by Nanette Londeree, Master Rosarian

Grrrrr – while merrily tending my roses, I’ve come across another victim of the dreaded beast – the gopher. If this is not one of the gardening challenges you face, and can stop reading now. Since I live in gopher heaven, each season I have to deal with the damage from this voracious pest. And while they love roses, they have a very broad range of things they like to eat (in fact there isn’t a lot they DON’T like), and I’ve lost everything from bulbous plants to mature camellias (five in one season), and early this year a beautiful specimen tree. So who is this varmint and how do you tame him? Read on………..

The pocket gopher (Thomomys spp.) is named for the external, fur-lined check pouches these little pests use to carry food to their storage area. They are thick-bodied rodents that range from six – twelve inches long. They have powerful forelegs with long claws, small eyes and ears set back far on the head. Their exposed chisel-like teeth are used for digging, and grow continuously nine to fourteen inches a year. They use their strong, long-clawed forefeet to dig out a network of tunnels that usually run six to eighteen inches below the soil surface.

Gophers use their keen sense of smell to locate foods such as bulbs, tubers, roots, grasses, seeds, and occasionally, tree bark. They sometimes consume entire plants by pulling them down into their burrows. They do not hibernate, and come up to the surface only to push soil out of their burrows, forage, disperse to a new area and to seek mates. Except when mating or raising their young, they live alone in their burrows and will protect their tunnels fiercely from other gophers. They mate and produce young January to April, and have one litter a year, with an average of five offspring per litter. Their lifespan is up to twelve years. They will quickly plug off openings in their dark, subterranean tunnels to avoid light, water, gopher snakes and poisonous gasses of all types.

The first sign of a gopher may be a plant that is mysteriously wilting or a fan-shaped mound of finely pulverized soil in the lawn or planting bed – the result of their excavating tunnels. The mound has a plug off to one side to close up the hole. These mounds are different from those of the mole whose mounds are conical and plugged in the center. If you do see a wilting plant – give it a tug. A damaged rose plant will pull right out of the ground with all its roots gone (see example below).

There are a few ways to control these pests, none of them foolproof. I’ve tried all of them, and as with so many other things in the garden, find that prevention is the most effective. If you garden in an area inhabited by gophers, then the best advice is to plant everything in wire baskets. You can use chicken wire that comes in rolls that are 24 inches wide with one-inch openings. You can either wrap it around the root ball of the plant, or, in the case of larger scale plantings, line the holes with wire. Dig the planting hole, lay the wire in the bottom of the hole; depending on the size of the plant, a single piece of wire 24 X 24 inches may be sufficient. For larger plantings, you may need multiple pieces of wire that are placed in the hole cross-wise. Add some soil on top of the wire, the plant, some more soil, then wrap the wire up and around the plant (including the top). Fill the planting hole and cover the top with soil. The wire should last for five to 10 years.

If you find them in your garden, you can trap them or bait them. Gopher traps are very effective, and more so if you use multiple traps and avoid the temptation to put a single trap down a tunnel. Find a main horizontal runway that connects two gopher mounds. When the traps are in place, plug the hole with a ball of carrot tops or some other tender greens whose scent will attract them. Cover the hole with soil or a board to exclude all light. Check the traps frequently and clear them if the gopher has pushed soil into them. Be persistent; a clever gopher may avoid your first attempts at trapping. If the trapping is successful, them remove and dispose of the animal. Hopefully you won’t have to repeat the process too often.

Poison baits can be effective for a trap-wise gopher. Probe for a deep burrow with a stick, insert the bait (being very careful not to touch it) and close the hole. Be aware that these baits are poisonous to other animals including dogs and cats, so use with great care.

You can try gases though they are less effective than above, as are attempts at drowning them out of their homes by sticking a hose down the hole. A good dog or cat that likes to hunt can be very effective and keep your garden gopher free.

If you find a rose that has been damaged by these beasts like the one in the photo above, you can save the plant if you act quickly. Take the plant and immediately immerse the remaining root ball into a bucket of water. Prune the top of the plant heavily, leaving 18 – 24 inches, and few leaves. Prepare a container of potting soil, appropriately sized for the plant, then remove the plant from the water, dust the remaining root liberally with rooting compound, and pot up in the prepared container. Water well and place in a warm, semi-shady location. Keep the plant well watered, and within a month or so, you should begin to see new growth. It’s a good idea to leave the plant in the container for a season so that it can develop a good set of roots. Then transplant back into your garden, in a wire basket. And hope that you’ll have no more visits from the dreaded gopher.

Gopher photo by Zygmund Zee, used with permission from:

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