Non-Toxic Gopher Control: How to Gopher-Proof Your Garden
Dealing with gophers in the garden can be incredibly frustrating. I know firsthand; they’re rampant in our area! Gophers are sneaky, persistent, dine on a wide variety of plant roots, and can cause serious damage – from unsightly mounds, ankle-twisting holes, and plant stress or death. However, there are a number of non-toxic ways to control gophers. This article covers 8 ways to gopher-proof your garden to protect plants and keep gopher damage to a minimum, including deterrents, exclusion techniques, gopher resistant plants, and traps. We’ll also talk about 3 common gopher control methods that I do not recommend – like using poison.
If you’re looking for an answer to “how to get rid of gophers?” the reality is, you may not be able to – or at least not completely and permanently. On our property, we’ve simply accepted their presence and learned to coexist to a certain extent. Yet by using many of the non-toxic gopher control methods below, we’re able to successfully protect plants from gophers and still grow a very healthy, productive garden.
Most of the gopher-proofing tips in this article apply to other burrowing rodents like voles and moles too!
Before we dig into our top gopher control tips, let’s briefly familiarize ourselves with the little rat-tooth monsters.
About Pocket Gophers
Gophers, more formally known as pocket gophers, are burrowing rodents and part of the Geomydiae family. There are over 30 distinct gopher species native to North and Central America. They are known for their uncanny ability to destroy gardens, farms, and ornamental landscaping. In addition to wilting or disappearing plants, the telltale mounds they leave at the soil surface are a sign that gophers are present in your yard.
Gophers create extensive underground tunnel systems, which are about 3 inches in diameter and usually found 6 to 12 inches below the soil surface. Their larger food storage chambers and nests are deeper, up to 6 feet below ground. A single gopher’s tunnel system can span several hundred square feet, and up to 2000 square feet.
Yet gophers are territorial and lead solitary lives. Therefore, the damage you observe in a modest garden space is likely caused by just one gopher. If you can successfully get rid of the gopher, your garden may get a short period of reprieve… Until another one moves in, that is.
What do gophers eat?
Gophers are herbivores. They aren’t especially picky, and will dine on a wide variety of vegetation. They primarily eat subterranean plant roots, bulbs, and tubers, which causes stress or death to plants from below. They’re also known to peek above ground to graze on grass, clover, young stems, and other similar low-growing tender greenery around the perimeter of their mounds. Gophers may also consume larger choice plants, starting by gnawing at the roots until they eventually pull the whole plant down into their tunnel. I know many gardeners who have seen entire mature tomato plants sucked below ground!
There are no hard fast rules for what gophers eat and what they’ll avoid. In our garden, they absolutely love fig trees, tender seedlings, and most common garden veggies. Gophers are rumored to not eat woody aromatic shrubs like rosemary, salvia, catmint, lavender, rock rose, lantana, or citrus trees. That has been mostly true in our experience, yet other gardeners sometimes report gopher damage to those plants. So when in doubt, I suggest erring on the side of caution and protecting all types of plants where there is a known gopher issue.
How NOT to get rid of gophers
When it comes to controlling gophers, I urge you to never use gopher poison. Using gopher poison is cruel in many ways. First, it results in a slow and agonizing death for the gophers. Even though they’re considered a garden pest, they don’t deserve that kind of treatment. Furthermore, gopher poison puts all wildlife at risk – plus domestic animals too! Curious canines, cats, birds of prey, opossums, or other predators can easily eat poisoned gophers and become poisoned themselves. Even if you don’t mind the idea of poisoning a gopher, I doubt you feel the same about beloved Fluffy.
I also don’t recommend fussing with fumigation or smoke bombs. Gopher smoke bombs emit toxic fumes that can be dangerous to humans and pets if used incorrectly, and are not suitable for an edible garden area. In addition to suffocating gophers (if successful), the fumes will harm snakes or other beneficial critters that may be sharing the gopher tunnels. Plus, gophers often act quickly to close off their tunnel and hide until the fumes go away, thwarting your efforts.
