By Jim Bishop.
This is a continuation of last May’s article about challenges creating a garden in our new home in Mission Hills.
This is the start of the 5th year I’ve been writing the series “My Life with Plants”. For anyone that knows me or has visited my garden, what they may find amazing is that in all those articles I’ve only used the word “gopher” once. So, here for the 48th edition is the long expected, not really anticipated, Gopher Edition!
For years I’d heard gardeners complain and express their frustrations about gophers. I sort of knew about them when I saw torn up landscaping in street medians and park lawns, but I always thought they were exaggerating the damage. However, shortly after starting work on our garden in Mission Hills, all of that would change. When we completed our terracing of the upper part of the hillside, I envisioned planting large billowing shrubs and climbing roses between our house and the neighbor’s yard to cover a short chain link fence. I set out on a Saturday morning to visit Steve Brigham at Buena Creek Garden to help me select some appropriate roses which were also on sale. With great pride I planted the new roses along the fence and was very happy with the results. The next day I was admiring my handwork from the bedroom window, when I saw the newly planted Cecile Brunner rose disappear into the ground in big gulps. Horrified I ran outside to see some strange and very scary looking vermin with big teeth and claws pulling it all underground. I asked the neighbor what it was he replied, “Oh yeah, we were wondering what you were doing when you planted it. The hillside is loaded with gophers.” And so the 16 year battle began.
Agave rolled down the canyon after roots were eaten by a gopher
When I first starting planting the garden, I had a very different gardening style. I used to grow lots of grasses, perennials and roses. However, I found there are some plants that seem to be gopher magnets and not worth even trying near gophers. That is why today in the canyon I have almost no salvias, lavateras, asters, most palms, annuals and only a few grasses and roses. These plants, should they survive their first gopher attack, usually never fully recover.
Over the years, I’ve tried gassing, poisoning, trapping, planting deterrent plants, and just about everything else that someone has recommended to try and stop their damage and rampage through the garden. I’d guess I’ve killed hundreds but still always one or two gophers are working somewhere in the garden. I assume there are always more that I haven’t discovered yet.
When we started working further down the hill, often I’d be standing on what looked like firm ground and suddenly the ground would collapse under you as a large tunnel below you gave way. Until the last couple of years, I’ve settled for keeping gophers at bay in the main planted garden. I call the chaparral area below the house Gopher Heaven. It’s here that gophers reign supreme. The entire hill is riddled with old and new tunnels. There were so many gopher tailings that the loose dirt would slide out from underneath you if you tried to walk there. During the rainy season it all turns to a slippery sticky mud. However, recently we’ve had the chaparral thinned and cut up off the ground and I’ve been actively trapping in that area.
My most successful year without gophers was when we had our cat Ollie. He was exceptionally large with especially large front paws. He was obsessed with hunting and often killed as many as 4 rodents per day---and left them in the T.V. room off the bedroom. His record was 13 gophers in one month. He also killed other rodents, but seemed to have a fondness for gophers. I only actually saw him hunt one time. I was setting a gopher trap and when I opened the tunnel, he immediately ran over to it gave it sniff and put his whole arm into the tunnel. When he didn’t find anything he moved a feet away and just sat and watched the opening. We always had a difficult time keeping Ollie in the house after dark. He learned to unlock the cat door. If you blocked it with a pot or furniture, he’d move that too. He cleared our whole hill of rodents and moved on to our neighbor’s yards and adjoining canyons. It was here that he crossed into coyote territory. We saved him a couple of times from coyotes, but he kept going back and finally never returned one night. We still have Ollie’s brother, Stanley, but he mostly stays out of the canyon and doesn’t hunt much. We have a new cat Gracie, but she isn’t a hunter.
Today, I use mostly cinch traps. They are much easier to set than Macabee Gopher traps and I like that you can see them sticking out of the hole from a long ways away. I find that checking for new tunnels regularly and immediately setting a trap is the most effective method. Still, gophers seem to learn over time how to bury the traps without setting them off. I also cage most everything I plant. When working in a new area of the garden, I bury chicken wire 6 inches below the soil. This won’t stop them, but it does seem to slow them down. I no longer bother with any of the countless home remedies. I’ve tried them all and haven’t found anything as effective as trapping. The war continues, with no ceasefire in sight.