It can be upsetting for a gardener or homeowner to see mounds of turned soil and sinuously trailing lumps in a lawn that has taken a lot of human care and maintenance over a long, hot summer. Tunneling moles! It can be hard to realize that the little critters, which in the eastern United States most likely go by the name Scalopus aquaticus, are in fact paying you a compliment by visiting your yard to partake of your tasty vittles. You apparently have grubs and earthworms in abundance, signs of a healthy lawn ecosystem, and the moles have appeared to take advantage of the situation.
When moles eat earthworms, they may not be doing you such a great favor since earthworms enhance soil fertility, but they definitely help out by eating the grubs which would otherwise be munching on the roots of your carefully tended grass. There is collateral damage certainly, such as some brown patches in the lawn where the moles have damaged grass roots in their zealous search for grubs, and also the unsightliness to human eyes of the lumps they raise in the lawn because of their tunneling. Rest easy, because the tunnels aerate the soil and will settle back in time.
In Chapter 3 of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, called “The Wild Wood”, timid Mole ventures out on his own into the woods and has a scary time. Illustration from the 1913 edition by Paul Bransom.
Lawn aerator attachment on a garden tiller. Photo by Lovesgreenlawn. Moles happily do the same work at no charge.
People attribute a lot of the damage they see in their plants and bulbs to moles, but really the damage is mostly the work of voles and shrews. Most moles are mostly insectivorous: they usually don’t eat plants. Voles and shrews, on the other hand, will eat just about anything given the chance, though they largely stick to a vegetarian diet. Voles and shrews will also take advantage of the tunnels that moles industriously create. This can make little difference to a gardener who notices a tunnel leading to a freshly planted tulip bed. Arguing before the court of that gardener’s censorious gaze that a mole excavated the tunnel in innocent pursuit of grubs, but it was the voles and shrews who exploited its proximity to the tulip beds to pad their own provisions, often makes no headway with the gardener, who declares war on the oblivious mole.
Traps, poisons, and medieval implements of execution are all pointless and expensive wastes of time and money. You have what moles want, and if after much effort and expense you manage to remove your nemesis from the premises, another will come along shortly to take his or her place. Taking away what the moles want, which means negating the naturally derived soil fertility that earthworms and grubs dig, would involve essentially turning your lawn into the soulless desert waste of a golf course. Green above by virtue of chemicals, but below, in the soil, the home of practically no creatures.
Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, Jack Haley as The Tin Man, Ray Bolger as The Scarecrow, Bert Lahr as The Cowardly Lion, and Terry the dog, as Toto, in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.
Let the moles be, and thank them for their service. Watch out for the voles and shrews, however, and do what you can to mitigate the damage they cause. Get a cat, if that is suitable for you and the cat, and the neighborhood you both live in. Meanwhile, keep mulch and, if possible, snow away from tree trunks, because that denies cover to those creatures while they gnaw at the bark. Clean up leaf litter and brush piles where it seems sensible that these are nesting places and cover for runways. Most of all, let the grass grow to 3 or 4 inches, which should keep the lawn healthier overall, and make those lumps in the lawn less noticeable and not worth fretting about.
Every gardenerwill at one time or other have to contend with wildlife or neighborhood pets causing problems in their yard and garden. Vegetable gardens are especially apt to be browsed by wildlife, obviously, and the legal options for backyard gardeners in coping with unwelcome visitors are much more limited than the options available to a farmer whose livelihood is at stake. Today as in the past a farmer can dispose of a varmint chewing up his or her crops with a well-aimed shot from a .22 caliber rifle and law enforcement or neighbors are unlikely to interfere. That option is not generally available to the urban or suburban gardener tending a small plot in close proximity to neighbors’ houses.
What is a varmint?A varmint is any animal whose survival habits conflict with your own, just like a weed is a plant out of place. Some people are thrilled to see deer browsing in their back yard, at least for a while, but to others those same deer have long since crossed over into varminthood after they have eaten hostas down to the ground, nibbled away rosebuds on the cusp of bloom, and used their antlers to rub the bark off young fruit trees, killing them. Garden enemies are not limited to deer, although they are probably at the top of most peoples’ lists, and a by no means complete catalog of varmints would for most folks have to include groundhogs (woodchucks), gophers, rabbits, rats, mice, voles, moles, chipmunks, skunks, dogs, cats, poisonous snakes, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, inattentive drivers, and unsupervised children.
Bill Murray as a golf course groundskeeper in the 1980 movie Caddyshack plots the destruction of the gophers who have been disfiguring the fairways and greens.
For some of these varmints, the critter kind, there are no shortage of chemical and mechanical repellents manufactured by companies eager to help out a distressed gardener and incidentally make a buck on a continuing basis, because all of them require regular re-application or constant tweaking to keep up their effectiveness. Gardeners who have wised up to this laborious and expensive treadmill may look instead to fencing, the only truly effective solution, though effective only in the sense of diminished and insecure expectations. No fence is a 100% effective deterrent for all critters at all times in all situations, as any convict will tell you, although in this case the malefactors seek to break in rather than out.
Some gardenerswill try to remove the problem from the garden by relocating it, or by hiring someone to do so. Although this practice is illegal nearly everywhere, the gardener can feel smugly humane about it. Unfortunately, it is a poor strategy for everyone concerned. The varmint, let’s say a groundhog, is trapped in a humane trap, but sometimes the animal injures itself in some way in its panic to escape. Injury to a wild animal is often a slow death sentence. The gardener, or his or her proxy, then takes the groundhog out to some countrified place and releases it, feeling good about him or herself, even if the groundhog begs to differ. This is likely another slow death sentence for the groundhog, because for one thing it is not familiar with the new territory, and for another the territory, if it is any good, is likely already occupied by another groundhog or two who will not treat an interloper kindly. The gardener then, with a warm and fuzzy feeling brought on by reflecting on the newfound happiness of the groundhog he or she has just released to frolic in fields of daisies in the countryside, returns home where another groundhog from a neighboring yard eyes the newly unoccupied territory and its fresh crop of tasty vegetation.
There are all sorts of other strategiesfor dealing with varmint pressure on the garden, such as companion plantings or planting only things offensive to them. It can seem the options come down to living in a fenced-in or foul-smelling compound, or giving up on planting old garden favorites like roses and daylilies. There is another option involving compromise and a relinquishing of control, and in the end it may be the only sensible option whether the gardener is willing to acknowledge it or not. It doesn’t mean giving up, but merely giving in where other options are inhumane, or too expensive or unsightly, or just plain idiotic insistence on controlling every little thing. The critters – varmints, if you insist – have just as much right to be here as we do, and that’s true whether you want to acknowledge it or not. Putting up a fight is fine, but try to retain perspective on who is supposed to be the rational creature capable of long-term, ethical considerations. ― Izzy
One of the Varmint Cong, or a Beloved Creature? A white tailed deer fawn, Odocoileus virginianus, in Raleigh, North Carolina; photo by Clay Heaton.