Miriam Jabour in the Garden|Voles, chipmunks, mice can wreak havoc on tulip bulbs

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 11, 2008

The bounty of hardwood trees in Warren County provides food and shelter to a host of birds and small animals. Most of the time humans are able to coexist with wildlife quite peacefully, but small animals that love to munch on some of our favorite bulbs can disrupt our landscaping endeavors. Nothing is more upsetting to a gardener than to prepare the soil, plant splashes of colorful spring flowering tulips then find that many have been destroyed by wildlife.

Squirrels often are blamed for bulb damage. They do dig them up, and if a gardener is unaware of these actions then other animals including mice, voles, chipmunks and deer will eat them from the surface of the soil. Squirrels are interested in seeds and nuts. Local gardener Bobby Nasif thinks they inadvertently dig up a certain percentage of her tulips each winter in search of nuts that were buried earlier in the season. Nasif plants hundreds of tulips each fall but feels certain that none have ever been eaten by squirrels.

Moles get blamed for bulb damage. Where mole tunnels are evident and plant damage occurs nearby, the conclusion is often made that moles are the culprits. Not so. Moles are meat eaters not vegetation eaters. Their tunnels may disturb and knock over bulb plants but they do not eat bulbs. They eat grubs and insects. Treat the grub problem and the moles move on to better pickings. Although their tunnels are not attractive in a landscape, naturalist and author of “Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife,” David Mizejewski, says that they are not bad guys. They help to aerate the soil, which is good for your plants.

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Voles, mice and chipmunks are another story. All are rodents and can play havoc in a garden. They eat bulbs, bark, roots, fruit and entire plants according to Mizejewski. One of the best deterrents is to eliminate their habitat by keeping grassy areas well mowed, garden debris picked up and removing grass at least 2-3 feet from around tree trunks. All of these rodents will use mole tunnels to get around a yard but will also make their own tunnels. Cats are excellent deterrents as are birds of prey like hawks. These predators are nature’s way of keeping them in check. Rodents can also be trapped and removed from an area. According to voles.com, there are specific poisons called rodenticides to deal with these critters. They come in pellets and may contain either thiram or capsaicin which is the stuff that makes hot peppers hot. Many organic remedies rely on capsaicin to deter everything from insects to larger pests. Mizejewski states that nothing is foolproof and recommends planting more than you need in order to share with the critters.

An article in Gardening How-To magazine last October suggests planting bulbs that are less attractive to the palates of these little pests than tulips and crocus. Bulbs such as daffodils, alliums and fritillaries taste or smell bad and will generally be left alone. Other bulbs that tend to be less enticing that do well in our growing zone 8 include snowdrop, grape hyacinth, hyacinth, shamrock, snowflake, Spanish bluebell, squill and Star-of-Bethlehem.

If gardeners want to plant tulips and crocus and are concerned about critter problems, they can protect the bulbs with a barrier of chicken wire or hardware cloth, available at hardware or home and garden stores. It should be placed directly over the bulbs with edges tucked down into the soil 10-12 inches below the bulbs. After the bulbs are covered with soil, all bulb debris should be removed from the planting area because the smell will attract rodent pests to the site. Bulb Guard and Ropel are two of several products marketed to deter these animals. After bulbs are dipped into the product, they are supposed to taste and smell so bad that critters will leave them alone.

Nasif told me that she will still plant many tulips this year because of their beauty in the spring landscape but plans to plant daffodils in some areas that have included tulips in the past. She generally loses about 50 or so bulbs to critters each year and tulips require annual planting at what is always a very busy time for her immediately before Christmas. Daffodils contain a substance poisonous to all but certain insects so they are not bothered by critters and they will return year after year. Several good varieties for our area are Ice Follies, our number one naturalizer; Carlton, Mount Hood, Magnolia, Thalia, Tresemple, Avalanche and Primo, according to Dr. Snazzelle, Mississippi Daffodil Society and area expert on the subject.

Coming Events: Friday and Oct. 18 — Fall Flower & Garden Fest, Truck Crops Experiment Station at Crystal Springs, 9 am- 2 p.m. This is one of the largest home gardening shows in the southeastern United States. Event includes speakers, ethnic gardens, educational exhibits, plant and food vendors, plus the opportunity to see the test plots for an assortment of new ornamental plants and vegetables being evaluated for success in our growing zone. No charge to attend or for parking. For more info call 601-892-3731 or visit  HYPERLINK www.msstate.edu/dept/cmrec/fallgardenday.htm www.msstate.edu/dept/cmrec/fallgardenday.htm.

Oct. 18 and 19 — New Orleans Fall Garden Show, New Orleans Botanical Garden, Victory Avenue, City Park, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. This event will feature educational speakers, scarecrow trail, kids discovery area, plant sale and garden exhibits and a soil-testing lab. $6 adults, $3 kids (5-12), under 5 are free.  Sponsored by the Louisiana State University Ag Center in cooperation with the Metro Horticulture Foundation and the New Orleans Botanical Garden. For info contact Karen Blackburn at 504-838-1170 or kblackburn@agcenter.lsu.edu.

Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and master flower show judge, has been active with the Vicksburg Council of Garden Clubs for more than 20 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg, MS 39183.