Finally, cool temperatures have arrived for which this gardener is most thankful. If you are new to our area and have been enjoying this prolonged time of warm weather, you might not be considering the impact on the coastal environment. Our mild winters usually provide a few cold days of respite, but the continued mild weather has allowed the world of insects to swell its population, increasing its numbers of mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and no-see-ums as well as those pests that attack the garden, including aphids, spider mites, scale, white fly, slugs, snails, stink bugs and various species of caterpillars. Vigilance will be a key part of successful gardening this spring.
A visit into the vegetable garden after traveling over the holidays is always a great stress reliever for me but my walk has led to the discovery that moles and voles have been having a field day. Both are small, tunneling mouse-like mammals. Herbivorous voles, kin to lemmings and hamsters, look like field mice. They attack small plants, stripping the bark from the trunk of young trees and girdling them. Voles will feed on roots underground and their tunnels tend to be close to the soil surface. Both feeding activities can cause damage or death to the plant. If they happen to stumble on a bulb of a paper white, amaryllis or daffodil, they’ll feast on it as well. Voles will eat most any species of nut or fruit and dead animals if necessary. Their burrows look like holes in the lawn or around bases of trees and noticeable gnaw marks can be seen on young stems of woody plants and small trees. Uplifted, dead plants lack roots. I saw signs of vole feeding on newly emerging carrots and onions. Leaves were chewed to ground level on both.
Moles have very poorly developed eyes but a keen sense of touch and smell. Using a sensitive snout and long, clawed digits, they dig miles of tunnels in a garden, seemingly overnight. They can dig at a rate of 18 feet per hour. Most moles are insectivores, busy in search of a variety of ground insects, grubs, centipedes and earthworms to eat. They leave behind a mound of soil. Although we gardeners find them to be pests because their tunneling separates roots from contact with the soil, often upheaving small plants completely, they actually do us good by eating harmful insects while aerating the soil.
You can humanely trap these two varmints with live traps (a tricky endeavor; proper placement is the key) or by using natural repellants such as capsaicin (chopped hot peppers in water with biodegradable dish soap) or castor oil (three parts oil to one part dish soap missed into a gallon of water and poured into tunnel entrances; they dislike the smell and taste). You can also purchase repellants in liquid or granular form. Follow the label directions. If you are desperate, call in a professional.
My walk didn’t just find the presence of moles and voles. There were also signs of slugs and snails. Both belong to the mollusk family which includes oysters, clams and squid. Snails have shells; slugs do not. Both eat plants, one bite at a time, leaving behind large holes and rough edges across the surface of the leaf, reducing yield. No gardener likes to share their lettuce and other leafy vegetables with them. Means of control can include 1) bait (snails love beer and can be drawn to a shallow dish of it where they hopefully will imbibe, fall in and drown – or you can buy bait at the store), 2) traps (store-bought or a homemade one using an inverted cantaloupe or grapefruit half, which emits a scent attracting a snail and traps it underneath); 3) barriers and repellants including diatomaceous earth, coarse substances like ground up egg shells or sandpaper, 1-2% solution of caffeinated coffee grounds, or store-bought calcium chloride spray; 4) plantings of aromatic herbs and plants such rosemary, sage, lantana, society garlic, geranium around the garden perimeter; 5) vigilance and hand removal of the pests when you see them.
My next steps were to the snow peas, ready for picking. At least I didn’t find aphids yet. I’ll have to keep checking! Kale, collards, broccoli and beets were doing well. My last observation, which should have been my first if I’d been looking up and not so focused on the numerous critter tunnels, was the realization that the peach trees were in bloom – this is concerning as it is very early. With the warm weather, the bees from hives in the garden were actively collecting pollen. I’m just not sure that fruit set and development will continue if we see any severe drop in temperatures. Last year, the garden had no fruit set because a cold snap came in March after the flower buds broke open and the bees didn’t emerge in enough time to pollinate the flowers. There’s nothing like the flavor from biting into a freshly picked Georgia Tropical Snow peach. Time will tell.
Next week I’ll tackle the annual pruning of the muscadine grape vines. I haven’t mastered the technique of growing bunches of grapes but I’m good at growing leaves and stems. I’ve recruited my arborist husband for advice – he has spent several seasons in Israel in February helping with their grape pruning. Maybe his pruning methods can coax these vines into producing fruit this year!