Q: How can I vole-proof my garden? - Jay, Gardiner

A: Voles are small, chunky, ground-dwelling rodents. Mature voles are 5 to 7 inches long and have stocky bodies, short legs, and short tails. Voles are frequently mistaken for moles and mice. Moles have greatly enlarged front feet, with prominent digging claws. Moles also have no external ears and very small eyes.

The distinction between voles and mice is less obvious. The best way to distinguish them is by tail length. Mice have long tails that extend nearly half their body length, whereas voles have short tails.

Voles are a serious problem in Ulster County gardens this year. Voles prefer a light, loamy soil. They live primarily in a series of connecting underground tunnels that are usually less than a foot deep. Entrance holes 1-2 inches in diameter may be noticed in gardens, home orchards, near trees and shrubs, or in plant beds. There is a spongy feeling while walking on ground from numerous subsurface tunnels.

The subterranean habits of voles make controlling these animals difficult. Occasionally they will come above ground to forage on vegetation. The principal foods are listed as bulbs, tubers, seeds and bark, but Ulster County has also seen them damage roses, fruit trees, tulip bulbs, ornamental trees, shrubs, and flowers as well as vegetable garden plants. They love to eat the tender roots.

Voles require vegetation or other cover in order to survive. By eliminating or reducing this cover one reduces their preferred foods, exposes them to predators, and exposes the animals to severe weather. In gardens the mulch around plants may serve as an excellent cover for the voles. Deep mulch in gardens and plant beds should be reduced and/or avoided where voles are known to be problems.

Certain mulches are more likely to attract voles than others. Avoid using mulches which have fine or small particle sizes. Large-sized crushed-stone mulch and pine bark mulch may reduce vole tunneling. Plastic and landscape fabric mulches can actually increase vole populations and subsequent damage. Tree guards constructed from 1/4-inch mesh, galvanized hardware cloth, can prevent voles from girdling trees. Guards should allow enough room for 5 years of tree growth, and should be driven several inches into the ground (without injuring tree roots.) Be sure to overlap the hardware cloth where you tie it together and do not leave cracks where voles can get in. Check these periodically to be sure they are not restricting the growth of the trunk. Burying the hardware cloth around raised beds and gardens to a depth of six inches will keep them out of these areas. Bulbs can be protected by lining the hole with wire mesh, sharp rocks or other materials that will discourage vole digging. This creates a barrier to protect the bulbs until spring.

Q: Should I have my soil pH tested now, or should I wait until I’m ready to plant, in the spring? - Sarah, Kerhonkson

A: Fall is a good time to have your soil tested because the weather is more settled than in the spring, you’ll have time to let the amendments you add work into the soil and soil labs are not as busy.

To prepare a soil sample, take a trowel and collect four to six soil samples from different locations in your garden or lawn and mix them together. Allow the sample to dry and bring it into your Extension office in a sealed container. Only a small amount of soil is needed for testing. Most Extension offices charge a nominal fee for this service.

Adjusting fertility and adding lime is often done best in the fall, giving the supplements time to work through the soil and be ready for gardening in the spring. If you wait to test the soil the day before you garden, you won't have the results back before you begin gardening. Also, the nutrients from fertilizers will not be as available to the plant, or, worse, could burn plant roots if applied too close to planting.

The soil pH, a measurement that expresses the degree of acidity or alkalinity of the soil, is a major characteristic that affects the nutrient availability and plant growth. For most plants, a near-neutral or slightly acid soil is ideal for normal growth. There are a few exceptions, including azaleas, blueberries and camellias, which prefer a strong to slightly acid soil. A soil test will give the existing soil pH and adjustments can be made by applying certain materials to the soil.

Dona M. Crawford is the Master Gardener coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension Ulster County.