Another commonly recommended gopher control method (that I don’t suggest) is to flood out their tunnels. Not only is flooding usually ineffective, but it can actually make the soil more gopher-friendly since it is easier for them to tunnel in damp soil. Overall, it’s a huge waste of water.
7 WAYS TO GOPHER-PROOF YOUR GARDEN
1) Use Gopher Cages or Baskets
One easy and non-toxic way to control gophers is to plant fruit trees, shrubs, and other susceptible plants within gopher cages or baskets. Made of wire material, gopher baskets are designed to surround and protect the root ball, effectively preventing gophers from eating the plant’s roots. Simply add a basket around the root ball at the time of planting.
Gopher cages are ideal to protect a limited number of plants from gophers, such as a handful of shrubs or an occasional new fruit tree. However, on a larger scale, it can be very tedious and costly to plant dozens to hundreds of annual garden crops in individual gopher baskets. (That is where raised garden beds save the day!) This gopher control method obviously won’t help for lawn areas either.
TIP: When installing gopher baskets, it is important to keep the top rim of the basket protruding at least a couple inches above the soil line. Otherwise, they can easily hop right in and begin feeding within the basket itself.
What type of wire is best for gopher baskets?
There are a number of pre-made gopher baskets available to purchase, usually made of chicken wire or other thin flexible wire. They can get the job done, though some gardeners complain that gophers can chew through them, or that they don’t stand up to the test of time. In my experience, these firm and sturdy gopher baskets are more effective (but more difficult to work with) than these mesh “speed baskets” (which I usually use for gopher-resistant plants only).
Another option is to make your own extra-sturdy gopher cages! We often make our own large gopher baskets for fruit trees using hardware cloth – which is the most durable, long-lasting and effective option. Unlike chicken wire, hardware cloth will not degrade with time. Also, gophers cannot squeeze through the small openings or gnaw through hardware cloth. Check out our tutorial on how to make DIY gopher baskets here.
On the other hand, because it won’t degrade, hardware cloth gopher baskets may slightly constrict plant roots and growth over time. Other wire that slowly breaks down (like chicken wire) allows the plant to eventually “break free” – which isn’t always a bad thing, since young tender plants are most attractive to gophers. As plants mature, they’re typically less susceptible to gopher damage. Because of this, we usually use thinner pre-made gopher baskets for plants we know aren’t gopher favorites – like lavender or salvia.
2) Grow in Containers or Raised Garden Beds (and add hardware cloth)
A second way to control gophers by exclusion is to use pots, containers, wine barrels, and/or raised beds in your garden. We love growing food in raised beds for a number of reasons, but the ability to block out pests and protect plants from gophers is near the top of the list! In fact, it is virtually impossible to garden directly in-ground in our area because the gophers are so prevalent and persistent here. Raised beds make it possible and easy!
When building new raised garden beds, we simply add hardware cloth to the bottom side of the wood bed before filling it with soil. I absolutely recommend using hardware cloth rather than chicken wire to gopher-proof garden beds long-term. (Whoever installed the existing raised beds at our new homestead used chicken wire, and there are now gophers inside.) Be sure to firmly attach the hardware cloth (e.g. secured with staples or wide-head cabinet screws), eliminating any gaps they can slip through and get inside.
Tip: You can also use hardware cloth to line pathways (under mulch, landscape fabric, etc) in areas with exceptionally high gopher traffic, minimizing soil disturbance and mounds.
3) Landscape Fabric
A final exclusion technique to consider for non-toxic gopher control is using landscape fabric or weed barrier cloth. In addition to hardware cloth, we always add a layer of landscape fabric under raised garden beds. It’s dual-purpose: it stops weeds from growing into the bed, and also provides an additional barrier to prevent gophers from getting inside the garden beds too. In our experience, gophers do not chew through the durable, heavy-duty contractor grade fabric that we use (Landmaster brand). When used in open spaces like pathways, flower beds, or orchards (under mulch), it keeps your landscape looking tidy and prevents gophers from making annoying mounds.
