Saturday, March 25, 2006

Gophers and Gardeners

1,429 words, copyright Harvest McCampbell 2006
Published by the Hoopa Valley People Newspaper 3/21/06
Posted here with permission

Gophers and Gardeners

In mountain meadows, far from our homes, the lowly gopher has a number of very important jobs. The tunneling for which they are infamous loosens, aerates, and turns the soil, mixing in organic matter. Plants quickly colonize the improved soil, and benefit by the improved ability for water to seep into their root zones. Drainage is also improved, excess water flows through gopher tunnels heading towards lower ground. While the meadows directly benefit from this activity, it is not the only way gophers contribute to the meadows life cycle.

Gophers are directly involved with the soil nutrient cycle. They build underground nests of dry grass and other plant material that eventually breaks down and provides food for soil organisms and plant roots. They have special “bathroom” chambers in their colonies, and as this material breaks down it provides plants with nitrogen and other important nutrients. Gophers also provide meals for a variety of animals including snakes, foxes, bobcats, lynx, coyotes, as well as larger carnivores when other pickings are slim. In this way nutrients are cycled over a large area.

These small rodents actually have much in common with human gardeners. They tend the soil, redistribute seed, move plants from place to place, and they eat the fruits, roots, and leaves of their efforts. In fact if they didn’t eat our own carefully tended vegetables, our prized flowers perhaps we wouldn’t hate them so much. As it is, soon after our favorite dahlia disappears underground, the war is on.

If you have ever engaged in battle with the lowly garden gopher, you may have discovered that it is a fight you can’t win. Certainly you have prevailed in various surmises. There have definitely been small furry bodies to burry. But the moment you turn your back you have a few less tulips than you did the moment before.

Gophers are highly adapted to the rigors of predation. The more of them we (or our friends the gopher snakes) kill, the faster they reproduce. And they are wily creatures. They will actually study up your habits and adapt theirs to defy detection. Momma gopher knows you go on the war path when she bothers certain flower beds, so she won’t. It is just that the little punks she gives birth to will not listen. While you are busy sending them to an early grave, she is under the wood pile nursing another brood.

While this is a war you will never permanently win, you are probably up for the fight. It certainly gives you something to take your aggressions out on. Something to channel your killer instincts towards that probably won’t get you in trouble with your mate. There is such a thing as good war, as long as you leave poisons out of it. You wouldn’t want to accidentally poison a pet. Most poisons sold for rodents will definitely harm anything else that ingests them. And they are likely to stay potent in your soil and our eco-system for a long long time.

Unless you are going to take a live and let live attitude, you may want to arm yourself with some good hardware. Most effective and lethal, are the traps actually designed for moles*. Look for the reusable spring loaded plunging type traps that are set over active tunnels. While these won’t keep gophers from returning, the ones they catch will definitely be dead. If this thought brings a smile to your face check, for traps at your local hardware store, nursery, or in your favorite garden catalog. If you don’t find what you are looking for Gempler’s carries a number of models. You can request a catalog by calling 1-800-382-8473 or on-line at: (Be careful with these contraptions. If your child or pet pulls them out of the ground they could be harmed.)

While you are perusing the shelves or catalogs you may come across some electronic devices that purport to repel underground rodents. These items have been found to work for only a few feet square feet. If you must plant your dahlias or tulips in the ground – one or more of these might provide some protection without causing Mrs. Mama Gopher to go into hyper-reproductive mode.

Of course you can always invest in containers or hardware cloth. Ceramic containers are a pretty sure deal as far as protecting a plants roots from rodent damage. Ceramic doesn’t break down. It will last forever baring being kicked, knocked over, or rammed with the lawn mower. Plants in containers need to be carefully watched in the summer, as they dry out fast. However, containers do provide welcome drainage during the rainy season.

Hardware cloth is a metal mesh generally available in 3 foot widths from most hardware stores. It is generally sold by the roll or the foot, and can cost upwards of $2.00 to $2.50 a foot. Hardware cloth can be used to form underground baskets to protect plants roots, and placed under raised beds, tires, or what have you to form gopher proof zones. I use raised beds (including tires) with hardware cloth in my gardens and it works like a charm. I have read that making an underground fence, 18” deep, of the hardware cloth can protect your whole garden from gophers. That would be a pretty pricy solution. I am not certain the wily little creatures wouldn’t just burrow under the dang thing and come on in for lunch. But if anyone wants to give it a try, please let me know how it works out.

Another strategy that works fairly well, is to interplant your garden with Euphorbias. This is a large group of plants that includes a number of ornamentals, succulents, cacti, and weeds. The roots of the Euphorbias exude a bitter toxic latex when they are disturbed. (This is not something to try if you have toddlers that like to taste everything in the yard.) I encourage the common garden weed - Petty Spurge (Euphorbia peplus). Where ever this dainty little pretty decides to grow, it provides fabulous gopher protection. Here is a web site with photos of Petty Spurge:
The last photo on the page clearly shows a young plant. And this just goes to show that weeds are not all bad.

Petty spurge has a few draw backs. First it is an annual. That means it only lives a short while, sets its seeds, and then dies. Just when you may want it most – it’s gone. This little plant has a mind of its own. It never seems to grow in the same place twice, and rarely exactly where I want it. But I certainly don’t pull it out. It is welcome wherever it wants to be.

There are a number of showy perennial Euphorbias available. Ask at your local nursery and check your garden catalogs. You may find one actually listed as gopher spurge. This is a handsome tall blue green plant that looks great in the corners of the vegetable garden and at the back of flower borders. In late summer or early fall it produces bright green blooms which are followed by large seed clusters. If your favorite catalog doesn’t have it, Gurney’s does: 513-354-1491. Also try Forest Farm for mail order plants: 541-846-7269 and Thompson and Morgan for seeds of a flowering and a variegated variety: 800-274-7333.

The last strategy I use to preserve some produce for my own use, is to grow some plants that the gophers like. Dang it, but they get hungry too. Wild and garden varieties of chicory, as well as Queens Anne’s Lace suit a gophers palette perfectly. (You can order seed from Thompson and Morgan or collect it in the late summer from wayside fields.) These plants add minerals to the compost pile, distract the gophers from what I want to eat, and produce attractive flowers as well. I try to practice the live and let live philosophy – at least when it comes to gophers. But if things get out of control, you will definitely find me with traps in hand.

*(Moles by the way, are gardeners friends. They eat cut-worms, pincher bug larva, slugs, and other creatures we love to hate. They are ugly carnivores, while gophers are cute vegetarians. Moles won’t actually eat your plants, but you might find their tunneling and digging to be annoying. If their population gets too large they will turn their attention to the earthworms who are gardeners’ best friends. If necessary Moles can be controlled by most of the methods mentioned above.)

1,429 words, copyright Harvest McCampbell 2006
Published by the Hoopa Valley People Newspaper 3/21/06
Posted here with permission


Anonymous said...

Exactly the info I needed! Clear, concise. Many thanks,JanM.Cambria,CA

Harvest said...

Thanks Jan, I hope your gophers are leaving you your fair share. They are mostly eating parsnips in my yard, and I have more of them than I can eat. So that is working out rather happily!

Harvest said...

Two points--

First, I know longer garden in tires--they have been shown to leach toxins into the soil.

Second, I have heard that aviary mesh makes a good substitute for hardware cloth. We used it here on "The Nut Farm," the certified organic walnut orchard where I am the garden manager, for our raised beds this winter. The gophers swarmed all around the raised beds, but were not able to get in. So far so good! Aviary cloth is quite a bit less expensive than hardware cloth.

Castaway. said...


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