Baptisia is one plant genus I love but haven't succeeded in growing in SoCal. I don't have voles either; however, based on my own experience with raccoons and skunks, I can imagine your frustration and unhappiness with their destruction. Do they tunnel into plants from the bottom as well as the top? The garden centers here sell cages made of chicken wire to be used below ground so gophers can't tunnel into plants from below but I can't speak to how well they work or whether they'd be effective against voles, which are a lot smaller. In any case, you have my heartfelt sympathy!

    1. The voles tunnel from the top. Their tunnels aren't deep and they very seldom dig to a foot in depth. Recently they have been just tunneling right through the gravel even though they never did that in the past. I've noticed that the voles look bigger than usual this winter. I've had a little trouble sometimes distinguishing between the voles and the cotton rats. Probably eating my plants has helped them to bulk up.

  3. Oh how awful!!!! Dang voles. Your purple smokes were just beautiful and were always a joy to view here on your blog. I always love the purple blooms you have growing there.

    Have a lovely spring in spite of the losses and watch your new ones grow and bloom. You have much beauty still that surround you.

    Love & hugs ~ FlowerLady

  4. So sorry for your beautiful plants, Sweetbay ... I wish I new something that could help you with the voles ... Can't wait to see your garden with the new baptisias. Best wishes, my friend !

  5. Ugh. That's so sad. I love Baptisia. Fortunately, I don't have too many voles in the garden so far (knock on drywall). Maybe they can't dig so easily through the clay muck / concrete I call 'soil'?

    I did try adding three more small Baptisias to the garden last year, but I think they were all eaten up by rabbits.

    My one big Baptisia did have lots of seeds last year, so I tried scattering the seeds around the garden in the hopes of getting some volunteers started this year. We shall see!

    Good luck with your vole-prevention efforts. In an open garden, I would think that hawks and owls might keep the population down. But your garden looks so lush, I'm thinking your only hope at permanent vole control might be snakes (rat snakes or maybe garter snakes)?

    (Not sure if you'd find the cure worse that the problem. Personally, I don't mind snakes. I rather like them, but my wife would freak out if I tried to intentionally add snakes to the garden.)

    1. There are a lot of snakes here. Unfortunately, they are not active during the winter when the voles are busy taking out my plants. :/ There are red-shouldered hawks and barred owls here (and other raptors during the winter as well) but you're right, they often prefer more open habitat to hunt in. There are gray foxes here too but they seem to hang out more by the creek unless the neighbor's guineas are nesting near our house.

  6. Dear Sweetbay, gosh, I can totally see why you are so much in love with these Baptisias! They are stunningly beautiful in your garden and seem to do so well, if only the voles would let them alone. I have no advice to offer, since I don't think I ever had a vole in my garden, but truly hope you find a solution for the problem.
    Your garden is a dream! I so enjoyed looking at your photos! I love the combinations of the blue baptisias with the blue bearded irises and the soft yellow irises.
    Warm regards,

  7. Oh no! The Purple Smoke Baptisia are beautiful! Voles are evil, evil creatures. They killed so many of my plants when I lived in North Carolina, usually the most expensive ones. Thankfully I don't seem to have many here (knock on wood), as there are large snakes about. Your garden looks so beautiful with the roses and baptisia and iris!

  8. So sorry you are being plagued by vermin. Have tried getting a hungry cat?

    1. We have two cats but they are 18 now and officially retired. One of them was an excellent vole hunter when she was younger and the weather was nice, but once cold weather hit she much preferred her warm bed.

  9. What a gorgeous variety of baptisias you have! I'm wondering now if that is what has happened to my 'Prairie Smoke'--last year it wasn't nearly as big as past years. This fall I noticed some big holes in the area where this baptisia is and filled them in with dirt--I probably should have put hardware cloth down first. One day I found the neighbor's dogs digging in this area, so I'm not sure if they dug the holes or, more likely, were digging for those darned voles. My own dog loves to dig for them, too, which is fine if she catches them, but she creates even bigger holes:( Sure wish somebody could come up with a foolproof way to get rid of those pesky varmints!

  10. Sounds like you need a dog or cat to do some hunting for you. One of my dogs is an excellent vole hunter. She doesn't chew on them but digs them up and carries them around until they die of fright. Voles are jerks.

  11. I have had issues with voles in the past, but luckily they have never been a huge problem. How I admire 'Purple Smoke' and all the other Baptisia you have! So amazingly pretty!

  12. The photos of your garden are breathtaking! Voles are the greatest enemies of my garden. Just this past week they ate the roots of a mature rose bush. Your post gives me even more concern, because in the same area of my lost rose is my one and only baptisia, which has finally matured to a size that lends impact when it blooms. I am hoping its abundant seeds from last year will result in babies this year. I also hope my resident hawks will take out the voles who destroyed my rose!


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