It’s a pastoral and delightful day in the garden. Butterflies dance in light breezes fluttering past my face. A mocking bird alights upon the old cracked wooden fencepost above my head and does its best car alarm impersonation.
My senses are keen, honed like a panther that’s seen too many bobcat wars in its life. My mission, a simple one: hunt down, humiliate and sterilize all the invasive spotted spurge. I take in all of my surroundings. My very heartbeat is in rhythm with the light breezes and flora and fauna. Yet below me, terror awaits with sharp tooth and claw.
From the darkness, he mocks me. Beady useless and lifeless eyes seek out telling rays of sunlight. Monstrous talons caked in clay, blood and tears crumble away at secret passages. In silence he toils. My panther-like stillness and calm trance-like stealth afford me complete invisibility to his heightened senses of seismic activity. I move like Kevin Bacon in Tremors for fear the very stones may prate my whereabouts. Neither of us knows that the other lurks.
To my left I hear a faint rustling in the cluster of millet. Millet chest high and bursting with seed. My millet. My eyes zero in on the source of the sound, but nothing is there.
“Must be the wind,” I murmur to myself. I return to the hunt. Pulling at the roots alwa…
Again! The rustling.
This time my eyes know exactly where to go and do so instantaneously. There! At the base of the stalk, two leaves dancing to a different song than their neighbors. Yet no sign of anything.
I rise up slowly and quietly. Looking for the tell-tale three laser dots from the Predator to appear on my chest. “What gives?” Moments pass and just as I begin to once again question my sanity, the whole stalk wiggles and jerks. Just as suddenly, it begins to sink down into the earth in jagged fits like a long delicious noodle being slurped up by a hungry fat Italian child at the Spaghetti Factory. I move closer and watch this beautiful four foot tall crop disappear into the earth. Swallowed up by the detritus leaving a dimple and nothing more.
“He’s returned”, I said out loud to no one, “Get the axe!”.
-Excerpt from the nonexistent novel, My Fuzzy Vengeance: The true story of one mans battle for a green and lovely lawn by Sir Mug Squidwallow IIV (aka James Gielow).
Know Thine Enemy:
“I have to laugh, because I’ve outsmarted even myself. My enemy, my foe, is an animal. In order to conquer the animal, I have to learn to think like an animal. And, whenever possible, to look like one. I’ve gotta get inside this guy’s pelt and crawl around for a few days.”
Is it a pocket gopher?
Thomomys species, or pocket gophers, are burrowing rodents sent from the Dark Lord of the Underworld. They are crafted from gypsy tears and lava and have been known to eat the souls of babies. They have external fur-lined pouches (or pockets) they call cheeks designed to steal both your produce and your spirit. The gophers evil lips can close behind their ugly incisors to allow them to dig away without getting any dirt in their mouths. Clever buggers aren’t they? Their tiny lifeless eyes do little to seek out food. Their ears are just as useless, but somehow they are really into The Eagles. In order to maneuver in the dark tunnels, they use highly sensitive whiskers (another gift from the Dark Lord of the Underworld). But it’s their keen sense of smell that leads them into your veggie garden.
There are five species of pocket gopher in California alone, but chances are you’re dealing with Thomomys Bottae, or Botta’s pocket gopher. They’re about five to nine inches long with those nasty exposed incisors and large claws designed to dig and dig fast. They will almost always be underground in their burrows, but you may see one feeding right at the edge of an opening to the burrow. Sometimes you’ll see them scurrying about above ground as they seek out new territories. Such sightings are rare though.
Chances are, the way you’ll know that there’s a gopher present is by it’s tell-tale mounds. As gophers dig new and fancy rooms and tunnels in their burrows, they need to push the dirt out to the surface. The mounds are typically crescent- or horseshoe–shaped when looking from above and the plugs are off to one side.
Note: If the mound is more circular with the plug in the center (kinda like a volcano) then you have mole trouble brother. That’s a different article, but I recommend getting an old priest and a young priest on standby.
What’s he building down there?
One gopher can create several mounds in a day. In areas that are not irrigated, they tend to do this only in the Spring and Fall when the ground is damp and the soil is looser. But in your lawn, garden or flower beds, the soil is always damp and loose so they will dig year round. If it’s winter time, they will even tunnel through the snow.
The evil lair of the pocket gopher can be anywhere from 200 to 2,000 square feet. That’s officially twice the size of my f*#king house! Another reason to destroy these vermin. Their feeding burrows are about 6-12 inches below the surface. The nest and food storage areas can go up to six feet below the surface. In between are the family room, spa/gym and entertainment rooms.
