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All Things Garden,  Pests

How to Make a Homemade Gopher Basket for Trees

Planting trees is one of the most rewarding and earth-friendly things you can do in your landscape. Trees offer beauty, shade, habitat for wildlife, sequester carbon, and depending on the type, may feed you as well! We’ve planted dozens of fruit trees in our garden. But you know who else loves trees just as much as we do? Gophers! Those frustrating little creatures LOVE to eat tree roots. Thankfully, it isn’t difficult to stop gophers from destroying trees. We simply have to plant trees in wire gopher baskets – and those are easy to make!

Follow along and learn how to make a homemade gopher basket to protect trees from gopher damage, along with tips on how to install the basket and plant a tree inside. The cages we make from hardware cloth are large, inexpensive, and durable. (To be honest, they’re far better than anything you could buy!) You can follow the same steps to create more petite baskets for shrubs or smaller plants too. To make things even easier, I’ve included a demonstration video at the end of this article. But first, let’s go over a few frequently asked questions about gophers and using gopher baskets.



What is a gopher basket?


A gopher basket is a protective wire mesh enclosure designed to prevent burrowing pests from accessing and eating plant roots. Also known as a gopher cage, these physical barriers offer protection against voles and moles as well. Gopher baskets can be used when planting new trees, vines, shrubs, or other susceptible plants. The basket or cage is buried in the soil with the plant’s root ball tucked safely inside, surrounded on the bottom and all sides. 

Gardeners can either make a homemade gopher basket, or purchase pre-made gopher baskets – which come in a variety of sizes for shrubs and smaller plants, or larger options for trees. While it takes some added effort, it’s more cost-effective to make your own. A single roll of wire hardware cloth costs about the same as one large pre-made gopher cage, but is enough material to create dozens of them! Plus, we use handy hardware cloth for all sorts of homestead projects – including to block gophers from under raised garden beds and predator-proof our chicken coop.


A birds eye view of the surrounding area around a fig tree that has been planted in a homemade gopher basket. Three separate captions have been superimposed on the image. The bottom left corner has a caption that reads "fig tree safe in basket", directly to the right middle lies the caption "gopher mound", and directly above that to the top of the image lies the caption "gopher hole". Surrounding the tree in its cage amongst the gopher activity also lies nasturtium with reddish pink flowers, irrigation tubing, a solar powered garden light, as well as the bottom leaves from an avocado tree.
A fig tree in our garden with gopher activity all around it.


What types of tree roots do gophers eat?


Gophers are herbivores and survive by eating vegetation. As subterranean dwellers, they primarily dine on the roots of herbaceous plants, including most common garden crops, trees, shrubs, flowers, and vines. Gophers will eat a wide variety of tree roots, but are particularly fond of fruit tree roots and the extra-tender roots of young trees. In our coastal California garden, our fig trees are especially irresistible to gophers! We’ve found that they’re not quite as drawn to citrus tree roots, though gophers will eat just about any type of fruit tree roots when food is scarce.  


How Gophers Damage Trees


True to form as part of the Rodentia animal order, gophers have sharp, long, rat-like front teeth. They’re perfectly adapted for cutting and chewing on tough vegetation, or even to strip bark! Gophers eat tree roots and will also gnaw at the base of tree trunks (also known as the crown of the tree). Depending on the age of the tree and the extent of chewing done, gopher damage can range from a minor irritation to lethal. So yes: gophers can absolutely kill trees, shrubs, vines, and more. Especially if the feast is left unchecked! 

Large, established plants and those with extensive fibrous root systems may suffer only minimal damage (e.g. minor stunting) – particularly if the gophers nibble on a small percentage of the most exterior roots. However, if gophers manage to eat a significant portion of the roots, the tree or plant will most certainly suffer. This leaves young trees with small root systems especially vulnerable. As an added bummer, gophers are most active during the spring and fall – the best time to plant new trees!


A close up image of a gopher, partially emerging from its subterranean dwelling. It's front top and bottom teeth resemble that of a beaver.
“I want to eat your trees.”


