Gophers In Your Garden
When I think of gophers, in my mind’s eye I see the flyer for JAWS, only instead of the shark there is a Monster Gopher coming up from the soil depths (with ominous music) to ravage a poor tree.
My oft-mentioned gopher casualty is in the photo to the right: a much cherished Pink Pearl Apple tree that we nurtured patiently for eight years awaiting an age of good fruit set, and instead, found it one day on its side, a mere carcass.
Protecting your garden from gophers is a big undertaking, and so I’m writing about it in parts. Previously it was about making gopher-protected raised beds for growing vegetables or anything else you want to plant en masse. Now I want to add a bit about protecting new shrubs and trees individually. And the tiresomeness of having to protect from gophers might make you ask:
Are There Any Plants Gophers Won’t Eat?
There is a small list of plants that gophers don’t seem to like. Hurray at least for these! But keep in mind that just because a plant is on this list doesn’t mean a hungry gopher won’t nibble yours. Sometimes they don’t eat the whole root system, just part of it, and your plant suddenly sports a dead limb. This happens with the occasional rosemary and escallonia branch for us. Also look out for plants that don’t seem to thrive. It may be something else, but it also may be that gophers are eating most of its roots.
It might be safe to plant these in the ground unprotected, but no guarantee. We’ve had good luck with some of them, with the occasional loss or partial damage.
Everything else must get planted in a gopher basket. (!) Yes, it’s a big drag and makes me consider moving just about every year.
Gophers particularly love some plants, like figs. In the early days we planted what we hoped would become the The Fig Thicket, which was later renamed The Fig Sticket, because sticks was all that remained after the gophers made it their preferred dining spot. Any figs we have now are grown in pots and pruned as shrubs. But there is that dogged Caddyshack/Bill Murray rebellion in me that may still try again one day to plant a fig in the ground, with a massive gopher basket and every gopher deterrent known to humankind. I really want to win the fig-gopher battle. After all, some areas of the county have full grown fig trees, so I’m guessing at some point the roots get too woody to be of interest. Or, maybe we just live in the New York of gopher habitats?
Are There Gophers In All of Sonoma County?
I don’t know. Maybe someone with more knowledge on the subject will comment. But I have noticed that the gopher population seems to vary by area. Our last garden was on heavy clay soil, and though there were gophers, there weren’t as many. Where we are now has sandy soil and the ground is riddled with them. I don’t know if soil makes a difference, it’s just my observation.
Update: according to this online site, gophers DO prefer sandy soils. So the strip of sandy soils running basically north to south down almost the middle of Sonoma County probably has an even greater population of gophers than the rest of the county with clay soil. If you fall in the sandy soil zone, as I do, you have my full sympathy. (Well you gardeners in clay have my sympathy too–that comes with different issues.)
I’m guessing that cities with mazes of building foundations close together in the ground must slow gophers down a little. The gardeners in Santa Rosa I’ve known don’t seem to have them, or not many. If you are gardening in gopher territory, I’d be interested to hear your experiences in the comments.
In any case, we enjoyed a one-year grace period here before the gophers noticed the garden irrigation and all the new snacks in the ground. I’ve heard stories, like of an echinacea crop that went years without being touched, then was suddenly decimated. A permaculture friend of mine shared a heartbreaking story of loosing significant plant resources to gophers. So sad!
It is a bizarre sight to see a plant start to jiggle, and then get sucked underground! And awful to go out to inspect a garden bed only to find your plants laying on their sides, wilted and rootless, or not there at all.
So I beg you to be careful with your treasures, and if you are starting a new garden in this area, please protect from gophers. Once you start watering and fertilizing, and growing juicy carrots and fig roots, they will likely take notice.
You may be wondering: don’t some animals hunt gophers? Can’t I just encourage those? Certainly — there are gopher predators and you can install an owl box as some do. We have lots of hawks and owls and neighborhood cats, the occasional bobcat and mountain lion and coyote, badger and gopher snakes. But there are still many, many gophers. I don’t think all the owls and hawks and coyotes and cats in our area would ever rid our garden of all gophers.
How to Protect Your Trees and Shrubs from Gophers?
Well, I’m not sure it’s possible to protect them forever. But you can get them started with protection for the first several years with gopher baskets and then cross your fingers.
Gopher baskets can be homemade from a roll of gopher wire, or bought pre-made. Both the gopher wire roll and pre-made baskets are available widely in garden nurseries. We often get ours from Harmony Farm Supply. The brand commonly seen here is Diggers and I see they have a very helpful page about gophers and gopher baskets.
Handmade gopher baskets
If making your own gopher baskets, be sure to get gopher wire and not aviary wire, as aviary doesn’t last as long and the holes are big enough for some small gophers to get through.
The best way I’ve found to quickly make homemade baskets is by removing the plant from nursery pot, setting the plant on its side on top of the gopher wire, then rolling the wire around the root ball. Then put the plant upright (creating a crease of wire underneath) and mold the excess wire up around one side, tightly. This only works if the root ball and soil are rather firm.
In my opinion, this method much faster and more successful than trying to hand-form your own basket by “hemming” the edges by curling them into a seam. Gophers are very good at moving soil around and using it as leverage, and can wedge in between folds of wire if it isn’t really secure.
When planting in these baskets, leave the top several inches of the basket sticking out above ground. You might like to fold down that top excess few inches over the plant root ball–to protect from overground entry. But doing this does make it harder to pull weeds from around the base of the tree or shrub later.