4) Grow Gopher Resistant Plants
Though gophers will eat just about anything if they’re hungry enough, a number of plants are considered “gopher resistant”. These plants typically have a strong scent, bitter flavor, toxic sap, or other noxious traits that make them less appealing for gophers to eat. Rosemary, lavender, salvia, eucalyptus, oleander, and gopher purge are all prime examples. Though no plant is 100% safe from gophers (I still use speed cages on these), they certainly won’t be gophers first choice to dine on. Even better, many California native plants and drought-tolerant plants are also gopher resistant!
See a list of over 50 gopher resistant plants to grow in California and beyond here.
5) Non-Toxic Gopher Repellents
Another non-toxic gopher control trick is to put natural gopher repellents inside their tunnels. The goal is to make their environment uncomfortable or otherwise undesirable so they’ll move elsewhere. Depending on the repellent used, you can either put the material directly in the exposed holes, sprinkle or saturate the ground around visible mounds, or soak cotton balls and place them inside the tunnels (ideal for oils and liquids).
What smells do gophers hate? Quite a few! Basically, it boils down to the aromas of their predators, or other really pungent, bitter smells. Examples of natural, non-toxic gopher repellents include peppermint oil, castor oil, coyote urine, cat and dog poop, garlic, coffee grounds, and fish oil or fish carcasses. We’ve definitely been known to put cat poop down gopher holes a time or two – haha! I’ve also read they dislike scented dryer sheets. Finally, you can buy specialized non-toxic gopher deterrents to put in their holes OR sprinkle right on the soil surface over larger areas.
One drawback to this non-lethal gopher control method is that they typically won’t move very far away. So if you have a large property, they’ll still be around unless you treat all areas. Plus, your neighbors might not be too happy with their newfound tenants.
TIP: Having difficulty locating the gopher tunnels? Use a sharp skinny object like a garden stake or screw driver to slowly probe the soil in all directions around visible mounds. You’ll feel the probe “give way” once you hit and enter a hollow tunnel area. Then, you can carefully excavate a portion to add repellents inside.
6) Ultrasonic emitters
In addition to funky smells, small vibrations and high-pitch noises can also repel gophers. Devices like these solar-powered gopher spikes or these popular battery-powered sonic spikes emit ultrasonic waves that gophers find annoying. So much so, they often stay away. While reviews suggest varying success rates, it’s worth a shot! Especially if you’re looking for non-lethal, non-toxic gopher control methods. Place several emitters in prime areas of gopher activity. The spikes can also be effective at deterring voles, moles, ground squirrels, and groundhogs.
7) Encourage Natural Predators
Creating and maintaining a diverse, wildlife-friendly yard is a fantastic form of non-toxic gopher control. Gophers have a number of natural predators. Owls, hawks and other birds of prey happily hunt gophers that venture out of their tunnels. Savvy barn cats will also be ready and waiting to pounce. Coyotes, foxes, and badgers will dig gophers out of their burrows, while snakes and weasels can follow them into tunnels.
Nature has a way of finding balance, including keeping various wildlife populations in check. Learn how to turn any size garden into a wildlife habitat here! Key components of a wildlife-friendly yard include places for shelter and to raise young, and a variety of food and water sources. For instance, consider adding an owl box to your property (be sure to get the right size and type of box for owl species common to your area). It is also important to follow organic practices and avoid the use of pesticides, including gopher poison!
8) Gopher Traps
I understand that not everyone is keen on using lethal gopher traps. However, if your goal is to get rid of gophers (and not just deter them), then I think we can all agree that a quick death using a non-toxic trap is far preferable to a slow, cruel death caused by gopher poison or fumigation. (Not to mention the other risks and issues that those options pose).
The Gopher Hawk, The Black Hole, and The Black Box are among the most effective, highly-rated, and easy-to-use gopher traps available. Once caught, I know folks who put the expired gophers out for birds of prey or scavengers like opossums or coyotes. Like all the other non-toxic gopher control methods we’ve explored today, trapping takes continued persistence and patience to get rid of gophers – since others are likely to take their place.
