Gopher Cats

The most devastating tragedy in gardening when a favored plant topples, suddenly dies, or even worse for a smallish specimen, disappears as it’s pulled underground.

The creator of such tragedies is the gardener’s nemesis, the pocket gopher. There are several genera and species of these creatures. In California, we most commonly have Botta’s Pocket Gopher (Thomomys bottae), named after Paul-Émile Botta, a naturalist and archaeologist who collected mammals in California in the 1820s and 1830s. Perhaps he appreciated this particular mammal’s qualities and did not see it as just a pest in the garden.

Gardeners have access to multiple strategies, tools and commercial services for battling with gophers over territory. Some do-it-yourself tools, e.g., stainless steel gopher baskets, will cost almost as much as a plant at the garden center. Still, the basket costs less than replacing the plant. The University of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program has provided a useful overview of the problem of gopher in the garden. 

For several years, my garden has not had gopher visits. As I heard the frustrations and complaints from other gardeners, I felt that I had been lucky, or that my garden was somehow unattractive to gophers. I concluded that two feral cats that I saw in my garden were controlling the local population of gophers. My role was limited to tolerating and not feeding the cats: a well-fed cat would not be an effective hunter.

Eventually, I no longer saw the cats in my garden. I’d like to think another gardener has recruited them, or that they had wandered off for better hunting opportunities. Most likely, they retired.

Without the cats, I soon saw signs of gophers in my garden. After tinkering with traps without immediate success, I decided that a predator would be the ideal solution to the gopher problem. Gophers have many natural enemies, including owls, hawks, coyotes, foxes, skunks, badgers, bobcats, weasels, and snakes. These predators might visit my urban garden occasionally, but a more practical plan would be to have a well-oriented cat in residence, always watching for prey either for a meal or for amusement.

I have recently seen an unfamiliar cat roaming around my garden. Feral cats are, by definition, not accustomed to contact with humans, and tend to keep their distance. The challenge is to persuade such a cat to spend a lot of time in my garden, stay outdoors, and hunt for gophers.

Public and private agencies seeking to control feline populations will vaccinate and spay or neuter feral cats, so it would be best for a gardener to adopt a gopher hunter that had received such treatment. The attending specialists also could advise on training the cat for its role as a resident predator of gophers. My role might be limited to providing water and a place to sleep. As the cat becomes accustomed to my presence, I might show approval for a gopher catch, and disapproval of a bird catch.

I will add this gopher cat project to my resolutions for the early weeks of 2018, along with spraying my apple trees and pruning my roses.

Speaking of roses, last week’s column stated incorrectly that modern garden roses began in 1967. The correct date is 1867, with the introduction of the first hybrid tea rose, ‘La France’.

Best wishes for your new year in the garden!

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