Signs of Gopher Damage on Trees 


Gophers leave tell-tale dirt mounds around their shallow burrows and tunnel systems. So, if you see signs of gopher activity around your trees or yard, be on alert! Trees that are under attack by gophers may exhibit yellowing leaves, unseasonal leaf drop, or wilting. Less obvious symptoms include reduced vigor, especially for mature trees and plants. You may sometimes see chewing marks around the base of the tree trunk just above the soil. Or, if you gently dig down a few inches below the soil to reveal missing bark or evidence of gnawing, there is likely a gopher at work. 


DeannaCat, clad in a bikini top with short workout type shorts and brown sunglasses is holding a fig tree that has had all but a few roots chewed off as well as a good portion of the trunk chewed down. The bottom of the tree resembles a field hockey stick although all of its leaves still remain intact. A homemade gopher basket would have helped this tree thrive instead of forcing it to be moved. The background contains portions of a couple garden beds with tomatoes and kale growing amongst them. There are various other green plants amongst the image with large trellises along the back fence line that are  naked aside from a small vine centered in the middle of each.
Excuse my attire (it was hot out, I was young… lol) When I went to explore below the soil for this yellowing, slightly wilted fig tree, imagine my surprise to find no roots at all! You can also see extensive chew marks on the trunk that was just below the soil line. We replanted this fig tree in a basket and surprisingly it survived, though it’s never been as happy as our others.


Do I need to use a gopher basket for my tree?


If gophers are prevalent in your yard, I highly recommend using gopher baskets for trees – especially when planting small fruit trees. If there’s only a mild gopher issue in your garden, you could experiment and skip using a basket if you’d like. See what happens! While it’s a bummer to potentially lose a tree in the process, you should be able to dig it up and salvage it (and add a basket) if issues arise. Plus, there are other ways to control gophers too. I will write an article all about that subject soon, but know that physical barriers (i.e. cages) are always our preferred method since we avoid using poisons on our homestead.

After a couple of years of trial and error, we’ve come to accept that we need to use gopher baskets on most trees to keep them safe. We use them for new fruit trees that come in 5 to 15 gallon pots, including apples, loquats, persimmon, avocado, guava, figs, and more. However, we have opted to NOT use gopher cages for larger, hardier trees – like when we planted our California pepper tree. 

The pepper tree came in a huge 36” wood nursery box, and we planted it in an area where we hadn’t witnessed much gopher activity. We also knew: a) it would grow large quickly, and b) pepper trees aren’t a known gopher favorite. We took a risk and it has grown in beautifully, with no signs of gophers. By not using a gopher basket, we also avoided constricting its growth at all. Since we planted that particular tree as a privacy screen, unbridled growth was a priority! Which leads us to another common question about gopher baskets: root binding.


DeannaCat is standing next to a loquat tree in a 15 gallon nursery pot, it stands almost twice her size. The surrounding area contains paver lined gravel pathways amongst pollinator islands that contain perennials, annuals, aloe vera, and agave. The flower colors range from yellow to purple and pink, all contrasting against the various shades of green. The house in the background is blue green in color with a tall pepper tree next to it.
Let’s plant this loquat tree in a gopher basket together! (The pepper tree I mentioned above is in the background)


Do gopher baskets cause root binding or restrict tree growth?


Root binding is when plant roots wind tightly around themselves in a limited or confined space, such as a too-small pot. This can cause stress or stunted growth in many plants. Gopher baskets may or may not restrict growth or lead to root binding, depending on the type of tree, basket size, and wire material they’re made of. 

Some types of wire gopher cages eventually break down (or break open) as the tree matures over time, including gopher baskets made from chicken wire, or certain pre-made baskets that are designed to slowly degrade. This allows the tree roots to escape, but also leaves the tree potentially vulnerable to pests in the future. The good news is that large mature trees are typically more resilient and less attractive to gophers, so they may not need the added protection of a gopher basket later in life. 

