When spring arrives, plants return to life and many creatures stir from dormancy.
Sometimes, you wish they hadn’t.
When my wife and I bought our house five years ago, it was the first home of our adult lives that wasn’t an apartment. We found ourselves surrounded by 80 acres of neighboring farm and, suddenly, with roughly two acres of property to maintain along with our house.
We moved in during December, but received an introduction to most of our household headaches by late March and early April. Ants suddenly made trails to any piece of kibble left behind by cats. The cats, meanwhile, had their paws full with the random shrews and field mice that had appeared in our basement. Moles and voles left dirt piles in our yard, moss began to show up in small green patches on our roof shingles, wasps appeared from under the eaves, and weeds of all sorts appeared amid the grass.
We learned the hard way that we couldn’t buy our way out of every problem. Ant traps were largely ineffective. Mouse traps and poisons were out of the question thanks to the cats. Moss killer would damage some of our gutters and surrounding plants. Two people using weed killer on two acres of property is like trying to bring down an elephant with a pellet gun. But through our continuing battles with pests of all stripes, we learned some lessons about how to deal with them both effectively and frugally.
The following are just a few of the problems we’ve encountered along the way, and some of the solutions we’ve adopted to help them out. We don’t claim that they’re perfect, and I encourage tips and feedback in the comments if you have better solutions. But if they help out some poor homeowner besieged by the same issues, we’ll have done our part.
Cleaning out a bowl of cat food crawling with tiny sugar ants is no fun. It took only one invasion of that nature for my wife and I to head to the local Albertsons and stock up on Raid Ant Baits ($3.49 for a pack of four).
The ants proceeded to walk by those as if they were roadside hotels that just looked riddled with bedbugs. The next step was a trip to Home Depot and a 1.3-gallon jug of Ortho Home Defense for about $13.50. It worked well for a time, but with cats a bit too close to the spray areas for comfort, we sought other solutions.
One site suggested sprinkling Borax detergent booster ($6.79 for 65 ounces) and granulated sugar ($7.99 per 10-pound bag) around the places ants get in, like door thresholds and window sills. The ants are drawn in by the sugar and take the Borax, toxic to ants, back with them. That worked well, but left us with candied doorways and windows by the end of the season. Also, the sugar-Borax mixture isn’t great for pets that run afoul of it.
This year, however, we’re going with DIYNatural’s suggestion of taking Borax and powdered sugar instead of granulated ($2.99 for two pounds), rolling the mixture up in cotton balls ($2.79 for 200), and placing them on shallow dishes near the ant trails. So far, no ants beyond the first sighting and, at $12.57 total, it provides roughly 16 batches of bait while giving us roughly 200 traps — making each worth just cents apiece.
It’s a pleasant-looking weed that resembles clover with a bit of daisy, but shotweed gets everywhere and will turn into unwanted ground cover if you don’t take care of it. For years, our approach was to simply pluck it as soon as we saw it in the spring. But shotweed is small, delicate, and resilient. It’s also crafty: Hiding beneath boxwood or laurel and reappearing in a more sizable patch a year later.
The most effective solution, however, was to raid the kitchen for some white vinegar, salt, and dish detergent and spray areas where shotweed was most prevalent. We had to restrict spraying in areas close to beloved plants, reverting to hand weeding in those instances, but it was more effective than simply weeding and less damaging to the yard than a commercial weed killer.
Small, round, grey nests began appearing under the eaves of our house and around some of the outbuildings. Our first line of defense was a $4.27 can of Spectricide Hornet & Wasp Killer ($3.27 at Home Depot). It was relatively cheap, it put 20 feet between me and the nests, and it was incredibly effective at killing wasps.
Unfortunately, it left an oily sheen behind that posed a danger to a nearby colony of wild honeybees. Searching for a safer solution, we found that simple soap and water did the same job, and that a strong spray bottle or hose attachment could give me just as much distance from the wasps. It’s worked on both our house and goat shed so far, and some strategically planted mint (which wasps hate) have kept them away since.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, moss is just a fact of life. It’s in your sidewalks, its in your lawn and it’s on your roof. While a moss-covered roof under a grey sky may fuel some romantic notions about life in this portion of the country or places like Ireland and Scotland, that moss will turn into a leaking roof if you let it sit around long enough.
