Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Of gravel and voles

Time's marching on, and if I want to get my tire garden into plantable condition, I need to keep moving' on it. So today I borrowed our neighbor's tractor and moved some gravel.

Since getting the gravel delivered a few weeks ago, Don was too ill to do any tractor work (he's usually the heavy equipment operator). But this is an easy-to-use tractor, so I decided to tackle it myself.

I needed to move gravel on top of the vinyl tarps in the garden. The tarps, if you recall, are for weed control. The gravel is to anchor everything down, as well as cover the colorful vinyl. But I quickly discovered that shunting gravel through the rows of tires is more difficult than it looks. Make a note: next time, lay down the tarps and gravel before putting in the tires. (These tires were in place from last year, so we didn't have much choice.)

Don gave me a primer on bucket use. Throttle, levers, speed... I felt like I was 16 again and just learning to drive. My first attempt at scooping and moving gravel was so pathetically lame that Don climbed into the driver's seat and showed me how to do it. It was something he later regretted, as tractor work is NOT compatible with a catheter.

Nonetheless his example set me on my way, and I managed to do all right. However it certainly made me appreciate the skill and artistry with which Don handles the tractor! You should have heard me muttering directions to myself under the rumble of the engine: "Bucket low, throttle up, PUNCH IT, lift bucket, tip back..." Every time. Seemed to help.

Anyway, in theory the girls' job was to spread the gravel as I dumped it. However we rapidly realized this wasn't going to work. The gravel was devilishly heavy, and I could dump far faster than they could rake. So we developed a pattern where I'd dump two or three loads, then hop off the tractor and tackle spreading with the girls. We originally thought we'd spread the gravel about two inches thick; that rapidly changed to spreading the gravel thinner, the goal being to merely cover the colorful vinyl. The gravel is certainly heavy enough that the wind wouldn't whip the vinyl away.

When laying down a new tarp, it was necessary to anchor it so it wouldn't blow away in the wind before I could get travel on it. The girls accomplished this by lying down full length. Hey, whatever works.

Here's one thing we learned: do NOT lay tarps down before we're ready to put on the gravel. The reason is, voles will set up entire metropolises underneath. We decided to move a tarp that Don and I had laid down a few weeks ago, and low and behold dozens of voles were underneath, tunneling into the compressed grass and the dirt. Here the girls are watching the voles scamper away.

Voles are common in our area and there's not much we can do about them. They're cute, though.

The kids ended up scooping up some babies and moving them elsewhere. It was a good thing they did, because the tractor unfortunately squished a few of the voles that didn't move out of the way fast enough. My compassionate girls were distressed by this, but it was unavoidable.

Once we decided merely to shunt the gravel but save the raking for later, the kids had a lot of waiting time between loads.

Here the kids are capturing a tarp that went billowing away with a wind gust. I juuuust missed photographing the dramatic moment where it was puffed out like a kite and was ready to go airborne.

By the end of a couple hours' work, we had a lot of gravel in place, ready to be raked flat...

...and I had made decent inroads on the gravel piles.

Before finishing for the day, though, we decided to minimize the chances of flattening any more voles by removing some tarps that we'd laid out several weeks ago. We merely lifted them up and pushes them aside. Needless to say, dozens of voles were underneath.

Since it will another couple of days before I can borrow the tractor again to move more gravel, this will give the voles plenty of time to move elsewhere. Trying to control them would be an exercise in futility (except possibly through the widespread use of poison, which I prefer to avoid), so we just have to accept them as an indigenous pest and move on. It does make me glad, however, that I took the precaution of laying down hardware cloth while building the berry beds. Voles (mostly) come in from below rather than above, so the hardware cloth, as expensive as it was, was a good investment.

As for the efficacy of the tarps... well, when we pulled aside the tarps that had been down for a few weeks, even though they weren't anchored by gravel, we could already see a difference in weed control. I'm confident I'll have a LOT less weeds in the garden this year.


  1. Well done, ladies!

    I knowed 'at Redundant Feller wuz makin' 'at tractor business look mighty easy-like. 'Taint done it! He's shore 'nuff got the touch, ain't he? Looks like you make a purty fair hand at a-drivin' it yerself, Patrice. I'm right proud of you'uns.

