Gophers in the Garden?

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“Just then Mr. Gopher popped up from his underground home. ‘S-s-somebody call for an excavation expert? I’m not in the book, but I’m at your s-s-service. Gopher’s the name — here’s my card — what’s your problem?’”

— Walt Disney’s animated film “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree,” 1966

With this line of greeting, Walt Disney introduced a new resident to the Hundred Acre Wood in his first film adaptation of A.A. Milne’s classic children’s book “Winnie the Pooh” (1926). Mr. Gopher, also known as Samuel J. Gopher, is the only character in Disney’s original short films that was not based on one of the animals in Milne’s book.

The story goes that Disney wanted a character in his films that would appeal especially to American audiences; thus, the intelligent, hardworking gopher — a native to North America — was proposed.

Of course, gophers don’t just live in the world of fiction. I learned recently that a gopher is living in my garden, and his behavior isn’t nearly as endearing as the Disney character’s.

Here’s how we “met”: One day I was in the garden admiring a Florence fennel plant with feathery green foliage and a thick, white bulb that I was looking forward to roasting with olive oil and Parmesan cheese. The next day I went to harvest the fennel and found the plant lying on its side, severed from the roots. A few nibble marks on the bulb were the only signs of the culprit.

The next day I was weeding at the other end of the garden when I heard the sound of gnawing coming from the artichoke bed. I knelt down close to one of the plants and heard the loud chewing again. When I shook the artichoke’s stalk, the chewing stopped, but the plant had already been fatally loosened from its roots.

I dug around the base of the artichoke plant until I found a hole about 3 inches across that led several inches underground. This tunnel was most likely a side tunnel, branching off from the burrower’s main tunnel. Over the next few days, I found three of my artichoke plants lying prostrate in the garden.

Other burrowing animals besides gophers like to dig in our gardens, including moles, voles and ground squirrels. However, moles are insectivores, feeding mostly on earthworms and grubs, and voles prefer nibbling on grass and plants above ground. Ground squirrels, too, spend most of the day feeding above ground.

Gophers prefer to snack on the underground parts of the plant. They infrequently surface from their tunnels, which can reach from a few inches to 5 feet deep and may span 2,000 square feet.

Unlike ground squirrels, gophers do not live in colonies, preferring to burrow their way through life, and gardens, alone. That being said, if Mr. Gopher is actually Mrs. Gopher, she could birth one to three litters this year with five to six pups in each.

Not surprisingly, a whole industry has developed with the aim of ridding gardens of gophers. Every gardener I talk to has a favorite method of gopher prevention or purging.

Preventative measures include lining the garden bed with wire mesh/hardware cloth with holes no bigger than 3/4 inch, or protecting individual plants within a wire basket. The downsides are the cost of the mesh and the labor of installing it. And, after all the expense and hard work, clever gophers often get through the mesh at the ends or where two pieces meet.

Planting buffer or repellent crops is another suggestion. Gopher spurge, castor beans, garlic and daffodils have all been recommended, however research has not confirmed their effectiveness.

Loud sounds or ultrasonic devices are sometimes used, although field research has not been able to prove their worth, either.

That leaves purging gophers that are already in the garden. Some suggest spraying water down the tunnels to force the gopher out, but then what do you do — chase the gopher around the garden with a baseball bat?

I heard of a device called a gopher blaster, a wand that you stick down the gopher hole. Once the device is activated, it releases a mixture of propane and oxygen, which explodes in the tunnel and kills the gopher. Others poison gophers with pellets or gases.

The most frequently recommended method of getting rid of gophers is using traps. Pincher traps, cinch traps and box traps are all used, and they must be strategically placed. Pincer and box traps should be set in the main tunnel in pairs facing opposite directions to capture gophers moving either way. Cinch traps are placed singly just below the tunnel entrance.

Provided the traps are set correctly and placed where gophers are active, they can be effective. It’s important to check traps frequently and move them if a gopher hasn’t been caught within a couple of days. Also, be sure to attach the trap to a stake for easier removal.

I haven’t decided what to do yet. If I do nothing, I will probably not eat homegrown fennel or artichokes this year. On the other hand, gophers are great at aerating the soil, reducing compaction and increasing the soil’s ability to absorb water. And that’s certainly something to whistle about.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. 

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