Living Columns & Blogs

Ask a Gardener: What’s the best way to decrease the damage done by voles?

A meadow vole peeks out from a holes in Sarah and Roger Bales’ backyard in Elk Grove, Calif., in August 2005. Voles can decimate a garden in no time.
A meadow vole peeks out from a holes in Sarah and Roger Bales’ backyard in Elk Grove, Calif., in August 2005. Voles can decimate a garden in no time. Sacramento Bee

Question: I am so tired of the damage voles do to my beets and carrots and virtually anything else they want to eat in my garden. A friend recommended castor oil, but it didn’t work. HELP!

Answer: You’ve got a lousy problem. I, too struggled with voles that had a glorious time decimating my beet bed.

I solved the problem by moving the bed away from the adjoining field. That’s where the little critters call home. They must have thought I was a generous patron, providing them with all the food close by!

But sometimes distance doesn’t work, nor, seemingly, do any of the products designed to drive voles away. What does work is growing your vegies in a raised bed and installing hardware cloth on the ground before you fill it up with soil. This will make a barrier the voles can’t penetrate. Cut a piece of hardware cloth and add 4 inches all around. Then lay the piece on the bottom of the bed, and bring up the 4 inch sides. Staple generously. You have now created a foolproof vole barrier!

If you don’t have a raised bed (get one, it has many advantages!) you can make a box of hardware cloth, 8” inches deep, then excavate the area you want to plant to 8 inches and install the box in the ground. No need to make a top cover, as the little darlings rarely come above ground, much preferring the safety of an underground attack.

Getting rid of cutworms

Q: I had a real problem with cutworms this year. Is there something I can do to rid my garden of these destructive pests?

A: Cutworms are the larvae of many species of moths. They make their living by cutting off young plants at ground level. It’s disheartening to discover their work. They’re active at night and hide in garden litter by day. They can overwinter in soil.

Give good protection to your young plants by putting a 3 inch collar of paper or cardboard around the plants’ bases. Push the collar in an inch to stabilize it. Paper towel and toilet tissue tubes work well.

For a bad infestation of cutworms, you can use the ‘menotode neoaplectana carpacapsae’, a microscopic organism that relishes cutworms but does not harm beneficial soil dwellers like earth worms. Apply in the spring around the base of your plants.

Picking the right apple tree

Q: I want to plant an apple tree or two this fall. Any suggestions about good varieties?

A: You’re in luck. A new wave of apple tree varieties is hitting the market. Once people taste a truly delicious apple, they aren’t as excited about the older, blah-tasting ones. With better science, new apple varieties can be developed faster than ever – in past years it took up to 40 years and now it takes a mere dozen.

So here are my suggestions. I’ve had very good luck growing the delicious Honeycrisp apples, and they live up to their name—they’re firm, crisp and a welcome sweet/spicy flavor.

But never satisfied, breeders have taken Honeycrisps to a new level with Snapdragon, better resistant to disease, and Ruby Frost, with increased vitamin C and resistance to browning.

These two new varieties were produced in the apple-breeding program at Cornell University. But if you can wait, the Cosmic Crisp (quite the name) from Washington State University is set to debut in 2017.

Kathleen Bander of Bellingham is a life-long gardener. Her column will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to For more gardening information online, go to


Whatcom County Public Works will offer a Gardening Green: Sustainable Landscaping class Sept. 20 through Oct. 6 at the Whatcom Extension Building in Bellingham. It will be on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m.-2 p.m.

Participants will learn how to create sustainable residential landscapes that are beautiful, easy to care for, attract wildlife and benefit the watershed in these six sessions. Included will be the best ways to use mulch, successfully install new plantings and root washing.

The free classes fill up quickly. Pre-registration is required. Contact Sue Taylor at (360) 671-3891 or to register or get additional information.