They never hibernate. Even if you don’t see active mounds, they’re down there all right. Plotting. They’re active at all hours of the day. At night, they tend to do sketches of you in awkward and uncouth situations to line the walls of their entertainment rooms.
When to strike?
Here’s the good news: they typically live alone. So that’s only one gopher to kill. Unless of course if it’s breeding season. In the Spring, they will call over ladies of ill repute at late hours (using your minutes) to invite them over for some less than romantic hanky panky. They can produce up to three litters per year at five to six young per litter. That’s why you need to get them as soon as you see their mounds! Chances are they’re swanking up their bedrooms before inviting the ladies over for swinging parties. Parties that you’re not invited to! DO NOT HESITATE!
They will eat just about all your veggies, but also go after the roots of newly planted trees! You’ve already read my story above regarding the millet. The damage a gopher can do will always surprise you. Hell, if you had a juicy carrot in your pocket and were standing still long enough, he’d probably drag you down to his lair as well! Don’t even get me started on their excessive WiFi usage! They’re good at hacking passwords.
The Nitty Gritty:
Okay folks. We’re gonna tackle this from two different camps: humane ways to deal with gophers and “swimming with the fishes” ways. If you’ve arrived here with hate in your heart, a yard full of large dirt mounds and missing veggies, and demand revenge in a just and final manner, you may wish to scroll on down to Section 2: Death from Above! Most of these methods will require you to expose that plug in the mound and even dig down to the main tunnel in some cases. I’ll illustrate how to do that below. I’ve personally tried just about every method listed below. Some work with some success, some with little to none and one worked every time. You’ll see which is my favorite at the bottom, but I want you to have options for moral or entertainment reasons. Here goes.
Section 1: The Gentle Approach: for the peaceful gardener
You just got out of your yoga class, finished your granola wheat-grass acai smoothie and you’re not in a killing mood. I get it. We all have the right to live and thrive right? Fine! Have it your way and let the varmint soar. Yet still, your mellow has been harshed by the wake of destruction before you. You must passively and soothingly shoo away these unwelcome guests. But how?
- Cornmeal: Cornmeal when sprinkled liberally onto your lawn or garden and then soaked into the dirt with a hose will act as deterrent to gophers. They simply do not like the taste left in the soil as they dig their tunnels and will choose to move on elsewhere. There is also and added benefit of a mild lawn fertilizer from the cornmeal. This method, however, only will last for a month or two depending on how much rain you get. Based on this, it can be costly and time consuming but not a bad option due to the added benefits.
- Seismic deterrents: Vibrating sticks can be purchased for your yard which create a mild thumping vibration that drive gophers far away from the source. It basically simulates a person or predator walking around on the surface and can be quite effective at keeping gophers at bay. They have stakes that you drive into the ground (not by hammering) that are either solar-powered, require batteries or you can get windmill-powered ones at your local Harbor Freight. Dying batteries or sunless/windless days or locations are the flaws in this system. That, and the fact that if you need large areas protected, the costs are huge!
- Bio-barriers: Some plants are thought to deter gophers. Plants such as caper spurge, gopher purge, mole plant (Euphorbia lathyrus) and the castor-oil plant (Ricinus communis) have been promoted as gopher repellents, but there is no evidence of their effectiveness. In addition, these are not recommended as they are poisonous to both humans and pets. That, coupled with the number of plants you would have to place in order to effectively create a barrier, makes this method a bit impractical and greatly limits your landscaping design. It might not be a bad option if a portion of your lot borders an open field or park.
- Live traps: The principles employed by live traps are almost as effective as the deadly spring traps (Spoiler alert: my preferred method) illustrated in Section 2 below. They take advantage of the gophers’ obsessive desire to plug up any holes in their massive burrows. The only caveat is that you have to put the gophers somewhere else once caught, and hopefully not where you’ll be pissing off the neighbors. So be careful when you’re relocating! Also, try not to handle the gopher at all if you can avoid it. Should you need to grab it, do so at the base of its neck like a mother cat carrying her young. Safe for you and painless to the gopher.
Section 2: Death from Above!: for the warrior gardener
My personal choice of methods—the permanent kind.
Warning: Graphic content!!
Captain Picard doesn’t mess around with space gophers; why would you mess around with Earth gophers?
