Growing food in Vole City

We have some pretty serious vole challenges at our place and I was hoping to tap into the deep expertise of the community ahead of the 2024 Indiana growing season. Time horizon for improving production is within a few growing seasons. There are certainly other adjustments we could make to improve production beyond direct or indirect vole management, but I’d prefer to stay focused on the vole issue in this thread.

I’m only interested in non-violent solutions and won’t entertain violent ones. Rehoming the voles to a favorable habitat is not off the table but I don’t want to make expensive (time and effort) pest management decisions that beget further management.

The story so far…

At the heart of the degraded farmland comprising our idyllic Indiana homestead, encircled by native trees and smaller and smaller stands of bush honeysuckle, there lies a bustling vole metropolis, Vole City.

In Vole City, few plants or young trees are safe!

Kohlrabi plunges. Persimmons vanish. Runner beans wilt and expire.

Wild pea of Umbria? Vole food. Maximas and moschatas? Vole food. Perennial kale? You get the idea.

The citizens of Vole City only got into the raised beds a few seasons back, but have made a palpable impact on food production since then. The bipeds squatting beyond the outskirts of Vole City only started growing food outside of the raised beds in 2021, ramping things up in 2023. Enterprising rodent architects wasted no time in drawing up the municipal plans necessary to support volekind in flourishing in the new growing areas for generations to come.

Plants stopped thriving abruptly and died with no obvious signs of disease or malnutrition, appearing slanted or sunken with their lower parts missing. They disappeared miraculously down holes that seemed at best half as wide as the vanishing plants.

Runner beans, common beans, chickpea, lentil, turnip, kale, peas, and tomato are some of the known or presumed casualties. One of the most salient examples is the mighty Wild Pea of Umbria, of which I grew nearly half a pound from Adaptive Seed last year. Nearly every plant started strong and vigorous and grew easily. It appears every plant died before reaching maturity. Our largest pea patch seemingly spurred the rise of a new hip up-and-coming neighborhood in our thriving Vole City!

We do have natural predators in the area (owls, snakes, hawks) but it’s unclear to me how much of an impact they have. I believe other land-dwelling predators like foxes and weasels are unable to enter our property easily, if at all, because of our fencing. We are far enough from the city yet close enough to areas of denser human activity that I suspect people passively or actively drive off some of these natural predators. I’m sure our dogs do their fair share there too.

What I’d really like to do is provide the voles with something(s) we are growing that they like so much that they leave most of our food alone, or - - perhaps less likely - - easily grow so much that we still have plenty. Supporting these ideas, I found myself deeply inspired by Dan Barber’s account of an integrated aquaculture system in Spain (summarized in this TED talk).

I have become convinced that the same underlying principles can be applied to growing abundant food without intentionally harming any living creature at any scale and in many contexts, as I understand is already done in many permaculture and regenerative systems. This is a practice that is so far still theoretical to me, as my yields are not yet abundant nor do I currently have the ability to apply them in a scale or context different from my own. But I have taken to calling any system of practice compatible with this foundational idea - - which is an extremely old idea, not new or original - - ahimsa agriculture.

I am particularly keen on keeping voles off of our legumes and squash, which currently seem like their favorite roots to gnosh. I noticed that this year’s winter rye (planted both more numerous and nearer the denser Vole City neighborhoods than the previous season) was grazed very aggressively, making me hopeful that we could grow more cereal grasses to potentially fill this niche. Those are a lot of work to deal with at our scale anyway.

All other things being equal, I’d rather provide them with an above-ground source of food so I can observe the plants they feed on and make inferences about their numbers and behavior more easily.

Would appreciate any non-violent ideas, particularly those that don’t require lots of continual effort over time nor deliberately attract predators. If more predators naturally show up as a result of the interventions that’s okay - - we don’t live on the moon :full_moon:.


Can relate except we have water voles. They live entirely underground, and lately they have upgraded their game to the point where not even the entry holes can be seen because they can be tens of feet away from the actual plant vanishing into an underground black hole. Incredible little bitches.

What I’ve found so far is that fava bean roots are by far their favorite food, and early in the season, too. Later on, it is carrots, actually any and every root vegetable, but if there are favas around that’s the number one to go. I still grow favas on a mass scale but I must scout often. Entire plants full of beans “pulled up”, as if it had been human vandalism, but when you inspect the plant it has no roots.

Very few things that have worked so far. The only thing that reliably gets them is the Supercat trap that you dig down into the tunnel. If your voles are water voles, too, that is… And sorry, that was violent. I mean at some point I just have no other choice.

Another thing I must make sure of is never to have anything directly on the ground they can hide under. No wooden frames, no tarps to kill off weeds, not even piles of stuff on the ground. Even mulch can backfire but I must mulch, so…

I have tried:
– all kinds of scents, spraying around with essential oils, garlic, chili, pouring the same into their holes, pouring urine directly into holes. Marginal success, works for a few days, then they are back or simply make another tunnel.
– vibrating things, both these things you can buy and DIY solutions that are supposed to vibrate in the wind. They don’t bother. They get used to.
– we can’t have cats, dogs etc in the area as it’s not enlosed in any way.

What I am about to try is to place a pocket radio, one that can go for a LONG time on battery, into a closed jar which I dig down and set it to the craziest trash metal music you can find. It’s something I’ve read about. I guess you need to replace the battery often, though!

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More I can remember:

Cat/dog fur: didn’t work, they used it to line their nests with!

Fermented, stinky stuff like comfrey: a waste to pour into their holes but it works roughly like straight urine (for a few days)

Wrap lower stems in alu foil. Now this one did work for one entire summer. I wrapped fava stems including some underground part in foil. They hate to chew on that thing. They left favas alone that sumemr, but it was quite a job to do that individually, and a lot of scrap to collect at the end of the season.

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I fully agree with what Cathy says above. In my garden I have tried everything and the only solution that turned out to work was that kind of trap - Supercat. I use it only at the edge of my kitchen garden, I let voles to live elsewhere. With just two traps, set up actively and checked constantly, I have reduced the problem to the acceptable level. The trap is a violent solution though … My cat helps as well but she is not always there.

Thanks for your thoughts. We haven’t had luck with those ultrasonic doodads either, though it is possible they helped with the moles.

I had a brainwave a few hours after making this post.

Why am I assuming that the evolving system won’t adjust enough?

If my time horizon for improvement is within several growing seasons, why do I think I need to make big adjustments?

But perhaps most of all:
Why am I assuming the plants won’t figure it out?

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I too have a vole city. Last year was the worse, lost all my potatoes. I have created a little “garden within a garden”, a 20x20 area where I put hardware cloth (1/2 inch) down, with cinder blocks around it. On top of the cinder blocks, I put an electric line (powered by a solar powered zap machine), on top of the cinder block, I put aluminum tape (so if, somehow, the vole gets on top of the cinder block, he/she would make contact with the aluminum tape which works as the ground and the electric line, which will shock him/her). I put my vole-affected crops inside (potatoes, lava beans, some squash), everything else goes in my regular garden. So far so good.

I also have a patch of sunchokes, which they love, but somehow are unable to fully kill, not sure if this was a good idea, as it helps them through the winter and potentially causes the big vole population.


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I have experience with this issue too but I don’t know if I have any new wisdom about how to address it.

I have one cat that spends most days outdoors, plus established populations of black snakes, hawks, and owls. That is unfortunately not keeping an area of maybe 3/4 acres free from the voles constant depredation.

It is not uncommon while working in the garden for me to reach into dried “chop and drop” mulch and find either an adult vole running away, or a nest with baby voles.

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