Carl Spackler faces his enemy.Gopher Wars, Part I

In the universe of my little garden, gophers are the black holes. I never see them but I can infer their presence by their interaction with other matter. A suddenly failing plant has no roots. Mounds of freshly dug soil appear in flowerbeds untouched by human hands. Collapsed channels wind through a perfect lawn. Gophers were there and they are my enemy. Normally a mild-mannered matron of Bonita, these rodents bring out the Carl Spackler in me.

Let me warn you now, my otherwise sweet and sentimental nature is set aside on this issue and so the material that follows may not be suitable for the most sensitive in the audience.

Gophers are the bane of my life. We have been battling them for twenty-eight years on this plot of land. We have tried any number of methods with few successes and many futile gestures. We have lost hundreds of dollars of plant material. Several times I twisted an ankle stepping into a gopher hole – most recently, just a week ago. A neighbor built a platform and set a spa on it, all of which collapsed because of the gopher activity under it.

The dreaded Pocket Gopher. I have read everything I can get my hands on about gophers, as if knowledge is power. One description of a gopher pointed out its wide, powerful shoulders and narrow hips. Though I may have been charmed by such a description of a man, it isn’t what I am looking for in a rodent.

Despite what you may have heard, gophers do not hibernate and they can be active any time day and night. They spend most of their lives below ground. They have very poor eyesight but an excellent sense of smell and their whiskers allow them to detect movement in (and on) the soil around them. A gopher’s lifespan is about three years. In Southern California, a female gopher may have as many as three litters a year, usually with four or five young but as many as ten.

The most important thing to know about controlling them is how they move below ground and that they are very territorial. A gopher will live in a network of runs 6 to 12 inches below the surface. However, some tunnels will go as much as six feet down where a nest and food storage chamber may be — but because gophers feed mostly on the fleshy roots of herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees, you can expect them to be feeding where roots are. Also, gophers will be more active in irrigated areas. Our neighbor to the north does not irrigate their empty lot; they have very little gopher activity. We, on the other hand, battle constantly.

Because they are territorial, a network of burrows will usually be occupied by a single gopher except during mating season. Gophers are so territorial that they will fight to the death to fend off invaders. If you are successful in trapping a gopher, resetting the trap will probably not get another gopher right away. Most authorities say that the burrows may not be reoccupied for a couple of months or, in my experience, much longer. Because of this, I like to dig up the runs to prevent a return engagement. Even if I don’t completely collapse the entire network of runs, a new occupant will still have to reconstruct it and there will be telltale signs.

I will add an anecdote to this. The man who helps us in our yard has another client between two very infested neighbors who are not controlling their gophers at all. The client found a run connecting the two infested lots and the overpopulation around him caused the run to be reoccupied every week or so. Estimates for re-infestation are just estimates.

I was double digging my vegetable bed a month ago and found a run right up the middle. I stopped everything and shoved a hose down the tunnel and, running full force for twenty minutes, the water never backed up. From this, I could tell it was probably a well-developed network of runs. Such a network, occupied by a succession of gophers over months or years, will include lateral runs designed to divert flooding (from irrigation or rainfall or me) away from the nest and food chamber. Sneaky little devils.

I found where the run entered the bed and set traps. Finally we got the little devil. I dug up what I could of the run and continued the double digging — and found another run. This would explain the failure of my cucumbers last year. I thought I had miscalculated the irrigation and, observing powdery mildew and other damage, removed the plants. Now, I think gophers played a part.

In desperation, I tilled the whole bed like some kind of maniac. Not the best solution but sometimes I panic.

How many gophers can infest a plot of land? I find disagreement on this: estimates are as low as 16 to 20 per acre or as high as a few hundred. I find this last number implausible since a single gopher’s territory can cover an area up to 2,000 square feet and there simply can’t be enough snacks for a party that big. My optimistic nature wants to believe the lower figure. I don’t think anybody really knows.

On our property, the invasion is coming across our southern property line into what I call Gopher Alley. The photo shows the areas where we see active runs this year. There are also a couple of areas behind the photo’s point of view. Fortunately, the current neighbor, who purchased the property last year, is starting to see the seriousness of the problem and is taking action. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

So what’s this girl gardener to do? When controlling this or any other pest, there should be a method followed. I was trained by the Master Gardeners to implement Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques. In the Big Master Gardeners Bible, they define IPM as “the use of all suitable pest control methods in a compatible manner that minimizes adverse effects to the environment.” Heady stuff. How that plays out in my yard will be covered in “Gopher Wars, Part II.”

Laurie Gore is Zone 9 Deputy Heirloom Gardener. She and her husband Frank are big fans of the movie Caddyshack – he enjoys the golf humor, she has used it as a training film for Integrated Pest Management.

by Zone 9 Deputy Gardener Laurie Gore

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Laurie Gore, Zone 9

Thanks, Lylah. The Wars go on. Another chapter in my ongoing fight is in the pipeline and should pop up soon.

The funny thing about my cucumber problem and destroying the two runs in the vegetable patch this spring was that I based my spacing on my experience last year. Between banishing the gophers (she says hopefully) and doing a good job of amending the soil, my vegetable patch this year looks like rush hour traffic. Plants are spilling out everywhere. Part of that was by design (winter squash and pumpkins) and the rest is just a surprise.

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lylah ledner

Great article. We've got our own Gopher War going on as well. I found a hole – put the hose in and it ran full force for about 45 minutes. I walked all over this field trying to find the spot where it might end (water coming out) and finally….(I couldn't believe it took that long) water started bubbling out about 3 feet from the hosed hole. No gopher popped up though.

I find your comment about the cucumbers interesting. I've got an heirloom variety called 76 (fabulous, by the way) and my hole row looks awful and is dying. Now I think I know why.

I'm on a mission…..good luck to you on yours!

Lylah

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Laurie Gore, Zone 9

Y'know what, Cheryll, I am just finishing up Gopher Wars Part II and I had that same information about Jack Russells in it: there are breeds of dogs prized for their ability to dig after burrowing animals. And then there are some dogs who acquire that skill, like my neighbor's mixed breed Lucy. She is a blessing.

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cheryll

ha ha ha! I am forwarding this to my husband. We aren't losing produce to the gophers, and they aren't digging up the yard (the moles do that) but they ARE undermining the barns. His latest method is to dump used cat litter down their holes.

One could always try a Jack Russell terrier. They were bred to hunt vermin that hide in holes.

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Laurie Gore, Zone 9

Thanks for asking. I have never heard of moles in my area though my best sources say there is a species of mole native to Southern California. I count myself lucky. Also, from what I have read, moles leave a kind of ridge on the surface as they burrow. A gopher's run is only obvious by the mounds of soil they leave above ground. A mole will leave mounds but they will have a dimple in the center of the mound where they have plugged up their access hole; a gopher's mound is crescent shaped and its plug is off-center. Moles are also big eaters of insects and, though they eat some plant material, the most damage they do to plants is by dislodging them as they burrow. Gophers are exclusively herbivores and will chomp on all your prized specimens.

Which do you think you have?

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Laurie Gore, Deputy

I'm working on Gopher Wars, Part 2 right now and I'll tell you what we have been doing to repel the invasion. Stay tuned…

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Margret Mann

Oh brother am I in for it!

All we have is a small yard with a back bank,

And that' where our gopher is making a mess!

Does anyone ever get rid of them?

Any advise would be appreciated.

Margret

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