Premade gopher baskets
Local nurseries also carry premade gopher baskets in various sizes. Read the label to see which size is suggested for the plant you want it for. These premade ones are very handy, just make sure you prep them first to create as much space inside them as possible. To do this I first gently coax open the sides. Be careful to not stress the edge seams. Now I put it on the ground on it’s side and gently wedge my foot on top of one seam to press it apart. Sort of like ironing open a seam, come to think of it! Now do the other side. At this point (using gloves) I coax open the bottom crease a bit. Then I again gently nudge my foot in to step on the bottom crease, to press it open more flat. Now the edges and the bottom are opened out more. The last part is optional but makes it fit in the hole better: the bottom edges are still pointy. Gently with my hands, I fold them under and step in the basket again to flatten. See finished prep in photo. This makes as much room for the roots as possible.
How long do they last?
These baskets will hopefully protect your tree or shrub for about five to eight years, more or less. At that point, the gardener hopes that the roots of their tree or shrub are sufficiently tough and undesirable to a gopher. I recommend trying to taper off any irrigation to a minimal amount by that point, as the gophers may be attracted to the moisture in the soil. The apple tree mentioned above was planted in a gopher basket, but it had apparently rotted after eight years. It was on irrigation.
Other Ways to Deal with Gophers
There are lots of promoted gopher deterrents out there (see this article) and we tried most of them in the early days. They didn’t work for us. I won’t list them all especially because, hey, maybe they work for someone and I wouldn’t want to dis a specific product. We also tried surrounding plants with the toxic plant called gopher spurge. Also didn’t work. I’ve heard of the method of funneling carbon dioxide from a car exhaust to kill them. I’m not going to try that one and you know, your insurance probably doesn’t cover mishaps with that. 😉 Trying to drown them out with water takes a long time, may not work at all, and wastes way too much precious water.
Gopher poison works but we don’t use it because if an owl or hawk or cat eats the poisoned gopher, they will also get poisoned.
Probably tilling the ground regularly with a tractor and disk ruins their underground network and takes out a few gophers, but we’re not operating at an agricultural level here. And anyway, we do no-till gardening.
I lived at a place once that dug a deep trench many feet deep around the whole garden and installed a gopher barrier into the ground. I thought this was marvelous. And you would think this would do it, right? Well, it probably helped a lot but it wasn’t perfect. Firstly, gophers can reportedly dig down as far as six feet deep, so that’s a pretty deep trench to dig and fill with a barrier that, what, has no weak seams and never rots? And secondly, unless it also extends above ground several inches and isn’t climbable, gophers can just walk over the top of it when they are feeling lucky. One gardener told me once he witnessed a gopher climbing his raised bed. I’m just glad they can’t fly or the human race would probably go extinct.
I would enjoy hearing from other local gardeners about what plants gophers eat or don’t eat of yours, or other gopher-protections that work for you.
The only other thing that works for us besides keeping them out with gopher baskets is trapping them. Sorry if this is macabre to anyone. I’m a vegetarian and love animals, but I do sometimes trap gophers just as I trap rodents. There are many types of gopher traps available, but I prefer the cinch type. It’s also handy to have a special tool shown on my favorite tools post that is the perfect size and length for opening up a gopher hole for installing the trap.
UPDATE (April, 2022): I found a new trap I like much better, called a Gopher Hawk. Someone online mentioned it and I agree, it is easier to use (once you get the hang of it) and more effective.
Something I’m trying out — Wool Pellets
As I mentioned in the other gopher blog post, we often use old wool carpeting or wool rugs underneath raised garden beds and wine barrel planters. Gophers apparently don’t like hair, and wool does seem to deter them. The reason it seems true is that we’ve had gophers burrow up and chew through an oak planter (yes, that had a fig in it). So we started putting wool rugs underneath them, and so far, no entry. We also put wool under our raised beds (along with gopher wire). Who knows what will happen, but so far it seems helpful.
So, I was excited to find a new product a couple of years ago: wool pellets. I hope to test this over the years in the garden, and see if wool pellets mixed with the soil when planting a tree or shrub will help deter gophers. Also wool pellets make a nice water-conserving mulch and soil amendment. Unlike bark mulch, it should be wildfire safe since wool is flame-resistant. Of course, wool will probably decompose in about two years, so keep that in mind.
Before ending, a note about mulching trees in gopher territory. At our place, we love sheet-mulching and we took to it like a house on fire when we first heard of it many years ago. It preserves moisture and smothers weeds. However, we stopped using it around trees and shrubs. Why? Because whenever we checked on it afterwards, it seemed like underneath the cardboard layer, the soil would be rife with gopher tunnels and possibly other rodents. My current working theory is that the cover of the sheet-mulch provides protection from rodent predators like cats, owls, and hawks. And the moisture and coolness of the earth underneath the mulch is a draw for them. So it’s a catch-22. These days I’m testing out using a light mulch without the cardboard around trees–so that natural predators can see any rodent movement. I’m still for sheet-mulching in certain circumstances: like if we were about to prep new ground, like a new lavender patch, for example, and wanted to compost grasses and weeds in place.
Hope your gardens are thriving and a source of peace and pleasure for you all! And if you don’t have a garden, hope you have access to a pretty park or natural space. Gardeners: for fun, why not share what wildlife you last saw in your garden? (Besides a gopher and a really large rat, the last I saw was a deer, and before that, a fox on top of the old barn roof). What pest is your garden bane? (Me: gophers of course!)