Other gopher baskets are constructed of far more durable wire material like galvanized hardware cloth – which is what we use to make all of our homemade gopher baskets! Hardware cloth gopher baskets should not corrode, rust, or otherwise degrade. With that, some modest root-binding will occur over time. Small feeder roots will grow through the holes, but the vast majority of roots will be confined to (and protected in) the basket. To help combat stunting, we create extra-large gopher baskets that provide plenty of room to grow. 

Note that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to slightly constrict the growth of a tree! Especially if you live in an urban or suburban setting that doesn’t easily accommodate massive trees. Personally, we gladly accept the trade-off of potentially smaller trees than those destroyed by gophers. We also grow many dwarf or semi-dwarf tree varieties that take more kindly to small spaces anyways. Finally, a tree planted in the ground within a gopher basket will be happier than those in a pot – and tons of gardeners successfully grow trees in large pots and containers!

So, keeping all that in mind, let’s learn how to make a homemade gopher basket.


A two way image collage of the loquat tree after it has been planted in the yard. The first image shows the tree after it has been planted inside a homemade gopher cage. There is a fig tree, avocado tree, pineapple guava, and a magnolia tree around it. The background is a fence with the tree just barely poking over the top of the fence line. The second image shows the tree a couple years after it has been planted. The tree now extends another four feet above the fence line and its trunk has grown quite large in thickness. The surrounding trees have all filled in nicely as well, nasturtium with pink flowers grow amongst the floor of the trees.
Here is the loquat tree right after we planted it in December 2018 (left) versus March 2021 (right). In just over 2 years, it has grown PLENTY, despite being enclosed in a gopher basket. It’s now several feel taller than the fence, and check out how thick the trunk has grown too!


How to Make a Homemade Gopher Basket


Materials Needed:


  • Wire mesh material of choice. Use galvanized hardware cloth with ¼” or ½” openings for durable, long-lasting protection. Gophers can fit through holes as small as one inch, potentially even ¾”. A two or three-foot tall roll of wire works perfectly. Stainless steel is another great option, though not as affordable. If you want the cage to break down as the tree matures (as discussed above) you can use chicken wire, though it isn’t recommended for areas with persistent and abundant gophers. Rumor has it that gophers may be able to chew through chicken wire. Also note that voles are smaller than gophers and can fit through the holes in chicken wire.
  • Galvanized wire (16 to 20 gauge) and/or heavy-duty zip ties for securing the basket together 
  • Wire snips or aviation snips 
  • Work gloves – hardware cloth can be sharp and pokey to work with!



Instructions:


Create a wire cylinder


  1. Start by taking note of the tree pot size. The finished homemade gopher basket should be several inches larger than the tree root ball in all directions, about double the pot size. (Or more, if you’re starting with a petite 5 gallon tree pot). For trees, our average homemade gopher basket ends up being about 24 to 30” wide and just under 2 feet deep. Scale down as needed for smaller plants. The finished homemade gopher basket should stick up a few inches above the soil line for maximum protection.

  2. Use metal snips to cut the wire mesh into a cylinder of the desired size. Tip: I wrap the wire wide around the tree pot to get a good visual before I cut. Cut it a little larger than the final cage will be. Allow for a few inches of overlap where the two ends will meet.  

  3. Because it can be difficult to dig a planting hole that has totally straight sides, overlap the ends of the cut wire in a manner that makes the basket wider at the top and a few inches more narrow at the bottom. That way, the basket will fit nicely in your planting hole.

  4. Secure the wire cylinder together using cut pieces of galvanized wire. Twist the wire “ties” so they won’t come undone. You could also use strong zip ties but they could eventually break, so I recommend adding at least a few pieces of wire too. If you don’t have extra wire on hand, see how I used the “pokey ends” of the hardware cloth to secure it to itself in a few places in the photo below.


