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Laidback Gardening – those pesky gophers

Laidback Gardening – those pesky gophers

By Robert Kourik

In 1809, the Russian settlers gave up after 30 years of trying to farm in California. One settler’s diary lamented, “We could have made a good living here, if it were not for the ground rats.”

Gophers are pretty amazing. According to “Conversations With a Pocket Gopher” (Jack Schaefer, Capra Press, 1992): Gophers have lips behind their incisors to keep their mouths clean. The upper incisors can grow 14 inches per year. Thus, the relentless burrowing activity (especially in gravelly soil) keeps their teeth from impaling the brain!

An average gopher tunnel is two and seven-eighths inches round. The gopher is as wide as the tunnel, yet it can easily turn around — go figure.

A gopher can tunnel up to 150 feet every day.

Pocket gophers may turn three to seven tons of soil per acre every year.

Plant species diversity is 5–48 percent higher where gophers are present; mounds of soil are favored places for prairie wildflowers to germinate and flourish.

More importantly, after Mount St. Helens, in Washington, erupted in 1980, it was the activity of gophers and their defecation that brought mutually symbiotic fungi (mycorrhizae) to inoculate other plants to restore the disturbed soil. Gophers turn over the soil more effectively than earthworms, and the mounds they create are good for the soil. One report states that “total above-ground plant production would be increased by roughly 5.5% by the presence of the mounds.” So they aren’t completely malicious critters with no worth whatsoever.

These voracious herbivores tunnel both shallow and deep to feast on the roots of plants. An average of 22 gophers per acre translates to four pounds of fresh vegetation consumed per day. Many is the poor gardener who has watched helplessly as a young garlic top or tender bunch of lettuce suddenly begins to wiggle, then disappears beneath the ground.

Gophers are territorial and mostly nocturnal creatures that travel and skirmish across open land at night, looking for new places to burrow. In the spring, young gophers have their own version of “March Madness” as they leave home and frantically try to acquire their own territories. Once a gopher has established a territory it maintains it for life, but male gophers are polygamous, which means their territories overlap, or that they wander at night to court their next mate. In spite of its name, the common gopher snake gets only 6.4% of its nourishment from gopher meat. (They’re also territorial, so don’t try to import one into your garden, as it will just set off looking for home.) Rattlesnakes acquire only 2.5% of their protein from gophers, as the rodents’ tunnel systems make it hard for the snakes to recoil and strike. The most significant gopher predator is the barn owl, who will eat an average of 155 gophers a year (53 pounds), or 71.4% of its diet. Alas, any great horned owl within four miles will eat barn owls. For a list of gopher-resistant plants that includes those native to California, go to the Mostly Natives website: www.mostlynatives. com/plant-characteristics/ gopher-resistant.

Robert Kourik is the author of 18 books on gardening, including “Lazy-Ass Gardening” and “Understanding Roots.” For a full list, visit