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The ever-evasive mole
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By Don Gardner

I get a number of calls about how to get rid of moles in the landscape. I guess the best short answer is: with great difficulty.
Moles seem to be a recent and rapidly growing problem all along the Georgia coast. I have no idea why that is, I just know that it is. I had two commercial landscape companies recently ask me to troubleshoot new tree and shrub plantings that were quickly fading from vigorous and healthy to dead bronze leaves. Customers thought the problem was everything from malicious herbicide poisoning to improper planting technique.
Diagnosing over the phone is no substitute for getting eyes on the problem, or, as Yogi Berra put it, “You can observe a lot just by watching”. I always start the diagnostic process on woody plants at the ground line. I get down on my hands and knees and play in the dirt.
On a cassia tree last year and on a holly and a newly planted bottlebrush this year I had my diagnosis before making it to the stem of each plant. My hand or foot would sink in a couple inches into soft, loose soil. A little probing into the soil with my finger hit tunnels just about every time. We call that a clue.
When we plant a tree or shrub it is critical to backfill the hole to make sure there are no air pockets. Plant roots stop growing when they run into air. Moles create air pockets with their tunneling. A few tunnels are usually not enough to cause decline, but a spaghetti bowl of tunnels effectively stops all root growth.
The short-term fix is to collapse the tunnels with a strong stream of water from a garden hose to fill the air pockets. The plant should recover without further fuss, except to keep routinely collapsing the tunnels a couple times a week. The longer term fix is to try to control the moles, which is much easier said than done.
The top strategies for mole control are:
1. A good terrier or a good mouser. Terriers and cats can smell the moles and dig them up. Cats are great at this except for the indoor cats, which seem to insist that the moles bathe first. If you think the damage that digging does to the lawn is worse than the moles, you will change your mind after trying to catch moles yourself.
2. Trapping. Trapping and poisoning require you to discover the main runs the moles use. Some runs are like an interstate with many moles using the same arterial daily. These runs usually are found along driveways, sidewalks and the sides of buildings and lead to dens. Some runs are foraging tunnels, used once and – if no earthworms are found – never returned to again. Setting a trap on an abandoned run is a waste of time.
Trapping techniques include mechanical traps, pits and ambush. With all traps and poisoning it is critical to not handle the traps or bait with your bare hands. Human scent will make a mole detour around the trap. I set one of my Nash traps with my bare hands and the mole tunneled right up to the trap, stopped, burrowed around the trap and continued to repair the run, which my wife found particularly amusing.
Of the mechanical traps on the market, the best is the Nash mole trap. In the only university study on mole traps, the Nash trap caught 80 percent of all the moles trapped by all traps in the study. The harpoon-style trap is popular around here, but it takes a bit more strength and skill to set it properly and effectively.
Pit traps are a wide-mouth glass jar dug into a pit bisected by the run The hole should be the exact size of the outside of the jar, and the lip of the jar should be an inch or so below the bottom of the run. Again, be sure to clean the jar and not touch it with your bare hands. Disposable latex gloves are an excellent choice. Once the jar is in place, cover the pit with a board to keep light and debris out. Check it daily. Dispatch the critter humanely.
3. Poisoning. Poisoning may be effective, but you do not get the satisfaction of a corpse for proof. The best bait is the gummy worms laced with Talpirid poison. The commercial landscape companies I have talked to swear by them. Forget poison peanuts for moles. Moles do not eat peanuts. They eat earthworms. Again, you have to wear gloves to keep your scent off the bait. Do not try to save money by cutting the worm in half. The mole will feel up the whole length of the worm to find the ring that identifies the head of the worm and eat it from the head down. If you cut the worm in half, they will not eat it. Smart little buggers.
As for all the home remedies like Juicy Fruit gum, wind-powered shakers, hot sauce and the like, I cannot say they absolutely never work, but nobody has yet proven they do. There is an important difference between correlation and cause. I do not pretend to be an expert in catching moles, which my wonderful spouse will readily confirm. If I could be consistent and efficient at controlling moles and sand gnats I would be listed in the S&P 500. I caught six moles out of my yard last spring and it did not even slow down the tunneling, so try a few of the tactics above and use the ones that work for you, and keep at it.
If you figure out the secret, franchise it, please, and then call me.

Gardner is the Bryan County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources.
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