A colony of pocket gophers has set up residence in our yard, and Maddie, the labradoodle decided to expose them. She dug a hole, five feet in length and two feet wide in the soft soil between the roses. The pretty California poppies went flying but she did her job; she let us know that gophers had invaded our garden and we must get off our duffs and get to work to rid ourselves of these pests.
As soon as the soil dampens with winter rain, gophers become active. You will know they arrive when you find piles of earth in your beloved beds. These burrowing rodents are called “pocket gophers” because of their large external cheek pouches used for carrying food and nesting materials. They have powerful forequarters, large claws on their front paws, short fur, small eyes, and sensitive facial whiskers for maneuvering in close, dark quarters. Their lips, which close behind four large incisor teeth, keep dirt out of their mouths when using teeth for digging. Practical I’m sure, but hard to visualize!
We’ve had both moles and gophers this year. If you aren’t sure of the difference, see the post I wrote a couple of years ago. The smaller moles burrow close to the surface of the earth. They do not eat plants but dine on grubs and earthworms just below the surface. While they can disrupt newly planted annuals, they are far less harmful to your plants than the notorious pocket gopher. A little tolerance of this smaller cousin is encouraged.
The story goes that the “bull” gopher (a male gopher of breeding age) stakes out his territory and creates a maze of tunnels that he hopes will attract females seeking the “good life”. Sex always makes a story more interesting. If all goes well for the bull, the area is soon populated with young. Perhaps this maze is what Maddie found in her digging.
Gophers feed on a variety of plants using their sense of smell to locate food. Most folks, who’ve gardened for any length of time, will have a horror story to tell of watching a plant slowly being pulled underground if front of their eyes. A few years ago I observed a six-foot hollyhock list slowly to the side until it lay prone; its roots devoured by a subterranean pest. I found a prized seven-foot butterfly bush lying wilted and prostrate on the earth. The trunk appeared to have been eaten by a beaver. My guess is the culprit was a gopher who had left his run and “taken down” the shrub at ground level. I cut some of its branches and made some nice plants with the cuttings that still live in my garden today.
My husband uses a metal trap, called a Macabee, to keep down the gopher population. The trap requires brute strength to set. Then there is the problem of removing the dead gopher after it has been squeezed between the “pinchers”. I have neither the hand strength nor the stomach for this type of entrapment. We’ve also used the “Black Box” trap which is easier on the hands. In areas where the dog and chickens are excluded, I use the sissy method of gopher annihilation. I insert pellets of poison using a probe that puts it directly into the burrows. One must be extremely careful that none of the poison is spilled on the ground where birds can ingest it or pets come into contact with it. As I was taking pictures of the excavation and traps this morning, that little gopher had the nerve to stick her head out of the hole and look at me. The audacity!
There is no easy solution to the gopher problem. Some people in the area plant new plants in wire baskets. I’ve done this with expensive new plants that I think are vulnerable and it seems to work until the plant is mature and doesn’t need root protection.
Our property adjoins open space on one side and a vacant lot on the other. I’m realistic enough to know that we will have to deal with these underground critters one on one, and, at best, keep them under control. As for Maddie, the Australian Labradoodle, a little more training is in order.