"Tim, I saw fresh mounds today in the windbreak."
On a stretch of sunny June days in 1992, Tim and I planted 300 12-inch-tall saplings, a windbreak of trees and shrubs on the north side of our five-acre property, in the hopes of creating a protected microclimate for our garden. Planted in sandy loam, full sun, exposed to all manner of wind and weather, our saplings have grown remarkably well. Scots pine, Austrian pine, white fir, blue and green spruce, Eastern red cedar and Rocky Mountain juniper form the coniferous defense line. Along the southern row, lilacs, Siberian pea, and Russian olive form a deciduous hedge. After nine years of tending these trees, the walkways and open vistas in our windbreak are shrinking as the trees reach higher and branches fill out, forming an enclosed, quiet habitat for birds, humans and other creatures seeking refuge. For all its beauty, this sanctuary comes with a price.
In October of the same year, having nursed our fledging plants through their first summer in the ground, we strolled through the "nursery" proudly admiring our young trees. We noticed two Russian olive saplings with withered and blanched leaves. Crouching down to inspect more closely, we looked for pests or signs of drought, finding neither. Tim grasped the trunk, tugged slightly, and the plant easily let loose from the soil. Standing back, casualty in hand, we stared at each other, dumfounded. The entire root of the plant was gone, chewed off just below the soil's surface, a re-enactment of the disappearing carrot scene in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The roots were providing tasty morsels for some ground-dwelling critter, but what kind? Mysterious mounds of freshly unearthed soil dotted the area.
Being both new to the climate and wildlife challenges of Colorado gardening, we decided on the "wait and see" approach, hoping the critter would wander off to tastier tidbits in the wild meadow. By winter we'd lost all 10 Russian olives to the jaws of our marauding ground dweller, all the more mysterious for its illusive habit of never coming above ground.
Realizing the "do nothing and let nature take its course" approach would not work, I rummaged around and found a book, Common Sense Pest Control: Least Toxic Solutions for Your Home, Garden, Pets and Community, an educational guide to navigating the moral quagmires of "humans versus nature" issues.
We discovered the critter eating the plant roots was a pocket gopher, a rodent 7- to 13-inches long, named after the fur-lined cheek pouches located on the outside of the mouth, used to carry food. The telltale mounds of soil indicate the gopher is making new tunnels in its search for food, literally eating its way through the soil. In addition to grasses, alfalfa is a preferred food, as are the young roots of Russian olive trees.
Though gophers are considered by farmers and gardeners as pests, their burrowing is beneficial in several ways. They increase soil fertility by adding organic matter in the form of plant material and feces and can increase the rate of soil formation by bringing subsoils to the surface and exposing it to weatherization. Their natural predators -- owls, hawks, foxes, snakes, coyotes and cats -- keep the population in check. Our three cats had not been earning their keep.
Once we diagnosed the critter, we faced the dilemma of how to get it permanently out of the windbreak. Unfortunately the only permanent solution meant killing the gopher by one of several means involving poison or traps.
Alternative solutions to killing gophers do exist. You can install wire mesh around each plant when you plant, which was not feasible for us because the plants were already in the ground. You can install wire mesh barriers around the whole planting area, though too expensive and labor intensive for such a large area as ours. Or you can follow our neighbor's humane example: Install thumpers, metal probes inserted into the ground with wind-powered propellers that make thumping sounds in the ground. The thumping sounds discouraged gophers from tunneling in their yard -- sending them next door to ours.
After years of experimenting with different solutions to the recurring gopher problem, we settled on trapping as the best method for dealing with them. After I alerted Tim to the fresh mounds in the windbreak, we gather our tools and head up to inspect the damage the next morning. I stand by Tim's side ready to assist while he begins the process he's perfected over the years -- trap the gopher by thinking like a gopher. He observes several fresh mounds of soil, crouches down next to one, and pushes a metal probe into the soil until it gives way indicating he's found a tunnel. Digging soil away with his hands and a trowel, he locates the main tunnel 3 inches wide and 12 inches deep running perpendicular to the lateral tunnel used for excavating soil. He carefully sets two traps about a foot apart in opposite directions.
Two days later while I was making breakfast, Tim walks into the kitchen. Our eyes meet. "We caught the gopher, but he managed to take one of the traps down with him." Turning to the kitchen sink, I look out onto our garden. I feel saddened because we don't like to kill wildlife, particularly animals providing such an obvious environmental benefit. For comfort, I think of the scene in Gian Caro Menotti's Christmas play, Amahl and the Night Visitors, where Amahl's mother steals, for her crippled child, jewels from the Three Kings meant for the Christ child. As she creeps closer to the jewels, cloaked by night's darkness, she whispers encouragingly to herself, "For my child, for my child, for my child." Gazing out my kitchen window at the craggy outline of Pikes Peak glowing rosy pink in early morning light, adorned by a brilliant, setting half moon, I whisper to myself, "For my garden, for my garden, for my garden."
Laura Spear owns ForestEdge Gardens, a private garden in the Black Forest.