I’ve been battling voles in my garden for quite awhile, hoping the ecosystem would balance out on its own. My yield of potatoes, sweet potatoes and peanuts would certainly increase if I had less vole damage. The neighbor’s cat occasionally patrols the garden, along with other natural predators. I stopped mulching my potatoes long ago to discourage voles. Still, that doesn't seem to be enough.
A few years ago I began planting daffodils around the perimeter of some of my garden beds. Supposedly daffodils are toxic to voles. Fall of 2010 I actually planted a whole bed in daffodils. Then in the spring I replaced some of the daffodils with potatoes. The voles found the potatoes anyway. The daffodils perk up the garden in early spring and I will keep them around, but it is going to take more than that to keep the voles away. I’ve also added castor plants to the garden to discourage voles. I don’t have any results on how effective that is, but the castor plants add a good amount of carbon biomass to the compost piles in the fall.
A friend of mine used to mulch his whole garden heavily and never had problems with voles — until his dog died. He hadn’t realized how valuable his dog was in controlling them. His garden never recovered from the voles that moved in by the time he sold that property. Dogs and cats can help keep the vole population in check.
I’ve discovered that voles love yellow-fleshed potatoes the best, so I no longer grow those. This year I compared 'Kennebec' and 'Butte' varieties. The voles liked the Buttes the best. Our daughter, Betsy, Lightfoot Gardening Coach, grew the 'Elba' and 'Red Norland'varieties. She also has losses from the voles and had twice the yield with 'Elba' varietiess as compared to the 'Red Norland' varieties. According to Cornell University, 'Elba' is currently the potato variety most resistant to late blight. 'Kennebec' has moderate levels of resistance. I don’t know if there is something there that also puts off voles, but next year I plan on growing 'Elba' and 'Kennebec' potatoes and comparing the yields.
I used a variety of techniques this year to deter the voles and you can read about them and the resulting yields at Homeplace Earth. The highest yield was in a planter constructed on top of the bed, three bricks high, with hardware cloth on the bottom. A brick planter like that the whole length of that bed would look nice. It is right next to the area we are developing as an outdoor kitchen and will be a winter harvest bed. Potatoes could go in after the winter crop. I might just get around to doing that, if enough bricks come my way, but I would really like to control voles without added infrastructure. Also, not everyone has the resources to construct planters. I’m having increasing luck by hilling the potatoes, rather than planting them on 12-inch centers intensively. Planting in two long hilled rows worked well for Betsy, also. My friend, Susan, likes the hilled rows better because they are easier to harvest. She's one of the gardeners in my garden plan video.
If my neighbor would stop feeding his cat, maybe it would catch more voles, but I doubt if that will happen. I don’t want to get a dog. So, my strategy for 2013 is to trap more voles during the winter, work with the potato varieties, do more cultivation and hilling, and play with different preceding cover crops. I want to develop natural systems and won’t be adding “stuff” to the garden to get rid of them. I vaguely remember buying something one year that took batteries and was supposed to send pulsing vibrations out to rid the garden of voles. That didn’t work. It is in understanding the ecosystem that we are part of, and working within it, that will be the answer. Wishing you success in your potato endeavors.
Photos by Cindy Conner