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Gardening with Gophers

Although I tend to be a compassionate type, and usually ooze environmental correctness from every pore, I can be reduced to a frothing mass of hatred by the furry pestilence known as gopher. Once, after witnessing a valuable and precious plant pulled into the ground, I actually stalked around my garden brandishing a colt 45 and threatening to shoot anything that moved. Thank God the neighbors weren't watching.

I have heard and tried probably every trick in the books: juicy fruit gum, rocks, gravel, unpalatable plants, raised beds trenched by aviary mesh. Baskets of mesh around each plant.  Nothing seems to work 100%.

When speakers come to our area to speak on gardening or landscaping topics, I often feel that someone should warn them ahead of time about the “varmint” question.  Regardless of the topic at hand, no matter how beautiful, elegant or sophisticated the presentation, someone will raise their hand during the talk and say, “Well, okay, thanks for sharing these magnificent gentians with us, but what about the gophers and the deer?”  The frustration in their voice will be almost tangible.  They are living in a world where gardens have been transformed from works of creative beauty into expensive and time consuming salad bars for unwelcome visitors. Our varmint problems have been known to drive lesser gardeners to less tragic pastimes such as knitting, or maybe crochet.  The hardcore gardeners are simply driven mad.

Gopher problems come in all sizes.  Gardeners in town, or with minimal problems, might have success using just one or two of the following techniques.  Gardeners with serious gopher predation can utilize all of the following techniques and still suffer major losses. For these gardeners, we offer our condolences, and the knowledge that local gardening clubs also serve as a support group for those who have been traumatized by the local gopher residents.

Gopher eradication should be a component of most gopher programs. Armies of cats have been suggested by numerous gardeners, and may well help those gardeners who do not have vulnerable bird populations. Trapping is necessary in most gardens. We try to trap heavily in the spring and fall.  I have probably dug more tunnels in my yard trying to trap gophers than the gophers dig themselves. On those rare occasions when I do catch one, I shake my trophy to the sky and howl in fiendish delight. The neighbors shutter their windows and call their children inside.

Several styles of gopher traps are available. The Macabee style trap, and the box trap (Black Hole trap) are the most common. Our neighbors swear by the cinch traps (medium size), which I have not yet used.  I have the best luck with the Black Hole trap, but it requires the evacuation of more soil to accommodate its larger size. For this reason, and the fact that our rock garden is mostly pea gravel, it is impossible to trap in the rock garden.   Regardless of the trap style used, it is very important to dig down and set the traps in the the main tunnels, not the short, sloping lateral tunnels that connect the underground runs to the surface of the ground.

Many gardeners use poisons to control gopher populations. Strychnine-treated grain bait is the most commonly used poison, and can kill a gopher in a single feeding, but it can pose serious threats to domestic pets and wildlife.  A safer, but slower alternative is a warfarin anticoagulant bait.  These are usually available in the form of large bars that can be placed into the tunnel.  One advantage of the bars is that they can be easily retrieved if it becomes obvious that the gopher is not eating them, or has moved on to a different part of the garden. We try to not ever use poison in the garden, as we have many hawks, owls, and other predators that we don’t want harmed.  But if a gopher has become a real problem in the rock garden, I will occasionally try to use poison.

In the vegetable garden we have been able to exclude gophers by building raised beds and lining the bottom with hardware cloth or galvanized aviary mesh. Individual plants can also be protected by planting each plant in a basket of aviary or gopher mesh.  This method can decreases losses, but is not foolproof.  Gophers can undermine the mesh and sever roots, causing severe plant damage or death. In addition, the roots of many trees and shrubs can be girdled by the baskets.

Various other methods of eradication have been tried by gardeners through the years--gopher snakes, juicy fruit chewing gum, laxatives, mountain lion piss, shovels, shotguns and colt 45 pistols—but most have proved impractical or ineffective.

In our garden, the most successful strategy has been to use only gopher resistant plants. Now, a hungry gopher will eat almost anything, and even poisonous plants can be damaged and killed when the gopher tunnels underneath and within their root structure.  But certain plants are just better suited to surviving gardens with high predation. These plants incorporate several strategies.  The plant must be either toxic or just bad tasting.  A delicious plant (such as dianthus) will disappear regardless of other resistant strategies it may have employed.  Plants that root as they spread (globularia, veronica) are less vulnerable than plants that have a single taproot system.  Likewise, multi-crowned plants are less vulnerable than those with a single crown. Plants that reseed, such as Penstemon or Aethionema are invaluable. Some plants, like the Eriogonums, have evolved in the company of gophers and use dense fibrous root structure to survive predation. 

The attached list includes plants that have declared resistant in other gardens and those that have proven resistant in our own garden.

Gopher-resistant plant list  (NO GUARANTEES!!!!!)

(This list does not include resistant trees or large shrubs)

  • Agapanthus
  • Amaryllis belladonna
  • Armeria alliacea (but not other species)
  • Calla lilly
  • Cistus sp. (Rock roses)
  • Campanulas
  • Digitalis sp. (Foxgloves)
  • Eriogonums
  • Euphorbias
  • Globularias
  • Helleborus
  • Heuchera sp. (Coral bells)
  • Hypericum sp.
  • Irises (unless they are hungry)
  • Lavenders
  • Narcissus sp. (Daffodills)
  • Nepata sp.
  • Origanum sp (Oreganos)
  • Penstemon
  • Rosemary sp.
  • Salvia sp. (some, but not all)
  • Veronica sp.

 Many of the plants listed on this website have survived predation in our gardens.  Exceptions are usually noted.