    All them voles shore would make me pop'lar with my birds. My kitties kill 'em an' fetch 'em in fer me an' then I gives 'em to my ravens. They's nothin' them birds loves better...lessun it's a nice hefty gopher. We ain't got many on the place these days. Go figger.

    Well, I'd best get on with whatever chores I wuz s'posed ta git done this mornin.

    Y'all be good an' don't let tRF git ahead of hisself an' overdo. Use rope if necessary.


  2. Now WHY didn't I think about hardware cloth under my raised beds to keep the moles out?

    They did a number on my strawberry and asparagus roots last year during the drought chasing the worms.

  3. Proud of you Patrice! Made me wince when Don got up on that tractor! Hope he's OK....there is much to do on a place like yours. We all want him to recover quickly and completely. I have been reading your blog for two years at your WND column.
    Blessings on your wonderful family.


  4. Running a bucket on a tractor is a difficult skill to master. When I'm doing it I get cocky after a few good scoops then end up with 2 pieces in the bucket

  5. I had a rat snake around here and lots of cats. It seems I don't have any voles or ground squirrels. I suppose the snakes and cats had a good time and were well fed.

  6. Hi Patrice--
    Found you from an article about once a day milking in the Backwoods Home Magazine. I'm looking forward to following your blog--it sounds like we're having some similar adventures. :)
    -Rachael from The Rehomesteaders

    1. Welcome Rachael! You have a lovely blog.

      - Patrice

  7. Hey Patrice, You need a good little rat terrier or some other breed of small terrier. Search on Youtube "terriers hunting rats". Feist-type dogs are perfect for mice and voles, and depending on type can be good calm dogs in the house(Jack Russell, I'm NOT referring to you!)They can completely decimate mice/rats/gophers/even groundhogs. Great return on a small investment of love and dogfood!

  8. Patrice,

    I'm so happy to hear Don is back home, and doing so much better. Great job on using the neighbors tractor. It looks easy when your not on the tractor but when you get into that set, it truly isn't an easy job. This year your garden will be totally without weeds, and that sure is a wonderful thing.

  9. Patrice;
    It is amazing, once you get the hang of using a tractor you will trade off your chores for getting a chance to use the tractor again. I know I did when my husband could not get outside to work on our place. Now when I need something done, I just do it myself. It might be work, but it is so much fun.
    Glad to hear Don is doing so much better.

  10. In general, rodents are a scourge to be eradicated, especially in a farming environment, between the damage to food crops and stores and as a vector of various diseases. I'm just wondering if voles - which honestly I know nothing about - are different in some regard. I understand the girls natural reticence to take a scorched earth approach to the cute little things, but I'm surprised a more pragmatic solution isn't insisted upon by mom and dad. I seek enlightenment, please. :)

    Jeff - Tucson

    1. No enlightenment necessary. It's simply an exercise in futility. And since we don't have a lot of vole damage to our veggies, I'm not overly worried about them.

      - Patrice

    2. Just wait, you will, then you will despise the little vermin. Ate the roots off of a 4 year old blueberry plant and helped to kill off my young apple trees which I started from seeds and they were almost 5 years from seed. The chickens love to eat them and mice, too.

  11. I don't mean to sound critical, but it seems to me your doing a heck of alot of work for nothing. We have a 3,000 square foot garden, and keep it weed free through thick mulch and tilling. I just mow and bag around the perimeter and wheel barrow it in. Then after season, you till it all in and grow a good "green manure crop" come spring start over.Your soil would be much better off and you wouldn't have to work half as hard. I do admire the hard work though! Just my 2 cents :)

    1. That might work if we had a tiller, but we don't. So far this garden has been free (except for the cost of the gravel) and my goal is to make it as maintenance-free as possible. Lots of work this year, but hopefully not nearly as much work next year.

      - Patrice

  12. Maintenance free is great. But when you confine soil to a tire, you are going to use up the nutrients every growing season.Again don't think i'm putting down your methods. But unless you amend each tires soil and check the fertility every season you may be disappointed.You are right about next year, you'll be all set!I actually was given a tiller years ago, and put a new engine in last year. I use raised beds and have had very satisfying results for many years.Where you have voles we have woodchucks. But at least you can eat woodchucks. :)