Hardware cloth fashioned into a cylinder shape is shown sitting on the ground next to various plants, metal snips, a bundle of zip ties, and the remainder of the roll of hardware cloth. The hardware cloth cylinder has zip ties that keep the two ends closed together and the bottom of the cylinder has been crimped slightly so there is about three inches of overlap with a small circular opening with no hardware cloth.
A two way image collage, the first image shows the ends of the hardware cloth cylinder fashioned together with zip ties from the top to the bottom about every 8 inches. The second image shows how the end of the hardware cloth can be bent to wrap around the other end of the cylinder (as the zip ties do) to make the homemade gopher basket even more sturdy.
Note how the hardware cloth is overlapped more at the bottom of the cage, making the opening wider at the top and more narrow at the bottom. I didn’t have a roll of wire handy when we made this particular basket, so I secured it with zip ties AND tucked a few loops of the hardware cloth around itself.
The hardware cloth cylinder is sitting next to a loquat tree in a 15 gallon nursery pot on a gravel pathway with pavers. Beyond lies various perennial plants with yellow, purple, and pink flowers with a fence constructed with horizontal fence boards as the back drop.


Add or form a bottom


  1. If you’re working with 3-foot tall hardware cloth, bend and fold the bottom 12” to 16” towards the center of the basket. This will leave you with a basket just under 2 feet tall. I find it easiest to fold a 4-6” wide section over at a time, moving around the rim of the basket to repeat the process until it has several folds that overlap and completely cover the bottom. Pinch the folds together to make everything nice and tight. 

    If you started with 2-foot tall hardware cloth, follow the same process but only fold over about 3 or 4 inches of the bottom towards the center. Then, cut another piece of hardware cloth to cover the open hole that is left on the bottom. A square piece will do the trick, but you can get fancy and cut a circle if you prefer. Again, make this piece larger than needed so there will be overlap. Coming in from the top of the basket, push that piece down inside the basket to cover the open bottom. As it gets stuffed inside, the hardware cloth catches itself and locks in place nicely.

  2. Now pinch the bottom folds together, and make sure everything is nice and tight with no large gaps. I’ve found the best method is to GET IN! I stand inside the basket and use my weight and feet to push and squish everything into place. Then add a few zip ties or wire to hold the bottom together. Focus on areas that seem prone to gapping. 


A two way image collage of the inside of a homemade gopher basket. The first image shows the inside of the gopher basket before the bottom piece is affixed to close the opening at the bottom. The second image shows the inside of the basket after the bottom piece has been tied to the rest of the basket.
It’s kind of hard to see, but I added a square piece inside the bottom to cover the hole (and then climbed inside to press it flat and into the sides).
DeannaCat's feet are visible next to the homemade gopher basket which has been turned upside down to illustrate how the zip ties were used to tie the bottom middle piece to the body of the basket.
Done! Ready for planting.


How to Plant a Tree in a Gopher Basket


  • Dig a hole two to three times wider than the tree pot and root ball, and deep enough to fit the gopher basket
  • Add your homemade gopher basket to the planting hole.
  • Check the height. Remember, the goal is for the basket to extend a few inches above grade. Adjust the planting hole if needed.
  • While pressing down, shimmy the gopher basket back and forth to get it settled in the bottom of the hole. Try to get it to sit as level as possible.
  • Set the potted tree inside the basket. Note the depth compared to the surrounding soil level. Then, take the tree back out and add enough soil to the bottom of the basket so that once the tree is inside, the crown (base of the trunk) will be elevated to just above ground level. (Do not bury the trunk of the tree).
  • Carefully remove the tree from its pot and place the root ball centered in the gopher basket.
  • Backfill soil around the tree, taking care to keep it standing straight.
  • If your homemade gopher basket is extra-tall, you can bend it inward slightly to create a dome over the top of the rootball.
  • Thoroughly water the tree.
  • Add 2-4″ of organic mulch around the base of the tree, but not directly against the tree trunk. Leave a few inches of clear space around the trunk.
  • Stand back and admire your hard work!


