In Praise of Weeding

by Bob Shaw, EMGV

Weeds, I once thought, are a curse. Perhaps the Lord, looking down on Carolina and musing that it was just too nice, sent Gabriel to bring us extra hot weather and especially bountiful crops of weeds[1]. I still think weeds are a curse but have found with them, now and then, a little satisfaction. 

Time is important. Before I retired I weeded when I could, but I was often away and, by mid-July, had surrendered my yard and gardens and, when I passed by them, looked the other way. Now I have time to keep after weeds and have discovered a sort of tipping point:  After several years of faithful but not obsessive weeding, I now hold the weeds at bay and mid-summer no longer looks so bad.

During weeding, one can pass into an agreeable meditative state or one can wear a portable radio and multitask. One can relax. A serious mistake is unlikely unless you are weeding someone else’s yard and, anyway, nature is so forgiving.

I don’t eschew herbicides; but use them sparingly – on that dratted Bermuda grass, say.  Some weeds, especially after rain, come out, root and all, rather easily;  crabgrass, the promiscuous Japanese stilt grass, and henbit for example. And getting down close to the ground to weed shows us so much more; the weeds themselves and their habits, occasional interesting bugs (very useful if we discover a trail of ants about to foray into our house). Early this spring, during weeding, I found myriads of beautiful red and black box-elder bugs under our maples. Sometimes, joy of joys, we may encounter a really good bug, perhaps a praying mantis.

Let’s give weeds their due – remarkable, aren’t they? Looking over a bed that seemed, at first, weed free, I spot a weed and, pulling it up, spot another close by. Soon, a forest of weeds has appeared where none seemed to be just a minute before. And how do they spring up so promptly after a rain? Coexistence isn’t an option – weeds, like Japanese beetles, don’t know about sharing.

In life we seek positive results. And so it is with weeding:  What is more positive than standing up from a pile of rooted-up weeds and admiring an immaculate garden bed?  Even better, sometimes one can put that pile into the compost bin and turn it into useful stuff.2  If only the rest of life were like that.

Photo captions, clockwise from upper left: Box-elder bug (credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,, henbit, Japanese stiltgrass, Bermuda grass.


1 Lucifer may have participated.  If lawns are in hell, they are planted in Bermuda grass.  And a close reading of Job would surely turn up a reference to Bermuda grass.

2 Avoid composting weeds if they have begun producing seeds.  NC Extension Gardener Handbook, What not to compost

Photo credits

Voles, Ugh!

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

I should have known I’d have voles in my garden this Spring. Afterall, I had a mole last fall. It left behind underground tunnels. When I began to dig around in my perennial beds in March I could feel the spongy soil at the surface along the tunnel lines. A warning sign was right there in front of my eyes! But I was preoccupied with doing all the garden chores that come with spring including enthusiastically adding new plants.

A brief summary on moles vs. voles. Moles are meat eaters. They swim through the soil a foot or more below the surface and consume insects, grubs, worms, and spiders in their path. This action can disturb the root systems of plants in their way which may harm the plants, but won’t necessarily destroy the plants. Voles are vegetarians. Two species of  vole are found in central NC. I probably have pine voles  (Microtus pinetorum) which use the tunnels left vacant by a mole to reach bulbs, tubers and roots of plants, trees and shrubs to eat. Voles will also eat stems and fruits. The herbaceous plants they pick have little chance of survival. Moles work alone; voles work in groups of several adults and young.

As I continued with my spring gardening, I began to take notice of once healthy perennials and annuals suddenly showing signs of decline. Thinking it might be too hot and dry too soon in the season, I watered more, placed a shade tent over a new Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, and hoped for the best as I turned my attention toward the myriad other tasks on my garden’s “to do” list. A short time later the plants I had on my ‘watch’ list began to flop over and reveal … the dreaded vole hole.


Had I resumed gardening with more awareness this spring, I may have taken some strategic actions to deter voles from staying in my garden. Voles feed all year. Damage to woody plants is greatest in winter. So, better late than never – I acted in June and will keep my defenses up.  

Here are some actions to consider, beginning with those deemed most effective by Extension resources:

  • Trap voles with mousetraps baited with apple slices or peanut butter. Be aware that a depredation permit is required to trap voles and you may attract and kill shrews with traps. So before expressing glee at a capture, understand how to identify between the two. Shrews have pointier snouts and shorter tails than voles. Trapping is the only way to positively identify the animal that is doing the damage. I have assumed that I have pine voles because meadow voles typically live in grassy habitats at ground level, however, meadow voles sometimes burrow underground, too.  (Distinguishing features of each are noted in the first link under Further Reading.)  When handling dead rodents and traps, wear disposable gloves and wash hands well afterward. Bury the dead rodents immediately.
  • Invite predators. Voles live a few inches underground which provides protection from their wild predators: Snakes, owls, hawks, crows, weasels, foxes and coyotes. Building a lookout perch can help crows, hawks and owls scan the landscape for voles. I have noticed more crows than usual in my yard this year; in the future this could be a warning sign for me. Of note, a pet cat is one of the best predators of voles.
  • Reduce their habitat. Laying three inches of mulch in your landscaped beds is great for shutting out weeds and helping the soil stay cool and moist, but it also provides great cover for voles. Woody groundcovers like juniper and fabric weed barriers act similarly. Use one-inch of mulch and commit to stay on top of weeding chores (easier said than done). Also, in the fall, rake fallen leaves away from the base of trees and shrubs.
  • Protect trunks of younger trees and shrubs with wire mesh. (Guards made of other materials are not as effective.) Embed cylindrical wire guards up to three inches into the soil at the tree base. Guards should be taller than average snow level. These are easier to install at planting time, and damage to tree roots is also less likely if these are installed at planting.
  • Get sharp. Surround new plantings with coarse gravel. And, place small piles of pea gravel around the base of fruit trees to prevent chewing by voles. This is another action that falls under habitat renovation. It dissuades voles from sticking around because scurrying around among hard material with pointy ends is uncomfortable.
  • Water in a repellent.  Much like commercial sprays formulated to deter deer, rabbit or squirrels from munching on plant foliage, similar products coat the roots of plants in distasteful substances. To reach the roots, you sprinkle grains of repellent on the soil surface then water well. The repellent is made from natural ingredients.   
  • There are chemical solutions termed rodenticides; they require a license to use.

