Tag Archives: pocket gophers

why i did it

I’ve been reading David Rakoff lately. How I got to doing it is a little morbid but I’m sure you’re guilty of it too: An author dies; you’re reminded that the author was someone you’d always meant to look into; and only then do you finally get around to picking up one of their books.

The book I’m reading is Fraud, the only one not already checked out from my library by other Johnny-come-lately’s. Fraud collects together some of his essays, many of which appeared on radio on NPR’s This American Life, or in various magazines. One piece talks about him–an adamant New York indoorsman–going to New Hampshire to climb Mount Monadnock along with a man who’d been doing it every day for the last five years. Even in a lovely description of the atmospherics on the summit you hear the city boy protesting and experiencing nature with ironic urban quote marks around everything: “Shrouded in fog, we cannot see more than thirty feet in any direction. It lends a false sense of enclosure to everything, like a diorama from the Museum of Natural History.” And in the first paragraph he dismisses the pleasures of nature: “You want greenery? Order the spinach.”

I am so not David Rakoff, a realization driven home through my recent battles in the ongoing War Against Gophers I’ve been fighting.

A year ago I thought I’d come to a workable truce, using a concoction of blood meal and chile powder to repel the beasts from the garden. But in July this year more things in the front garden started dying back or dying altogether:

The last of the Verbena lilacina plants, probably gone for good.

Two of the three San Miguel Island buckwheats (Eri­o­gonum rubescens var. rubescens) I planted late last spring. Gone.

Chaparral currant (Ribes indeorum). This one I was particularly upset about because the plant is the first big native that a person coming up the front walkway would notice. Not a good first impression of California plants for visitors.

One thing I hadn’t tried so far is using traps. I monitor the listserv for the native plant society, and many folks swear by traps as the only thing to work that doesn’t leave the garden littered with dead gophers that might be consumed by wildlife or pets. Traps sound unpleasant, but they seemed the way to go with the fewest chances of collateral damage. I was desparate.

So…off I went to the local hardware store and returned with these little death machines. I found an area in the garden that looked recently active, gopher-wise, dug a hole, and placed the two traps as directed, facing opposite directions in the tunnel, and tying the traps to something fixed in case the creature drag the trap deep into the tunnel system. That final direction about tying the traps to something immovable was almost Too Much Information…a wounded gopher in its death throes pulling a heavy trap deep into the tunnels. Ick. Really, do I want to do this?

Still, there’s a deniability to the process. I set the trap, but the gopher must choose to enter it. The gopher could chose to visit the garden next door instead, or paddle itself off to Aruba or hop a jet to Cairo. It’s a pretty bogus deniability, for sure, sort of saying something like semi-automatic weapons aren’t designed for shooting humans. But it helps me sleep at night.

My long-late mother used to tell a story about life in my recently-late father’s village. The area had a problem with dangerous feral dogs, and people were insistent that something be done about the dangers (i.e., do the dogs in–This is generations before and worlds away from today’s animal rescue ethic)). The population was heavily Buddhist, however, and people were reluctant to harm the dogs in any way. Their solution: poisoned bait. If the dog ate the bait and died, it did so on its own volition. The humans reduced the dog population, but came out of the deal washing their hands of what the dogs did, “all on their own.”

My karmatic glow dropped a few points about a week after I placed the traps, when one of them did what it was designed to do, dispatching what seemed to me one extremely large gopher, big as my fist and alarmingly heavy. It took a surprising large amount of effort extricate the gopher from the trap, pulling the carcass out of the twin spikes that pierced its little skull. Poison would be so easy compared to this, and way more deniable. But I did what I did and now I was dealing with the consequences.

There are more gophers in the garden, I know, but so far they’ve eluded capture. And fortunately for the garden whatever gophers may be left don’t so far seem to have as voracious an appetite as the one I caught. This California Fuchsia, ‘Route 66,” is beginning its flowering, just a few feet from where the gopher activity peaked. So far so good. But I suspect my karma points are going to take a hit someday soon.

I suppose I’m too sensitive a being worrying about all this. If I were David Rakoff I’d just order the spinach and get on with life.

random updates

San Miguel Island buckwheat, Eriogonum grande var. rubescens, possibly protected by a cloak of extra-hot chili powder

Update #1: The gopher chronicles (Original post: Cooking for Vermin)

It’s been three weeks since I tried to ward off gophers by using extra-hot chili powder. People want to know if it works.

The conclusion: There’s no sign of obvious damage from pocket gophers in the treated area. The plants are growing and blooming normally. That might sound like success, but there hasn’t been any gopher damage anywhere else in the garden, either. So it’s inconclusive at this point. But I’ll post as the season goes on. I really really want this to work.

Update #2: Life post-hacking (Original post: I was hacked)

After I realized that my blog was hacked I cleaned out what looked like the problem code. But two days later the WordPress Pharma Hack was back. I did more drastic cleanup after that, and it looks like that took care of the problem.

The tide turns...

Even after cleanup, because it takes days to weeks for Google to catch up and reindex everything on a site, searches for my blog showed many titles for my posts as promising ways to buy various drugs without prescription. Even as recently as Wednesday, last week, the number one blog keyword was “Prescription.” For a garden blog it’s pathetic to have that word ahead of the next four on the list: “garden,” “plants,” “blog” or “landscape.” But the tide turned on Thursday, and the good words continue to rise as the hacker words sink.

