The Mountain Gardener: Now is the time to rid garden of gophers
by Jan Nelson
Apr 18, 2013 | 3173 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print

We all have a gopher, mole or a vole story to share.

I remember my first flower and vegetable garden. It was glorious. I was devastated, however, when the first of the border marigolds were sucked back into the earth, one at a time. Then the tomatoes went. Finally, my prize zinnias were victimized.

 I won't go into how the problem was solved, but it involved a basset hound named after a popular green apple.

But there are better ways to deal with problem critters in the garden, and at a recent workshop at University of California, Santa Cruz, Farm and Garden, I learned from an expert that now is the time to stop them.

Thomas Wittman first became interested in gardening as a student at UCSC where he helped build the university garden. Later, as an organic farmer at Molino Creek Farm up the coast, he encountered gophers, moles and voles that played havoc with the growing of produce. So, about 15 years ago he started his own business, Gophers Limited, to educate people and to control garden critters without the use of poison.

Wittman pointed out that simply poisoning a gopher, mole or vole doesn't solve the problem, because feeding burrows are re-occupied by other critters — sometimes within the hour. Also those anti-coagulant toxins can be passed on to pets, hawks and other predators that might eat them.

He advocates the use of mechanical live and lethal trapping methods in the place of poisons to preserve our environment and water resources — his top priority.

Did you know that gophers are solitary, nocturnal, territorial and active year-round? All those mounds of fresh soil and trails of raised earth on the lawn you see are created by one animal. The female will drive off her young after just a few weeks of giving birth. If you dispatch a female before she gives birth in the spring, you can often solve your problem.

Don't give her the chance to have another litter in June. She can live for three to five years.

There are no gophers in the Northeast, but the golden gopher of the Midwest is twice as large as our pocket gopher, who gets its name because the animal loves to store food inside pockets in its head.

Gophers love sprouts and apples and will gorge themselves to destruction if they are plentiful.

Perhaps you have a mole problem and are not troubled by gophers. The Gophers Limited website can teach you how to tell the difference.

Moles are carnivores and are one of the oldest animals on the planet. Arriving in our neck of the woods 40,000 years ago via the land bridge that used to exist between Asia and Alaska, these members of the shrew family are smarter than gophers. In the 13th century, the word “shrewd” came from these wily creatures.

Wittman mainly uses cinch traps to control gophers. Other traps, like the Macabee gopher trap, need to be set up in the main burrow. This excavation takes longer than the 20 seconds required for a surface trap like the cinch.

Wittman’s website has many tutorials on traps and other methods of control. When the country fair comes around in September, I'll be sure to look at the Agriculture History display of gopher traps dating back to the early 1900s.

I also enjoyed a lively discussion of urban myths regarding gopher control. Juicy Fruit gum is not effective, according to studies at University of California, Davis.

Chocolate Ex-Lax has not been studied, so the jury is out on that one.

Putting glass or dried rose cuttings with thorns down a hole is effective, because gophers are hemophiliacs and will bleed to death if cut.

Castor oil is effective for a short time, as is coyote, cat or any other urine.

Fish emulsion or meat products are also deterrents, as gophers are committed vegetarians.

And after trapping, Wittman always leaves the dead gopher in the hole. He claims they "get the message."

Are there plants that gophers won't eat? Wittman claims he has seen gophers repeatedly avoid lavender, sage, salvia, rosemary, thyme and oregano. As a designer, I have a slightly longer list of gopher-resistant plants, but I always recommend planting in stainless steel gopher baskets, anyway.

I have to chuckle at a list of plants I found in a magazine that are supposedly not on a gopher's menu. Agapanthus was on the list. Wittman smiled as he shared some of his personal slides of huge gopher burrows right underneath an agapanthus.

Hopefully gophers won’t be attacking your favorite apple, camellia or daylily this year.

- Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Email her at, or visit to view past columns and pictures.

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