“Dry” describes this years’ conditions so far, at Barefoot Permaculture Orchard & Gardens, in the southern Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina, USA. Although we collect roof rainwater by intercepting at the downspouts, in this dry growing season, it’s never enough.
Our highest use of collected rainwater is for our plant starts; many from saved seeds. Once these seedlings are in the ground, other than their initial watering, we must use city water (chlorinated) to keep them alive between the scanty rains. (Our plants do not thrive on city water, but it does keep them alive).
Counterintuitively, most of our perennials and annuals are looking good: dry conditions can hold disease issues at bay (at least until humidity increases). Mid-July’s 1& 1/2″ rain brought some relief, as well as aggressive mosquitos and humidity.
Suddenly, tomatoes, heavy with green fruit, began showing signs of early and late blight.
Moisture issues notwithstanding, a major issue profoundly affecting Barefoot Gardens are the “over-the-top” populations of Pine Voles ( Microtus pinetorum ): a below-ground dwelling, mouse-like rodent, with a truncated tail, and a huge appetite for plant roots.
Unlike Moles ( Scapanus spp.) whose tunnelings result in raised lifting of the soil, vole tunnels cannot be visually identified. As of 2 years ago, when the vole population skyrocketed, whenever I notice a plant (annual or perennial) looking a little wilted or canted (off center), I drop to my knees alongside the plant, and thrust my fingers into the soil within 5” (or so) of the stem, and probe for vole tunnels. These horizontal runs are usually 2”-5” deep, and run towards the plant.
Often, in cases of severe damage, I find multiple tunnels. On these occasions, it takes all I can do to save the plant; be it a tomato or a 15 year old Apple tree.
In the case of the apple (winter damaged), there were not enough roots remaining to support budding out the above ground tree. I cut the 6 “ diameter stem to 8” in height, and grafted on several different varieties of apple. There was enough root remaining to activate one graft, so instead of a total loss, where there was once a maturing Enterprise, there now stands a young Limbertwig.
In both cases (annual and perennial), the first response is threefold: collapse the tunnels (maybe fill them with small, sharp rocks); water the root area copiously; and feed the root zone with a seaweed solution (rejuvenates and aids root growth).
Whenever I teach “Home Orcharding” classes, I recommend with any planting, and especially for fruits, to (at the same time), plant garlic cloves in the plant hole; ringing the stem around 5”-7” out, every 2”. (This garlic to never to be harvested; for protection only).
Whenever we find a vole-made opening (for occasional exit/entry) We set out, immediately next to the hole, a mousetrap baited with peanut butter, and cover trap and hole with a dark bucket (to keep out light). From one run, we have caught as many as 8 voles over a 2 day period.
After all the damages (many plant deaths and set-backs) committed by voles, I have to admit feeling some pleasure to lift up a bucket and find a caught vole half eaten by its’ fellows.
Living in relationship with an urban oasis is absolute delight; yet this too has drawbacks.
Last year, while standing off to the side of our Montmorency Pie Cherry, and noticing 2 Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) fly into our site, for some unknown reason the veils temporarily lifted, and I was able to understand bird language. One said “wow! look at all this wild food”!
I immediately responded (in English) “NO! This is not wild! We planted and care for these fruits!
Alas, the veils already closed: they did not hear me…