It only takes a few days of sunny weather to inspire most gardeners to get out and begin working the soil. In most cases however, soils throughout our coastal area are simply too wet to do any sort of cultivation - especially if they have a high clay content. Our persistent rain showers this time of year tend to keep our soils on the wet side. It's really best for your garden's long-term health to resist the urge to work the soil when it's still wet. It doesn't matter if you're using a Rototiller or a garden spade, working wet soil can badly compact it, and the negative effects can last for years.

QUESTION: We are convinced that dozens of moles have invaded our lawn. What's the best way to get rid of them now that trapping remains illegal?

ANSWER: Although it may seem as though there are dozens of moles invading your lawn, there are likely only one or two. In general they are at densities of only one to three per acre. Being loners, except during the breeding season, there's no question that in most home lawns, a few moles are raising a lot of turf!

Unfortunately the mole is here to stay. Extermination is impractical. Trapping has been illegal in Washington state since the passage of Initiative 713 in 2000. The use of deterrents, which include obnoxious substances like castor oil, Lysol and mothballs, simply drive the animal elsewhere to find new hunting grounds.

Results from initial research on several of the newer poisonous baits, which are designed to look and supposedly taste like earthworms, suggest that moles found them to be less than appetizing. In one experiment, live earthworms were "smeared" on the artificial bait worms to enhance their attractiveness and still the moles pushed them aside. In the end, the baited worms slowly dissolved away into the soil and the moles continued to inhabit the runs.

Even the everpopular "Mole Plant" (Euphorbia lathyris), which is frequently advertised as being an effective mole repellent, has not proven to be effective in scientific studies. These plants are notorious for being prolific seed producers and can quickly invade an entire garden if not kept in check. Indeed it appears the mole is here to stay!

QUESTION: Some of our landscape plants are looking poorly. We think perhaps they got killed by the unseasonably cold temperatures in early December. Is there an easy way to tell if a tree or branch is alive?

ANSWER: Before pruning a sad looking plant to almost nothing or pulling it out all together, it's easy to check to see if it's still alive. Simply scrape the bark away with a fingernail or make a shallow slant cut just under the bark with a pocketknife. Live branches are bright green or white just beneath the bark. Dead branches are brown and may be soggy. Check the tree or shrub in several places: at the twigs, down the branches, and at the crown or soil line. Older wood may be hardier than younger wood. If the outer twigs have died, move toward the trunk until you hit live tissue.

Sometimes, faded green branches may begin to re-grow, showing they did not die. Remove damaged tissue after you give the plant a chance to recover and it starts to grow again. By the same token, some plants may have all of their visible stems and foliage killed only to re-sprout from the roots, which were insulated by soil from the bone-chilling temperatures.

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