Sadly, many Northern California gardeners have watched in dismay as a much-loved plant was hauled underground, disappearing before their eyes as it became a victim of a pocket gopher. This is definitely a call to action. Unchecked, gophers can cause serious damage to a rose, flower, or vegetable garden and can disfigure a well-manicured lawn. They’ll chew the roots of fruit trees, shrubs, and vines, and will come above ground to eat through stems of tasty annuals and perennials. They’ve even been known to burrow into big, full-grown pumpkins, devouring them from the inside out.
Poisoning should never be considered in an environmentally friendly landscape, as it’s as deadly to your pets or to birds of prey as it is to gophers. Trapping is the most effective way to regain control when your garden has become home to these underground marauders. There are live trapping options available; just be sure you don’t relocate your catch too close to home or in your neighbor’s backyard. Less humane options are most often used, but this is not at all a pleasant experience, offending the sensibilities of many gardeners.
Luckily there are easier ways to avert gopher destruction in your garden. Thwart them by growing your plants in raised beds lined with galvanized gopher mesh, hardware cloth, or a double layer of aviary wire. A barrier of the same material buried 4 to 6 inches beneath the soil when installing a new lawn can keep a lawn gopher-free for many years. Placing all your precious plants in wire gopher guards is an effective way to maintain a gopher-free perennial bed, shrub border, or orchard. These methods are all quite labor-intensive, but definitely worthwhile.
Choosing plants that gophers actively avoid is easier than employing deterrent strategies to achieve a gorgeous, gopher-resistant landscape. While gophers will nibble almost anything in their path if they’re hungry enough, the average gopher’s least favorite foods include strong-scented perennials such as lavender (Lavandula spp. and cvs., Zones 5–10), most sage (Salvia spp. and cvs., Zones 5–11), society garlic (Tulbaghia spp. and cvs., Zones 7–10), and rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus, Zones 8–11). Shrubs such as breath of heaven (Coleonema pulchrum, Zones 9–11), oleander (Nerium oleander, Zones 8–10), and bottlebrush (Callistemon spp. and cvs., Zones 8–10) are also usually avoided. Daffodils and naked ladies (Amaryllis belladonna, Zones 7–10) are poisonous to gophers, and they naturally avoid them, so why not also deter them with swathes of those beautiful bloomers? If your garden is prone to gopher decimation, it’s wise to plant most of your garden with gopher-resistant shrubs, trees, bulbs, and perennials and to use gopher mesh or baskets for tastier, more irresistible plants. In my garden, my favorite never-bothered-by-gopher plants are the four rugged beauties below.
Tagetes lemonnii, Zones 8–11
Native to Arizona and Mexico, this bushy, evergreen perennial is the ideal choice for deer- or gopher-prone gardens, or for those difficult spots where irrigation just won’t reach. The finely cut, deep green foliage is extremely fragrant, exuding a pungent, musky smell reminiscent of lemon, mint, and anise when touched. Abundant clusters of petite golden-yellow blooms appear consistently throughout the year, putting on the brightest show in winter. Mexican marigold prefers full sun, well-drained soil, and minimal water once established, quickly reaching 5 feet high and 7 feet wide. It’s a little frost tender yet always bounces back, and it does well with a light shearing in late winter to promote fresh new growth.
Luscious® Pinkberry Blend™ lantana
Lantana camara cv., Zones 9–11
From summer through fall, the deep green mound of fragrant Luscious® Pinkberry Blend™ lantana foliage is covered with abundant bloom clusters in the most delicious shades of pink, pale apricot, and yellow. A favorite of hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators, this tender, heat-loving perennial looks stunning massed or grown in mixed combinations in the border. It makes for an excellent hanging basket or container choice too. This lantana is well-branched, with a nicely mounding growth habit. It’s somewhat drought tolerant and will rapidly reach 20 to 24 inches tall and wide in a sunny location. It’s not fussy about soil and does best with average to light summer water. Lantana is frost-tender, so mulch well to protect it before winter, and prune it back to 1 foot from the ground in early spring to revitalize.
Makana™ silver wormwood
Artemesia mauiensis ‘TNARTMS’, Zones 8–11
This shrub grows in a glowing, lacy, cloudlike mound of feathery silver plumes, making it the perfect accent both for its color and its texture. Place it in a sunny border where it will highlight and complement nearby plants. Tiny yellow blooms appear in late spring but are secondary to the fabulous, airy clouds of bouquet-worthy foliage. This shrub is perennial in warmer zones and is a fast-growing annual in colder areas. It quickly reaches 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, is avoided by deer and gophers, and likes full sun and good drainage. It is drought tolerant too. Cut it back to 6 inches from the ground in late winter to stimulate fresh new growth.
‘Dean’s Hybrid’ spurge
Euphorbia ‘Dean’s Hybrid’, Zones 6–10b
‘Dean’s Hybrid’ spurge grows in a soft, finely textured mound of blue-green foliage that reaches 24 inches tall and wide. It’s smothered with clusters of vivid chartreuse blooms in spring, followed by a repeat floral show from late summer through fall. The flowers and the foliage take on an orange glow in colder seasons, adding further to the appeal of this well-mannered, easy-care perennial. This is a tough perennial that is tolerant of neglect and happiest in full sun with porous soil and occasional summer water once established. ‘Dean’s Hybrid’ performs as well in containers as it does in the landscape. Cut spent bloom stalks down to the base to refresh, taking care to avoid the caustic milky sap.
—Fionuala Campion is the owner and manager of Cottage Gardens of Petaluma in Petaluma, California.