It’s hard to believe that a few small rodents can do much damage to a garden, especially to established trees and shrubs. Voles are a mighty force of nature. They can kill trees by eating the bark at ground level. This is called girdling and it removes the tree’s phloem thus preventing the leaves from transporting food to the roots. Over time, the tree will die.  

Ah, but hope springs eternal. While watering in a round of vole repellent one day, I noticed a small sprig of sedum making its way through the soil surface. Evidently, some fragment of root escaped being munched by the voles and is yearning to live.

Sources & Further Reading

Reducing vole damage. This link includes illustrations useful in identifying mouselike rodents.

NC pesticide law and regulations:

About depredation permits:

All photos by A. Laine

July 13 class canceled

Please note: The Managing Pests in Your Yard and Garden class scheduled for Saturday, July 13 at For Garden’s Sake nursery in Durham has been cancelled.

This class would have covered Integrated Pest Management (IPM) an approach that uses knowledge about pests and their life cycles, cultural practices, nonchemical methods, and pesticides to manage pest problems.

Learn about IPM from these NC State Extension resources:

Chapter 8 of the Extension Master Gardener Handbook:

This article from TurfFiles is about insects and other pests you may encounter in caring for your lawn. Scroll to the bottom of its page and you’ll see links to fact sheets on 30 different insects commonly found in lawn and gardens. The fact sheets include pictures to aid in identification.

Learn With Us, week of July 7

Canceled: PESTS – For Garden’s Sake Nursery Saturday, July 13, 2019 10:00 – 11:00 am

For Garden’s Sake 9197 NC-751, Durham, NC 27713

Managing PESTS in your yard & garden. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a research-based process you can use to help solve pest problems while minimizing risks to people, useful critters and the environment. Topics covered will include identifying some common local pests and how you can use the 5 major principles and practices of IPM to help maintain a healthy and happy landscape.

Free/Registration required
To register, email or call 919-484-9759

Durham County Cooperative Extension Improves Lives

Durham County Cooperative Extension creates opportunities for lifelong learning and connects residents with resources to improve quality of life. It is a part of NC Cooperative Extension, an educational partnership between counties and our land grant universities – NC State and NC A&T – and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bring forth research-based knowledge and services.

The mission of Cooperative Extension is to partner with communities to deliver education and technology that enrich the lives, land, and economy of North Carolinians. The Extension Master Gardener Volunteers, writers of this Blog, represent just one part of one program of Durham County Extension. Get to know the others so you can point your family, friends and neighbors to services that might be useful to them (or to you):   

4-H Youth Development – The 4 H’s stand for Head, Heart, Hands and Health. The program offers youth clubs, summer camps, special interest programs and life skill activities for  children and youth ages 5 to 19.  4-H works with organizations that request services or education workshops and can fine-tune their approach to the needs of the group.

Family and Consumer Sciences – Food and nutrition are the keywords for this program. The FCS agent helps some 60 families at Briggs Avenue Community Garden in East Durham to grow their own food in a safe and enriching environment. She also conducts workshops like Cook Smart Eat Smart where people learn better home-cooking techniques and trains food service industry workers via NC Safe Plates. Engage with FCS and learn to make sensible choices for a lifetime of health.

Welcome Baby – This family resource center offers emotional and practical family support, child development education, and prevention services designed to strengthen families and caregivers with young children ages 0 to 5 years. All services are offered in English and Spanish.

Transportation / Durham County ACCESS – County residents who are senior citizens or individuals with disabilities, as well as residents going to work or the general public in rural Durham County are eligible to receive safe and accessible transportation through ACCESS.

Community Outreach – This program serves youth and adults and builds community capacity that encompasses all program areas. Key programming includes: a multi-week training series that supports parents in navigating their public schools to help their child succeed (offered in English and Spanish), Kids Voting Durham which helps young people understand and believe in the power they have as active citizens and informed voters, and customized training and family services in caregiving, financial resource management, grandparent support, decision making and more.

Agriculture & Consumer Horticulture – Plant and animal producers and green industry professionals receive ongoing support in the form of direct consultation, workshops and classes and professional pesticide certification. Extension Master Gardener Volunteers educate consumers on plant care, landscaping, soil testing and management by answering specific questions via email or telephone, and conducting free workshops, classes and being present at community events.

“Through these program areas and the workshops, training, and services they provide, Cooperative Extension helps strengthen families and communities. We are dedicated to improving the quality of people’s lives,” says Donna Rewalt, Durham County Extension Director.

Contact Durham County Extension:  Located at  721 Foster Street in downtown Durham; Phone 919-560-0525; Website Instagram @durhamextension. Twitter @durhamextension. Programs are open to all Durham County residents and many are free or low cost.