For more detailed information on planting trees including soil, fertilizer, timing, planting location and more, please visit: “How to Plant a Tree: Best Practices for Success”


A four way image collage of planting the loquat tree in a gopher basket. The first image shows Aaron standing in a hole that has been dug for the tree, it is a sloped area so the back of the soil line is at his knees while the front of the hole soil line is around his shins. The second image shows the loquat tree and nursery pot sitting inside the homemade gopher basket inside of the hole that has been dug for the it. The third photo shows the gopher basket sitting inside the hole, the bottom has been covered with dirt as it has been worked into the hole itself, thus allowing the free soil around the area to infiltrate the bottom of the basket. The final image shows the tree after it has been planted and mulched with leaves and bark. The top of the gopher basket is still visible as it sits just above the soil line.
Planting the loquat. The height looks a little funny at first because this area is on a slope. Once it was all planted and backfilled, the gopher cage protrudes just a few inches above the soil.


Here is the video I promised! Check out minutes 2-13 to watch me sizing and making the homemade gopher basket, then installing it in the planting hole. The second half of the video is more focused on planting trees, how we amend the soil, etc. At the very end, you can see it all planted, mulched, and the cage just above the soil.



And that is how to make a homemade gopher basket.


These things have been a lifesaver in our garden, literally! If you also live in an area where pesky gophers rule the subterranean land, you may want to seriously consider planting trees in gopher baskets too. After reading this article, I hope you feel empowered and prepared to do so! Please let me know if you have any questions. Also, please share or pin this article if you found it useful. Thank you so much for tuning in. May your trees be happy, healthy, and safe from gophers!


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DeannaCat signature, keep on growing.

7 Comments

  • colleen

    Oops, I was just posting a question but my computer crashed while posting, so apologies if this is a duplicate. My question was, do you have an opinion on castor oil as a non-lethal gopher deterrent? Like, does it actually work even a little, and is it actually safe for all the little beasties in the garden, and okay to use around vegetable plants? Root cages work, but making them gets to be time consuming, and I’m going broke from buying hardware cloth! LOL.

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hello Colleen, those pesky gophers can really make you work can’t they? We have not yet used castor oil as a gopher deterrent and its efficacy seems to have mixed reviews but it should be safe to use in and around the garden. There are solar powered ultrasonic spikes that are used to keep gophers away with some brands getting pretty good reviews. It may allow you to set up a perimeter to keep the gophers away from your garden space. Let us know if you have any other questions, hope that helps and good luck!

      • colleen

        Thanks so much for your reply! I’m going to try the castor oil, maybe along with the sonic spikes (granted this will make it harder to know which thing is working, assuming there is an improvement). I have a wild patch of johnny jump-ups and other self-sowing plants that I’m fine with the gophers continually mowing down…my hope is to make the veg/pollinator garden less appetizing and give them more appealing options. 🙂

  • Oriana

    Our yard is a war zone of gopher invasions. We have a young Everbearing Mulberry tree, still in the nursery container, that is less than two feet tall and very scrawny. I understand these can grow 8-10 feet wide and 15 feet high. Given how vulnerable it’s root system is now, and potentially how massive it can become, would you suggest putting this in a gopher basket? Or should we keep it in the container and pot up until it’s mature enough to handle a gopher onslaught? If you think the latter option is wise, how big should the tree be before we put it in the ground? Or would you suggest a totally different option? (So many questions! lol) Thanks in advance for any guidance.

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hello Oriana, we have a few trees (fig and avocado) that we have planted in gopher baskets that have become quite large even with being planted in baskets. The Mulberry tree will do much better and should take off quicker if planted in the ground versus being kept in its pot. If you want the tree to have unlimited growth, look into the pre made gopher baskets that will usually last for at least 3 to 5 years before they eventually break down and allow the larger roots to expand beyond the cage after that. They have various sizes depending on how large of a rootball you have to work with, though I would size up with the idea that the tree will grow and need more room for its roots. Hope that helps and good luck! Let us know how it works out for you!

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