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GOPHER DEFENSE — Final Contact

GOPHERS. They’re properly called “Pocket Gophers.” These furry little tunnel-makers are a problem in many parts of the western United States, and they are considered to be one of the top three garden pests in coastal California. Contrary to what you MAY have been told, they WILL eat rose roots, often killing the plant. And they are a little like Star Trek’s “Borg.” If you have them in large numbers, you begin to feel a bit like “resistance is futile.”

To protect roses from the depredations of the pocket gopher, some authorities recommend lining planting holes with “baskets” of galvanized wire mesh. The mesh is available from most home centers, sold in small rolls or by the foot. Ready-made baskets are even available at many nurseries. We tried this method of protection, and the baskets WERE somewhat effective in protecting rose roots. Even the best wire mesh, however, will begin to rust out after a few years, leaving an open door for gophers. Moreover, removing a rose becomes a very difficult proposition, once its roots have wound their way through a wire basket. Been there, done that. Beware of the danger of cutting your hands on buried, rusted wire!

Trapping is considered to be the most efficient means of disposing of gophers, and there are hundreds of styles of traps available. I can state with certainty that however diligent you may be with a trap, gophers are capable of reproducing in numbers sufficient to negate your paltry efforts.

I was startled to read the following rather bloodthirsty passage in Sunset’s GARDENER’S ANSWER BOOK: “Clobbering a gopher with a shovel can work after the victim has been flushed from his tunnel by flooding (level ground only) or gassing.*” Call me a pantywaist, but I simply cannot see myself in the role of a shovel-wielding assassin, crouched in wait beside a reeking gopher tunnel. (Besides, it’s futile. They WILL reproduce faster than you can bash or gas.) If you DO choose to try gas, Sunset recommends lighted highway flares, as being more effective than commercial gassers. It also cautions that you should block ALL holes, and water all of the areas around tunnels, to prevent the gas from seeping out. I suppose this might work with a small gopher population, but it didn’t make a dent in our Megalopolis of Gophers.

After several frustrating years, and several dead roses, we discovered in a friend’s garden what we feel is the ultimate weapon against gophers.

Planting in Containers

In our friend’s garden, raised beds with wooden sides held several roses each. Each rose had been planted in a very large black plastic pot, which was then planted halfway into the ground. The raised bed brought the soil level to within a couple of inches of the top of the pot. The small portion of the pot that appeared above-ground formed a “bowl” around the plant, and the pots were partially disguised by a thick layer of mulch. We have found that the container can just as easily be used in a ground-level bed. You just need to dig a deeper hole.

The ideal container for this use is called a “Squat.” Squats are lower and wider (“squattier”) than the usual sort of nursery pot; this configuration allows a rose to form a sizable root ball, with lots of the essential feeder roots. For a full-sized plant, we use 15-Gallon squats, which have sturdy, molded-in handles. They come with a few drainage openings around the bottom, but we use a hand drill to add from 8 to 10 extra 3/4-inch holes, for increased drainage. The extra holes also allow rose roots to grow down through the bottom of the pot right into the ground. Gophers can still attack these anchor roots, but they can NEVER penetrate the black plastic that shields the main root ball.

We have planted all of our roses in this manner for the past five years. Our gopher population has not decreased one whit in that time, but we no longer lose roses to them. When moving roses (some people move furniture, we move roses!) we have on several occasions found gopher tunnels which went completely around squats, as the gophers unsuccessfully searched for a way to reach the roots.

There are other advantages to the use of in-ground containers. We garden on a hillside, so water runoff USED to be a problem. No more. Our watering system winds its way from squat, to squat, to squat. Water flows directly into the pot, so that most of it waters roses, not the weeds at the bottom of the hill. Fertilizers, as well, are distributed into the squats and aren’t wasted on weeds. Sinking squats sideways into a hillside has enabled us to plant roses on steep slopes that would otherwise have been impossible for planting. Finally, the use of squats has enabled us to move rose plants easily from one location to another, with little disturbance of the roots. When we remove and discard a rose that has not proven itself in our garden, we are able to reuse the squat, which saves both money and work.

Initially, we had some concern that roses might not be able to stay planted in these containers indefinitely. We worried that they might run out of root space. We no longer feel that this is a concern. In digging up roses, we have seen that the anchor roots have readily found their way through the extra holes in the pot to “put their feet in the ground.” It is possible that regular feeding might become more important, but we have not seen any sign that the roses have suffered, even when we failed to feed on a regular schedule.

We live in Southern California, and have found 15-Gallon Squats available from Nursery Supplies Incorporated, located in Stanton, California (in the shadow of Anaheim Stadium). The minimum purchase from Nursery Supplies, Inc. is 30 squats, and the cost is in the range of $3.00 each. In other areas, I would recommend a look in the local Yellow Pages for Nursery Supply vendors. It’s very nice to be able to thumb your nose at encroaching gophers. Resistance is NOT futile!

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