What To Do About Deer and Voles

by Jan Cashman

We, along with many of you, have deer and voles in our yard and garden. Both are destructive to plants. There is no easy solution to keep them away from plants we value. But there are ways to lessen their damage.

VOLES, also called meadow or field mice, are rodents with stocky bodies and short tails. They are found where there is a dense ground cover of grasses, plants, or litter. In the fall, they move into our yards and gardens from adjoining fields as their food source decreases. One to two inch holes in the ground mark the openings of their underground tunnel systems. You can see their runways above ground, too, where the grass has been eaten. Voles do much of their damage under the snow in the winter, gnawing the bark of trees and shrubs, especially spreading junipers and young fruit trees. If they girdle the bark through the cambium layer, the tree will likely die above the girdling.

There is no simple and sure way to get rid of the voles in your yard. Vole populations fluctuate in 2 to 5 year cycles. The last few years have seen a lot of them. An old-fashioned, hard winter might reduce their numbers.

When voles moved back into the perennial garden near our house in August, we tried trapping them, using peanut butter for bait. I put the traps in their runways where the grass meets the flower bed. In one week I had trapped 13, but after that, even though I still see voles there, I haven’t caught any more. Cats make good vole catchers. Some dogs will catch them, too.

Voles like tall grass so keep your lawn mowed short, especially the last mowing in the fall. Rake leaves and litter from under trees which will also help eliminate harmful insects that might overwinter there. Wrap fruit trees in the fall with a wrap voles cannot chew through. Make sure the wrap goes below the soil level so none of the bark next to the ground is exposed. At their worst, voles tunnel in the soft soil under a tree and destroy its root system.

Repellents are available which provide short term protection from voles, but need to be reapplied often. Poison baits containing zinc phosphide work but need to be kept away from birds and pets that might eat the bait. We put the poison bait in a 2″ PVC pipe that the voles can run through but bigger animals cannot. Although most poisoned voles die below ground, a dead vole could be a risk to other animals and birds that might eat them.

To discourage DEER from eating your plants, the only sure solution is a 6 foot fence around individual trees or your whole yard. But, there are other solutions that can make a difference:

There is a long list of annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees that are “deer resistant” plant them in your gardens . Deer don’t touch my allysum, marigolds, snapdragons, zinnias, monkshhod, artemesias, bleeding heart, echinacea, foxglove, catmint, peony, poppies, rudbeckia, salvias, and Russian sage. They avoid herbs and ornamental grasses. Deer love to nibble on tulips, but they won’t touch daffodils. They also stay away from allium, a hardy and interesting perennial planted from a bulb in the onion family.

Deer don’t usually eat spruce and firs. Junipers are not their favorite, although the native junipers west of Butte have been eaten as far up as the deer can reach. Arborvitaes are one of their favorite foods; we have to fence ours every fall and keep them fenced till spring or deer will eat all their foliage. Deer also like to eat Scotch and Austrian pines, but usually avoid ponderosa and lodgepoles. If you live in a high deer area, fence your mountain ash, maples, and fruit trees against them.

Roses, even though they are thorny, are a favorite food of deer. Barberry, caragana, honeysuckle, lilac, potentilla, ninebark, and viburnums are shrubs less favored by them.

The foul smell and taste of commercial repellents keep deer away, but reapply often, especially after precipitation. Other household remedies can deter deer. I have sprinkled blood meal around my tulips when they first come up in the spring which seems to stop the deer from nipping the fresh new leaves of the bulbs. Some homeowners hang bars of strong-smelling soap or net bags of human hair in their trees to deter the deer.

Fall is a bad time for deer damage, when the bucks rub their antlers on tree trunks, so wrap young trees before this happens.

Gardening in Montana can be a challenge. Between the weather, the deer, rodents, weeds, and insects, it is amazing we get anything to grow. But if you use the right plants and are diligent with protection, you can conquer these adversaries and have a beautiful garden.