Polk County Conservation

Gardening Questions

  • Do squirrels really hide nuts all over and then pick them up later? Or are they just finding new ones now. I have all these little holes in my yard and flower beds where squirrels have picked out nuts. Also, are the little buggers stealing my tulip bulbs too?

    Yes, squirrels really do hide nuts all over the place and find them later on. Autumn is a busy time for squirrels as they try to collect enough acorns, hickory nuts, and walnuts to last them through the winter. They dig a hole in the ground and place only one nut in each hole. Some scientists believe squirrels use their sense of smell to find the buried nuts rather than using memory. Regardless of how they find them, squirrels can even find a nut through one foot of snow. Sometimes squirrels do take a liking to tulip bulbs. To prevent squirrels from digging up bulbs, lay a piece of chicken wire flat on the ground over your flower bed. Cover it up with mulch. That way, the flowers can grow up through the wire, but the squirrels can’t dig through it.

  • This fall one morning I woke up to my back yard topsoil being totally upturned in patches. My once smooth level green yard has turned lumpy with dead yellow and bare dirt patches everywhere in just a couple weeks. I’ve seen squirrels out there digging so perhaps it’s them, but they do this every fall, and my yard has never seen this kind of devastation. I have been trying to put the sod back in its place and mash it in with my shoe every few days, but will the grass take root again even though it’s just loosely placed back? Or will I need to resod my entire back yard? I can’t see doing this yearly! Is there something I can do to prevent this from happening again?

    There are two animals that cause damage to lawns this time of year, skunks and raccoons. They are trying to fatten up before winter and are searching for food like grubs and worms anyplace they can find it. Skunks create precise cone-shaped depressions when digging, while raccoons will roll up or shred the sod in search of food. Based on your description, I suspect raccoons have caused the damage. I would wait until next spring to reseed the dead patches. Next fall you could certainly have the same problem again. The only way to make sure it doesn't happen again to trap and remove the raccoons. You can try contacting one of the Nuisance Wildlife Control Operators working in the Des Moines area. They have the permits needed to trap and remove wildlife. The Iowa DNR has a full list of Iowa's Nuisance Wildlife Control Operators.

  • My neighbor has this beautiful purple flower in her backyard. She said it was purple loosestrife and gave me a start of it. I was at the garden center today and asked them how to care for it. They said purple loosestrife is a noxious weed in Iowa and I shouldn't plant it. Would it really be wrong to put some in my garden?

    Please don’t plant it! Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria, is a noxious weed that is invading wetlands, river and stream banks, pond edges, and ditches across the country. Purple loosestrife adapts very easily to wetland habitats. One mature plant may have as many as thirty flowering stems capable of producing an estimated two to three million tiny seeds per year. As it establishes itself, it out competes and replaces native grasses, sedges, and other flowering plants that provide more nutrition for wildlife. It will take over your flower bed and the seeds will spread to neighboring habitats. Purple loosestrife was introduced to northern U.S. and Canada in the 1800s for ornamental and medicinal uses. Now it is illegal for garden centers in Iowa and surrounding states to sell purple loosestrife.

  • I would like to attract more birds and wildlife to my yard. What are some things I can do to make my yard more wildlife friendly? I already have several bird feeders up.

    Good for you! All wildlife needs food, water, cover and places to raise young. In addition to bird feeders, you can provide food another way by planting native plants. Native plants are plants that have evolved to live in your area. They normally don’t need much maintenance once you have them settled into your garden. Seeds, berries, and nectar from native plants are good food sources for wildlife. An easy way to provide water for wildlife is to put out a bird bath. Make sure to change the water at least every other day. This keeps the water fresh and gets rid of mosquito’s eggs that may be laid in the water. Installing a small pond is another option. If you want to attract frogs, leave fish out of your pond because they will eat frog eggs and tadpoles. Wildlife needs a place to hide in order to feel safe in your yard. The easiest way to provide cover is to use vegetation. Many shrubs provide great hiding places and dead trees are home to lots of different wildlife. You can also put up a nesting box for birds to raise their young.

    As we expand into lands to build homes and businesses wildlife is being forced out of their former habitats. So it is more and more important to provide spaces where wildlife can live. For more information on how to create a wildlife friendly backyard, visit the National Wildlife Federation's site.

  • This past fall, moles ruined my yard. When spring comes what can I do about this problem? Thank you for any advice or help you can provide.

    The eastern mole is common throughout Iowa. It is not a rodent but rather it belongs to a group of mammals called insectivores. They live most of their life underground and feed on earthworms, white grubs, insects, centipedes, millipedes, and spiders. This makes up 85-90% of their diet. The remainder of the diet is young plant shoots, and oat, corn, and grass seeds. Moles dig tunnels in soil that is moist but well drained, loose for easy burrowing, and contains plenty of food. Believe it or not but moles can be very beneficial. Their deep tunnels allow air, moisture, and organic material to penetrate into deeper soils. Their burrowing helps aerate and mix the soil. Their feces contribute organic material to the soil. Moles also eat destructive insects like cutworm and Japanese beetle larvae that cause serious damage to lawns and gardens.