During our first year, we bought bags of Rid Moss for the grass ($10.99 at Home Depot) and cans of Moss Out ($18.95) and a pump sprayer for the roof and sidewalk ($49.95). The Rid Moss met with limited success after the first year of spreading, but the Moss-Out was far more effective — clearing out the sidewalk and keeping low roofs on the house and garage moss-free. However, it wasn’t all that great for the higher, more steep-pitched second-story roof of the house. I turned to a garden hose attachment in ensuing years ($15.98), but there are other options.
Fortifying a lawn with lime and fertilizer can restore pH balance enough that moss can be killed with a simple soap-and-water solution. Meanwhile, you can make moss killer at home by mixing either vinegar, dish detergent, or bleach with water.
Thistle appears everywhere and is a nasty-prickly weed to get rid of once it’s established. Weed killer was never really an option for us, and spray made of vinegar solution that was so effective for others never seemed to work out as well for us.
However, after crushing apples for cider and feeding the skins to our goats near a particularly thistle-ridden patch of their pen, we found that thistles that came into contact with decaying apple bits withered and never returned. We began using apple cider vinegar ($6.59 per gallon at Safeway) cut with water, and have steadily slain thistle since.
They are everywhere and it’s nearly impossible to kill two acres of them. While we haven’t given up or resorted to Roundup, we’ve performed some triage and addressed them where they’re most visible.
During the first years, we were simply uprooting as many as we could. However, as anyone who’s battled dandelions knows, leaving any part of the root just means you’ll have another dandelion next year.
We were advised that boiling water would kill dandelions, but it turned out to be a less-than-permanent solution. However, this is the one instance where vinegar absolutely works. While you can use undiluted white vinegar or a combination of vinegar and lemon juice, you really need to follow up. Either pull the withered plant and spray again or, if you’d rather leave it, make another pass with the vinegar before rinsing out the area with water.
Moles and Voles
Moles and voles will make your yard a mess of high-piled dirt mounds if left unchecked, but even checking them doesn’t always work. We started out with $20 mole traps, but ended up with a handful of dead moles and no fewer holes. We tried friendlier solutions like vibrating mole spikes $15 and glass bottles and pinwheels stuck in the ground (with wind creating vibration). The moles and voles laughed. We’ve even poured castor oil down holes. Nothing.
With that said, the best way you can save time and money in this instance is with the $20 Victor mole traps we’ve mentioned. All mole-related advice says this — not $50 jugs of castor oil or $15 packs of mole stakes — is the only way to get rid of them permanently. Maybe one year, we will.
Mice and Shrews
We live on a two-acre property surrounded by a neighboring 80-acre farm. We couldn’t eliminate mice or shrews if we tried. However, they were ubiquitous during our first year in the house despite the presence of two barn cats and two indoor cats. While we’d used $16 plug-in sonic deterrents while living in an apartment in Boston, we can’t recommend them for everyone since experience with them varies drastically. Also, our house is a bit bigger than the apartment.
We began using D-Con mouse bait from Home Depot ($11) in our closets, but were warned off of it because of its toxicity to our cats. The same went for the $35 self-contained traps we tried using next. Friends recommended peppermint oil ($10 for 4 ounces) on cotton swabs placed throughout the house, but the answer that worked best was under our nose the entire time: Cats.
When a barn cat passed away, we brought a young tabby into the house who, like the remaining barn cat and one of our existing cats, loved hunting down mice and shaking them to death. His first year in the house, the mouse and shrew body count was roughly eight. The next year, it dropped to four. This year, we’ve had the cats leave us just two, with no signs of permanent mouse activity anywhere in the house.
We adopted our tabby from a local shelter for just $50, which also covered his first vet visit and shots. It costs just slightly more to feed him than it did to feed the existing cats, but the cost was well worth it for both the mousing and the companionship. If you’re allergic to cats, the peppermint oil or sonic deterrents are inexpensive solutions. If not, a compatible, low-maintenance cat is a fine solution.