Update #3: Aloe, good-bye (Original post: Exotic plant, exotic pest)

It’s been almost a year since I mentioned that my specimen Aloe barberae (aka A. bainesii) was in serious decline. Aloe mites had attacked the plant and I was blaming its fate on them. The plant continued to decline to the point that it had just a few growing tips that kept getting smaller and smaller. Something was very wrong and we cut the plant back to a stump one to two months later, leaving three small pups that were springing from the lowest two feet of the plant.

The dying trunk of the dying aloe, with the three pups looking increasingly worse. Time to pull the pups off to root them, it looks like...

Since then even those little pups have failed to thrive. Signs of mites have been few, so I’m beginning to think that some other cause is responsible for the problems. Hypothesis #1 at the moment: pocket gophers eating the roots. My main reason for thinking this is that there’s another A. barberae just a few feet away that looks robust, with none of the signs of illness the big plant was showing. I’ll keep my hope up for that plant.

A rooted cutting of the original big aloe

In the meantime, aloes being aloes, I figured that all the little branch tips I cut off might root easily. I treated all the chunks with miticide, stuck them in potting mix and kept them just-moist. All three took.

Quite frankly I’m not sure there’s room in the front for two giant aloes I had there in the first place–placing the two original plants so close was a mistake. So I gave two of the rooted plants to people in my office who were eager to grow this terrific plant. I still have one rooted plant, along with a half dozen more unrooted branch tips sitting on my greenhouse floor that are still green, almost a year later. I might end up with an impressive aloe in a pot if I can’t find a place for it. And if I root the remaining branch tips I could have a half-dozen more giveaways.

The original plant looks doomed, but pieces of the original clone live on. In the life and death world of gardens that’s almost a happy ending.

Update #4: Crest-fallen (Original post: Mutant Primrose)

In case you’re wonderng what happened to the mutant Hooker’s evening primrose from a May 12 posting, it looks like the weight of the extra tissue on the crested growing tip was more than the stem could keep aloft. Within a week of the original photo, the stem flopped to the ground, where it has stayed, still alive, but not thriving…

Now (early July)...
How the plant looked in early May...

Update #5: A different outcome for a crested growth (Original post: Deformity or Biological Wonder?)

My last progress report is on this mutant crested growth of a Euphorbia lambii. Since I posted on it in June of 2009, the plant seems to have incorporated the crest into its continued growth patterns, unlike on what was going on with the primrose above. Still, you can tell that the growth pattern isn’t quite what normal plants go through. Still interesting, two years later…

The crest as of July of this year...
The crest in June, 2009
A different view of the plant as it looks today. The spindly-looking-ness of the plant is my fault (forgetting to water it enough) and not something the crested growth is responsible for.

cooking for vermin

It’s been a bad year for pocket gophers. I’ve been cleaning up the garden for our annual big July 4th party, dealing with gopher damage and generally getting everything pretty-like. One large spot in the front–just about the first zone of the garden visitors will encounter–is totally bare and calls out for some new plants to fill in the space. But the last thing I wanted to do is to install something new that would turn into expensive gopher chow.

I decided that I would try to place some new plants in the dead zone, but wanted to see if I couldn’t try something to deter the gophers. Gopher bait pellets are popular, but I can’t say that they’ve worked for me. How can you tell if something is working when the creature you’re after lives 99.9% of the time underground and their damage seems to come in random spurts? And I worry about the cat discovering a poisoned gopher. Gopher-killing traps are popular, and it’s the one method that seems to have the best chance at success. Still I’m not sure I’m ready to go there.

I’ve tried castor bean-based repellant. I’ve tried blood meal. Both things that are supposed to keep the creatures at bay, but I don’t know that they’ve worked for me for longer than a few days. And the idea of spreading blood meal fertilizer around native plants at the start of what’s summer dormancy for many of them didn’t seem like too bright an idea. (Let me force feed you some bratwurst while you’re trying to get to sleep…) One thing I haven’t tried is chili powder.

I admit that this is just an experiment, maybe one that’s doomed to fail. The only things I have going on my side are the facts that, 1) there’s at least one commercial product out there that combines blood meal with chili powder, and 2) you sometimes see references on gopher control using chili, usually in combination with something like garlic. Since I don’t want to do blood meal, the chili powder alone might do something.

And if chili powder might work, why not use the most industrial-strength stuff you can your hands on? It’s not pepper spray, but the local Indian grocer sells 880 grams of extra-hot ground pepper for less than five dollars–less than half the price for the blood-meal/chili mixture I’ve seen. I cook with the stuff, but a half teaspoon will make a large batch of food sizzle and scare away most of my Ohio relatives. It might work for gophers, too.

So, into the planting holes I mixed up a recipe of soil mixed with generous amounts of the chili powder, about 1 quarter cup per hole. Next, into the holes go the three new San Miguel Island buckwheats. They’re not the most exotic of the California native plants, but I was pretty happy to find several well grown examples in a local generalist nursery. If you see a business doing something good, why not support them?

Finally the plants got a healthy top-dressing of the chili powder. What I didn’t use on the new plants I spread around a few other plants that seem to be favorite gopher menu items. This is how it looks before watering it in, pretty glaringly orange-red. It looks closer to normal after you soak it in a bit.

One Big Caution: Although chili powder is a natural product, it’s still a nasty irritant. Wear gloves. A respirator and goggles might be a good addition on a windier day. I’m not saying this for dramatic effect. Wind blew some in my eyes and I suffered the expected effect–no surprise. But I also rubbed my gloves on the side of my face, only to have my face burn like a second degree sunburn for half an hour.

Will all this fail and collapse into a pile of chili powder induced flames? Dunno, but it’ll be an interesting experiment.