Gardening with Jennifer - Wildlife In The Garden: The Unsung Heroes, Part 1 - Moles

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

by Jennifer Rotermund

If you’re into wildlife gardening like I am, your garden probably includes an array of native plants that produce berries for the birds, a combination of native and non-native plants that produce flowers for a variety of bees, and you probably even have a plant or two that produce flowers specifically attractive to Hummingbirds. 

There’s at least one bird bath type contraption (or water feature) and any number and shape of bird feeders hanging from tree branches or mounted on posts or stuck to a window positioned just right for you to observe as closely as possible.

Birds - bees - bats - dragonflies - tree frogs
If it's the birds you especially love to have around, you’ve more than likely hung at least one bird house - purchased at the local specialty store, made of untreated wood, and without a landing peg, thank you very much! If bees are your thing, and you’re not already a backyard beekeeper, I’m guessing you’ve studied up on those cute little solitary Mason Bees and know when to clean out their tubes or the box they call home, when to refrigerate them and for how long, and you know just which kind of predatory wasp larvae feeds on them - and are saddened each time that happens. You love bats? There’s a rocket box near the roof line of your house, I’m sure! Lately, I’ve been fantasizing about a small pond in my back yard to keep dragonfly larvae and perhaps (if I’m lucky) encourage some nearby Pacific Treefrog to, well, stay nearby.

Then there’s the category of critters that get a bum rap because they’re known more for the destruction they cause or the havoc they wreak, rather than the benefit they provide. 

Townsend's Mole. Photo by Jerry Kirkhart.
Moles stand out for me as dominating this category. I’ve always thought moles were cute, and before I was a homeowner, I never gave them a second thought. Afterall, who has to worry about mole-hill mounds popping up through a lawn or garden bed when they’re renting a second story apartment? It was when they started to make their presence known in my own front yard that I began to take notice and was interested in becoming better acquainted with this new little neighbor of mine. 

Knowing how infamously difficult it is to rid one’s yard of moles, I set out to see if there was anything beneficial about them - plus I’ve found that its much easier to explain away my neglect to the neighbors, as long as I have an intelligent-sounding justification. 

So I was particularly interested when, at a conference on sustainable lawn care I recently attended, one of the leading local lawn care company owners ended his presentation by saying, “And then there’s the issue of moles. You won’t get rid of them, no matter what you do. So, you might as well get used to them. After all, if you have moles, it means you have good soil!”

It was that last sentence that stuck with me because it occurred to me that the connection between moles and good soil works in two ways: 1) moles are drawn in by (among other things living in the soil) earthworms! Therefore, the presence of moles means you have good life in your soil, which is very beneficial for the health of your plants, and 2) as moles tunnel through the ground, they aerate the soil, pulling organic material down and pushing important minerals up towards the surface and within reach of our plants. Happily, most moles are only interested in worms and insects - not our plants - and are continually mobile (especially in the Spring when male moles are eagerly seeking a mate). If you leave them alone (I simply rake out the unsightly little mole-hills), they’re more likely to move right on through from your yard, to your neighbor’s yard and right on down the street.

The bigger problem is not the moles themselves, but the fact that the tunnels they dig provide direct access for the critters that will eat garden plants - voles, mice, rats, and pocket gophers. But, herein lies the beauty of wildlife gardening! I could throw my hands in the air exasperated by the fact that garden-ownership means I’ll be forever chasing down, trapping, and actively ridding my yard of pests, thanks to the moles, or I could could thank the moles for the beautiful tilling work they do for my soil and for the extra food they bring in for the larger predators who are integral to the health of wildlife in our urban areas. Yes, I have moles in my yard - and I’ve seen an occasional rat or two in my backyard - but the other day, I also witnessed a Falcon (one of several natural predators of moles and other little, furry creatures in our yards) land in my apple tree about 30 feet from the kitchen window through which I watched it scour the ground for live food. 

Perhaps I’m a lazy gardener because I tend to let life be as it wants to be around my yard, but I prefer to think of myself as a gardener working to restore the balance of nature to an area where we humans have worked so hard in the past to suppress it. As far as I’m concerned, the moles are a more than welcome addition to my yard!

Jennifer Rotermund is the owner of Gaiaceous Gardens (an urban farming & wildlife gardening business with a teaching garden/urban farm and certified wildlife habitat located in Shoreline) and is certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a Habitat Steward.

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