    What you need to decide is if the problem is bad enough to outweigh the benefits. If moles are causing problems, Iowa law permits their removal. Control of moles can be difficult if there is good habitat and a large mole population nearby. Other moles often move into vacated areas. Trapping is the most reliable way to control moles. But keep in mind that moles are not easy to trap. Trapping is most effective in the spring and fall when moles are most active. First you must locate active runways. To determine if a runway is active, poke two small holes in the top. If it is active, moles will repair the holes within a day’s time. A harpoon trap is most commonly used for moles. They can be found at most hardware, farm or garden centers. Follow the instructions and place this trap in the active runway. If you don’t wish to do the trapping yourself, contact a local pest control company for their expertise and advice. Professional pest control operators agree that trying to kill moles with poisoned baits and gases are undependable and ineffective.

  • Those of us having our gardens destroyed by deer would like to know how to discourage them. What can we plant that they won't eat? Are there any environmentally sound methods that keep the deer out of the garden or yard?

    Deer are creatures of habit often following the same paths daily. They are adaptable, curious, and opportunistic feeders. If a deer is hungry enough, it will eat anything. Deer select food based on smell and strong smelling plants may make it more difficult for them to locate food. Plants like yarrow, bee balm, and Russian sage are good examples. For a complete listing of deer resistant plants, contact the Polk County Conservation office at 515-323-5300.

    There are numerous repellents and barriers on the market that may work to keep deer out of your garden. Success with repellents is measured by reduction, not total elimination, of damage. Contact repellents are applied directly on a plant and repel deer by taste. Area repellents are applied near protected plants and keep deer away by odor. Most repellents need to be reapplied after a rain. Many repellents are safe for the environment, but read the application directions closely. Some repellents shouldn’t be used on fruits and vegetables. A homemade repellent that may work is a combination of eggs, water, and garlic powder.

    Homemade Deer Repellent
    2 eggs
    2 C. water
    1-2 T. dry garlic powder
    2 T. Tabasco (optional)
    Put in blender and blend until frothy. This mixture is best if allowed to rest, covered, for several days prior to application. Mix this with one gallon of water in a hand sprayer. Saturate the plants and ground area around the plants with this mixture. Repeat every three to four weeks. Ensure the plants and ground is dry before you begin and there isn’t an immediate threat of rain.

  • I like having a nice green, weed-free lawn but I don’t feel right about spraying my lawn with chemicals. Is there such a thing as organic lawn care?

    Yes, there is such a thing as having a nice lawn without using chemicals. There are several simple things you can do to get started with an organic lawn. The easiest way to help your lawn grow healthy and dense is to adjust your mowers height to the highest setting. Tall blades of grass photosynthesize sugars and starches better establishing greater root growth. Short grass doesn’t compete well with weeds. You should also sharpen your mower blades. Dull blades tear at grass leaving them more susceptible to disease.

    Leave the grass clippings on your lawn. As grass clippings decompose they provide valuable nitrogen to the soil. They also add organic matter and a variety of other benefits to the soil and grass. If you wish to apply fertilizer, choose an organic fertilizer made of plant residues and by-products of animal processing—blood meal or feather meal. Look for a product with an NPK (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) ratio of approximately 3-1-2. Apply no more than 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet during each application.

  • Every year rabbits eat some of my favorite flowers in my flower beds and I’m sick of it! What can I do to deter them and are there any flowers that rabbits won’t eat?

    I feel your pain! Rabbits have overtaken my yard as well. Rabbits love eating tender young plants including many popular annuals, bulbs, and vegetables. Rabbits often avoid plants like native grasses, herbs, and plants with strong fragrances if something else is available to eat. Some people claim to get results using odor repellents such as moth balls, blood meal or predator urine. Place them on the ground around the perimeter of the plants. Taste repellents (such as Bonide and pepper spray) can be applied to foliage. These repellents must be reapplied from time to time. Sometimes the most successful solution is trapping and removal. Bait a live trap with sliced apples or carrots and then dispose of the rabbits in a humane way. If you plan to release them, you must have permission from the land owner or park officials.

  • Can you tell me more about rain gardens? I’d like to plant a rain garden in my yard and am not sure where to start.

    Good for you! Rain gardens are landscaped perennial gardens planted with native plants that soak up rain water from your roof, driveway and lawn. These gardens fill up with a few inches of water and allow 30 percent more water to soak in the ground compared to a conventional lawn. Holding back this runoff prevents pollutants from entering storm drains and eventually streams and rivers. The chances of flooding and erosion to stream banks are lessened by the reduced amount of water that enters storm drains. Plus, rain gardens add natural beauty and habitat to your yard.

    Before planting a rain garden you need to consider size, appropriate plants, construction, planting and maintenance. Des Moines Parks and Recreation has a great rain garden tool kit online that addresses all of these details. You can also attend one of the Rain Garden classes offered by the Polk County Conservation Board. See the event calendar for details.

Contact Us

Administration Office
12130 NW 128th St
Granger, IA 50109

P: (515) 323-5300
F: (515) 323-5354

Monday – Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

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