Friday, June 26, 2009

A Tilling Tale

What every garden needs is a deep tilling to bring mineral-rich soil up to the surface, work organic matter down to the root level, improve water penetration and improve aeration. No other preparation can match it. But any gardener can tell you that digging over a garden this thoroughly is a big job. Blisters and sore muscles predicted, even if you have a powerful garden tiller and the strength to keep it from taking off across the lawn and chewing up the flower beds.

But there's a little four-legger who deep tills, adds organic matter by the bushel and aerates your garden (and lawn) for free, while the gardener sits on the deck and watches the clouds float by. Granted, the four-legger's wages may be the occasional bulb or potato, but no one could be expected to do all this work for free!

In the Okanagan the resident "burrower" is the Northern Pocket Gopher (Thomomys talpoides), a cute little fellow who looks as if he might have been dreamed up by a Disney animator. He's about five or six inches long, and weighs about half a pound as an adult. He has fur-lined cheek pouches which he uses like we use shopping bags. He stuffs them full of grass (which is his primary food) and turns them completely inside out to empty them.

The pocket gopher has short soft fur which is nearly uniform in colour, but the colour depends on his habitat, and it usually closely matches the soil of his home territory. He's stocky with short legs with small ears and eyes. His claws are long and well-developed as would be expected in a burrowing animal.

The pocket gopher digs an extensive network of system of burrows consisting of deep permanent galleries and shallow feeding tunnels and spends most of its life underground. Galleries can be from three to nine feet below the surface. These contain centralized nesting and storage chambers. The feeding tunnels radiate from them. Feeding tunnels can be from two to 18 inches below the surface of the soil, and are about two inches in diameter.

Tunnel entrances are marked by fan-shaped mounds of dirt surrounding the holes. These entrances are usually blocked with a plug of dirt. The pocket gopher seldom strays far from the entrance during the day. They are somewhat more adventurous at night, venturing as much as three feet from the burrow entrance. They do not hibernate, and in areas where there is deep snow cover they build passages through the snow, lining them with excavated earth. (Apparently white walls are not to their taste.)

Their diet consists of roots, bulbs, leaves, and other vegetation. If possible, they will burrow beneath a plant, chew off the roots and pull it through the ground by the stem. This behaviour has been well-documented in such epic Mel Blanc films as A Bone for a Bone and Gopher Broke.

The gopher is a polite animal, cutting its food into small pieces before stashing it in their cheek pouches for transportation. Pocket gophers do not drink water, as they get the fluid they need from their food.

Except for a brief courting period in early spring the pocket gopher is a loner. They do not gather on the lawn for croquet tournaments or hold family reunions to remember their foregophers. In fact they are such loners that if one pocket gopher's tunnel intersects another's one of them will seal the intersection, quite possibly swearing in gopherese at the inconvenience.

Males are allowed to enter the burrows of females only during mating season. Female pocket gophers have one litter of 1-10 young each year. Pregnancy lasts a mercifully short 18 days, and the babies remain in their mother's burrow for eight weeks, at which point they are teenagers and insufferably untidy, and their mother gives them the boot. Young pocket gophers breed at about a year of age, which is convenient since life expectancy is only two years. A prey species, they live fast and die young.

Though they are often accused of damaging grasslands, their burrowing actually benefits the ecosystem by aerating the soil, and their stores of underground plant matter enriches the soil by creating humus. Their tunnels also allow rain and snow to move deep into the soil.

Unfortunately most people get uncomfortably excited when they find a mound of soft earth on the lawn, but it's probably best to simply rake the nice fresh soil from the mound onto the surrounding area and not to get too stressed about it, as stress is bad for one's heart.

If you have a mound show up on your site and you simply have to do something to discourage the gopher who put it there, try Cat's Gopher Irritator, which is a soda or water bottle sunk into the tunnel entrance. Burrowers are exquisitely sensitive to vibrations, and the low frequency sound waves produced by the wind as it blows across the bottle neck apparently aggravates them enough to make them head for greener (or at least less noisy) pastures. Here is one of the Gopher Irritators Cat has placed in various locations around the Park. The pink ribbon signifies that technology is at work encouraging the gophers to go live on the other side of the fence. Please do not pluck the "Irritators" from their burrows, as they are costly and time-consuming to replace.

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