Please don’t get me wrong, I love animals. I abhor cruelty to animals in all forms. Killing is not my forte. However, there are four animals on this green earth that I do not trust or abide: vampire bats, real vampires, zombies and gophers. Oh, and Hitler. Five. Five animals.
I don’t revel in taking their lives and I do so with solemn respect and reverence. I will, however, dispatch them all without hesitation. Let’s focus on gophers. For now (I’m looking at you zombies). This will be the one and only time on Mind Your Dirt that I will condone or teach death dealing as a solution for animal control. So get it while you can. Murderer.
- Garden Hose: Wow! What an excellent way to waste a bunch of precious water. The amount of water needed to fill an entire full-size burrow, provided it’s not seeping out elsewhere is too much to risk the low probability that you’ll actually drown the gopher. They even have chambers dug for drainage! And if you do end up scaring it to the surface, it’s time for hand to hand combat. Are you ready for that? In drought ridden California, this is simply not an option. Plus, death from drowning is awfully cruel. Even for gophers. You might also create sinkholes in your lawn and do more damage than the gopher. Skip this one if you can.
- Gas Bombs: Gas bombs definitely have the coolness factor—they look like dynamite and move like the fog in a scary movie. The main ingredient is sulfur though, so you don’t want to breathe that in and you need to make sure you quickly seal the hole after you light the bomb and drop it in. Here’s the trouble with gas bombs, they move…very…slowly. Slower than the gopher can. They go out before the burrow is filled up and much of the gas seeps into the dirt itself especially in an irrigated, loose soil environment like your lawn. Another downside is that you won’t know it’s worked until you either see or don’t see a fresh mound the next day or so. I prefer confirmation of my kills thank you.
- Car Exhaust: Actually, this method is more effective than the smoke bomb due to the sheer volume of toxic gases it produces. You’ll need some supplies to do the job, like metal flexible duct/hose to direct the fumes into the hole. Newer cars with higher emission standards will have to run longer, but 15 minutes should do the trick. Again, you run the risk of hand-to-hand combat should the gopher try escaping out the back door!
- Explosives: Okay, I’m mostly joking about this method. But about 400 lbs. of C4 should do the trick! Actually, they do have a gas that you can pump into the burrow and then ignite, but I do not recommend trying this risky method. The danger level (coupled with the fact that it’s illegal in most states) makes this a pass.
- Hire gopher snakes: Again, not very serious about this, but it would do the job. Two or three breeding pairs released into the garden should keep you gopher free forever. The main problem with this method is what will you introduce once the snakes take over? Mongoose? Then panthers to eat the mongoose. Dragons to eat the panthers. Next thing you know, your whole village is burnt to a crisp including the veggies. But no gophers!
- Toxicants: Definitely not for the organic gardener! You’ll be introducing toxic chemicals into your yard that kids or dogs can be exposed to way too easily for me to responsibly recommend this method. Also, often the gopher will only eat enough to make himself sick and will avoid it from then on. There’s also the risk of creating a mutant radioactive gopher that will steal your wife, house and car after beating you within an inch of your life! Trust me (I miss you Susan, Trans Am and mansion in La Jolla. Sniff sniff).
- Spring Traps: Ahh, the simple and cheap spring trap! Now we’ve arrived at the true hero of gopher control and my personal favorite. It’s also the most cost effective method, so double bonus. Go ahead and skip all the fancy traps or anything made of plastic and buy yourself a few Victor EZ set 0165 gopher traps. As it often is in life, the simple way is the best. These traps, when properly placed, work by taking advantage of the gophers main phobia: exposed burrows. To a gopher, an exposed burrow means that gopher snakes can sneak in for a nice feast. They are fastidious when it comes to sealing up any breaches to their lair. I’ve had some gophers get trapped 15 minutes after placing one of these. They are obsessed about their home being in order. Use this to their ultimate defeat and despair. Here’s a step-by-step on how to use these traps…
The Victor EZ set Trap: look no further!
Step 1: Locate the mound and open up the plug. You can do this with your hands as the soil is very loose and it’s easier to feel your way around than it is to use a tool. Don’t worry, he will be avoiding you like the predator that you are and will most likely be 100 feet away. Wear gloves if you feel safer, but you lose that tactile advantage. Once the plug is clear, many times you can look down the slanted tunnel and see the main tunnel below. Sometimes, this is not evident. If you can’t easily spot the main horizontal tunnel, see if you can find other mounds close by. Draw an imaginary line between those two mounds and chances are that the main tunnel is right there about 6—12 inches down.
