Gopher Tricks for Pacifists

By Kate Anchordoguy

Is there a cuter critter than the pocket gopher? But if you garden in the west county, you may be forgiven for hating our most populous resident rodent. Because everyone has their war stories. The shaking clump of ornamental grass that disappeared into the earth. The listing fruit tree gnawed off at the base. Just last week I pruned a rose that seemed to need a stake or something. Sure enough, the hungry pests had severed all but one lone root….

Even diehard peaceniks may weigh the pros and cons of traps and baits, gas and deaths by drowning. But in the long run, strategic co-existence takes less time and mental energy.

First, determine that the beast you seek to thwart is, in fact, the gopher. Carnivorous moles disturb the soil but don’t eat roots – they feast on earthworms, mostly. These creatures “swim” beneath the earth, leaving trails of humped up soil just below the surface. Mounds of dirt above the ground are signs that gophers toil and tunnel far below. And while moles are mostly just a nuisance, gophers kill and eat your plants, destroy your lawns, and ruin paths and sitting areas.

You will hear that hardware cloth’s the way to go but I have found it to be too hard to handle and too expensive for large scale use. I like galvanized “aviary” wire (sometimes labeled “gopher wire”) much better. I have used it for over 20 years and it has never failed me. Professional landscapers use this wire under everything:  raised beds, sod lawns, aggregate paths and patios. We cut it with wire cutters or tin snips.

For garden beds, staple the wire tightly across the bottom of the box, leaving no gaps between the wood and wire, before you set them in the ground. For a standard 4×8 raised bed, a 4’ wide roll works well.

For paths and sitting areas made of decomposed granite, shale, gravel, or flagstone pieces, first grade the path and level it. Then lay a 3’ or 4’ wide roll of wire along the ground and staple it to the earth using “jute staples” every foot or so. Where the path curves or turns, fold the wire over on itself or cut the excess out.

For lawns, use 6’ wide rolls and overlap the edges. If there is even the tiniest gap between the rolls, you will wake up one morning to a perfect line of dirt mounds in your grass. With sod lawns, the sod is laid directly on top of the wire. Be sure you staple down every “hump”, or you will have air pockets, and the sod will dry out. For seed lawns, cover the wire with an inch or two of soil so there are no exposed sharp bits.

Now for the most important exclusionary tactic in your Battle of the Varmints: protecting your plants. First off, disabuse yourselves of the notion that you can exclude gophers by installing a subterranean fence. I’ve seen people attempt this to no avail – our furry friends are quite capable of scurrying above ground when necessary and will simply re-infest the area.

I do not use readymade gopher baskets because not only are they too expensive for large scale use, but they are also too stiff: it is difficult to bend them down over the top of the rootball. Also, air pockets form between the baskets and the edges of the planting hole, so that the plant sinks and is then too low in the ground.

What you can and should do when planting is wrap every single rootball in galvanized aviary wire. Cut the wire into rectangles for each plant, allowing enough material to cover the bottom, sides and top completely. Take the plant from the can, loosen the roots, and then roll that rootball along the wire, wrapping it up as you go like the gift that it is. Fold the wire over the bottom and the top and being sure that there is a little overlap on the sides where the ends meet. Then plant as you normally would. The only time I have ever lost plants to gophers using this technique (and I’ve planted literally thousands of plants this way) is when one of the smaller 4” pots gets buried by a nearby gopher mound.

The most common question I get about rootball wrapping is “what happens when the roots grow out past the wire?” and what happens is that they get eaten, some of them, by gophers (we wouldn’t want them to starve, now would we?). But the core root system of the plant is protected, and as the plant grows, gophers consume a smaller and smaller percentage of that total rootball. Large, mature plants can withstand a little root pruning.

So put aside your bombs and poisons, and remember that Rodney said it best: “can we all get along?”

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