And that concludes this lesson on non-toxic gopher control.
In closing, I think we can all agree that gophers are pretty frustrating little creatures. If you’re struggling with gophers in your yard, I’m sorry! I feel your pain. But I hope the tips and techniques we covered in this article will help get them under control, and keep the damage to your precious plants to a minimum! Do you have any other non-toxic gopher control tricks that we missed and work well for you? Please let us know in the comments below! If you found the information in this post to be valuable, please feel free to pin or share this article. Best of luck on your garden gopher-proofing adventures!
Thank you so much for all the wonderful information. I have lived in the same home for over 30 years and just starting to build a garden now that I am retired. Where I currently have lawn, should I remove it? If so, how deep should I go? Also I have not seen any evidence of gophers, but wondering if I should use the hardware cloth just in case? I live in Bakersfield so I think we are in a similar zone.
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Carlena, congratulations on your retirement and for jumping into gardening, it should be a great activity to keep you busy. Removing the lawn is really a personal choice, you will likely need to remove sections where you are going to grow plants, either in ground or in raised beds as the grass will grow into your new garden space rather quickly. Since you are located in California, it’s better to be safe than sorry as far as gophers go, they are likely in your vicinity and may be drawn to your garden space once the you start growing veggies and other plants. Check out our article on How to Kill or Remove Grass (& Grow Food Not Lawns!) for insight on how we accomplished the task at our previous house. We also had fairly invasive crabgrass so we wanted to be sure to fully remove it as it would spread by runners underneath the ground. Hope that helps and reach out if you have any other questions, good luck on building your garden space and have fun growing!
Thank you for all the gopher deterrent tips! I will soon be installing metal (Vego Garden) raised beds over gravel. I plan to put gopher net under the raised beds, but obviously can’t staple it to the metal. What order would you recommend placing everything? I’m currently thinking gopher net, gravel, then raised beds on top. I’m planning to fill the beds using the Hugelkultur method, and prefer not to use landscape fabric directly under the raised beds (for optimal deep root growth), but will use landscape fabric as a weed barrier in the pathways. We have an entire network of gopher tunnels in our yard, and I want to keep them out of the garden! I appreciate any wisdom you have to offer. 🙂
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Cynthia, I would personally lay down the gravel before adding sections of hardware cloth on top of that and then setting the raised beds directly on top of the hardware cloth. From there you can always add a small layer of gravel around your beds to cover the overlapping hardware cloth. If you lay hardware cloth below the gravel with bare soil in between the landscape fabric and hardware cloth, that will give gophers space and area to work their way directly into the bottom of your raised beds as I wouldn’t count them out of digging through a few inches of gravel to get into your beds.
If your beds are somewhat close to your pathways, you can overlap your hardware cloth onto the pathways of landscape fabric and pin the two together with heavy duty quality landscape staples where you would essentially be creating an entire gopher proof surface with hardware cloth and landscape fabric all connected and touching end to end leaving no space for gophers to pop up. If you did this, you could essentially lay gravel on top of that, followed by your raised beds on top of the gravel. However, just a note that we have had gophers chew through thick landscape fabric so it definitely isn’t a surefire way to keep the gophers out. Although in your instance, they would essentially only be in a few inches of gravel above ground so I am not sure how well they would move in that type of material. Hopefully those two responses weren’t too convoluted and you found a few tips that may prove helpful to you or at least gave you something to think about. Good luck and reach out if you have any other questions.
Great information here. I was wondering if using 1″ hardware wire will keep gophers out or will they get through it.
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Loretta, I would use 3/4″ or less.
I really enjoyed this article..great info. Wanted to share with you my best method of pushing back moles and gophers…I lay there trail open with a spade and insert dirty cat litter. They hate it and dissapate…we have five acres here in Michigan that used to be quite the wet lands, snake ally feeding grounds for moles, etc. I start putting the dirty kitty litter in their trails early spring and can push them way back from my gardening areas.