Sometimes the slanted feeding tunnels go off the side of the main tunnel and you can get a bit lost. Don’t start digging willy nilly though or you risk being just as destructive as the gophers and someone will set traps to catch you! You can use a thin metal rod as a poker to determine if the tunnel is there by feeling for a sudden lack of resistance as you probe downward.
Step 2: Dig down to the main tunnel just wide enough to fit your hand and the trap. This is important because if you simply place the trap in the slanted feeding tunnel, the gopher may just seal it off the feeding tunnel from the main tunnel and not the surface, making your trap moot. I’ve had a few occasions where I tried setting the trap in the slanted feeding tunnel only to have it magically buried in dirt within the next hour. I’ve also had a few times where it worked fine.
Before you dig, it’s a good idea to remove the turf/sod in a nice clean circle while trying your best to not damage the roots. Place the removed turf in the shade and keep it moist so you can replace your divots later! This will save you from having to re-seed the lawn. If there are multiple mounds, you can stuff the holes with the loose dirt and re-seed or re-sod depending on the extent of the damage. After the beast is subdued of course.
Step 3: Attach a string or thin wire (about two feet long) to the trap and tie the other end around a wood stake or a length of pipe or PVC. This is to retrieve your trap in case the gopher tries dragging it down the tunnel or buries it because he got the better of you (it happens). Simply push the stake into the ground a few inches as hammering will only drive the gopher farther away.
Follow the instructions to carefully set your trap. You don’t want that going off in your hands and risk further ridicule from the gopher below. He’ll tell his friends and they’ll all have a laugh at your expense! Hasn’t he taken enough already? Here’s nice video to show you how its done.
Carefully place one trap down the hole and then set it in the left side of the main tunnel with the flat metal trigger closest to you. Then do the same on the right side of the main tunnel. You see, you don’t know exactly where he is in the burrow and you need to cover both exits. You can either fill in the slanted feeding tunnel at the mound where the process began, or use a third trap there to increase your chances.
Step 4: Keep away from the area, about 20 feet or so. You, your kids, your dog, anything that will create vibrations that will drive him deep into his burrow. Sit back and wait for the sweet revenge! I’ve had it happen in as short as 15 minutes and as long as 24 hours. Usually it’ll happen sooner than later, but if it’s been more than a day then find another location because chances are the tunnel has been abandoned. I like to use a bit of white 1/4″ string and lay the slack on the lawn, in a nice shape that I can easily see from a distance. Usually when the trap has gone off, the slack is taken up a bit and you’ll be able to spot it from afar, so as to not run the risk of scaring the gopher away before he’s caught.
Step 5: Dispose of the body. Be sure to use thick gloves to carefully free it from the spring trap. Who knows what diseases you might get if you poke yourself with the trap that was just in the gopher! You may get an uncontrollable urge to dig holes in the lawn and tear up your flower beds. That would be bad.
I prefer to bury the gopher right there on the spot in his main tunnel. While I have nothing to back this up, I believe that the smell deters other gophers from moving in anytime soon. I also like the idea of using the nutrients from his body to feed the area where he was actively destroying my greens. I would avoid doing this in the vegetable garden though. Kinda creepy to have him feeding your food! If it happens in the garden, you can just bury him elsewhere. Or maybe you’re into taxidermy? Turn him into a scare—gopher and display him at the four corners of your property as a warning to all those that follow! Your decision.
No matter which method you choose, once the gopher is gone the burrow will remain unused for a spell. But one day, maybe a year or two later, a young enterprising-upstart gopher will be wandering around in search of prime real estate. It will find this lovely abandoned burrow and move on in. Always keep a close eye out for those fresh mounds and act fast to avoid further damage!
I’d post more actual photos, but my yard has been gopher free for over a year now. They’ve all learned to fear and respect the mustachioed man beast. If you follow these simple steps then you too will be free of the gopher menace!
Now, this whole article is pretty in depth and will get you the results you need. It does, however, lack the street cred you can get by watching the movie Caddyshack in its entirety. It will teach you all you need to know about gopher hunting! I can only open the door; you must walk through it.
On a further note, I’d like to take this time to boast on how few Caddyshack clips I added to this post. I wanted to add so many, but my girlfriend talked me down. Something about litigation blah blah blah. I don’t know. Just return the favor by watching it right after reading this post.
What are your gopher war stories? Let me know what’s worked for you or what humiliations you’ve suffered at the hands of the beast. Mind Your Dirt wants to know your shame and your triumph. Having trouble catching the brute even after this article? Then just ask and I’ll help you out directly!