Gardening with wildlife

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jul 10, 2014 in Rat Answers | Subscribe

Wildlife in the garden is not a bad thing. In many cases, it can actually be beneficial.

Susan Heckly, a Contra Costa Master Gardener and a wildlife expert who recently retired from the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, told an Our Garden audience that even creatures we don’t like can be a good friend in the garden.

If you like birds in your yard then you should appreciate the insects — even the so-called bad ones — that invade our gardens because their presence attracts the birds that eat them. Don’t like snakes? They do a great job of keeping down the populations of rats, mice and gophers. Hate moles? They keep your lawn free of grubs.

Pocket gopher.

Even the creatures that most people really don’t want in their yards, such as raccoons and gophers, serve a purpose, Heckly says. They make us think, mostly about ways to outsmart them and get them out of our yards. But that helps keep the brain working.

Here are some of Heckly’s tips on gardening with wildlife.


  • These tunneling, vegetarian creatures are everywhere in the Bay Area. If you have a lush garden and landscape, chances are you have gophers.

  • For the most part, they are solitary creatures that live in established territories. If you get rid of one, you’ve probably rid yourself of the problem, temporarily.

  • Nature abhors a vacuum, so even when you get rid of the gophers, others will come, or other creatures will take up residence in the gopher tunnels.

  • Gophers can burrow down to 3 feet, but typically live in the top 18 inches of your soil.

  • They stay underground most of the time as they are vulnerable to predation when they wander above ground.

  • Barn owls are the best control nature has to offer, but you’ll never get 100 percent control with just owls. That’s because when owls have winnowed the gopher population, they move on to areas with a bigger supply.

  • Control is best achieved with traps.

  • Once you have trapped and killed a gopher, you can bag it and put it in the garbage, bury it in its tunnel, or put it out for the vultures.

  • If you don’t want to resort to lethal measures, protect your plants by using stainless steel planting baskets, putting stainless steel gopher wire beneath raised beds, and using flashing to create protective collars.

  • Gophers are not climbers, so a barricade they can’t scale will help to protect your plants.

  • Flooding tunnels or trying to gas or smoke them out just doesn’t work. The tunnels are too extensive and the gophers too smart. They can escape the water by fleeing to a dry tunnel, and they can block fumes by quickly closing off a tunnel. None of the other surefire remedies will work, either, Heckly says.

  • There are some plants gophers don’t like, such as daffodils, but they don’t really keep them from eating other plants.


  • If you think you don’t have rats, think again. Every community, no matter how affluent, has rats. You may not have a serious problem, but they likely are visiting your yard or neighborhood.

  • Rats are good jumpers, but they can’t jump high vertically. Build fences of flashing around plants or create collars around trees. The smooth metal denies them a toehold.

  • The flashing won’t help if rats have other access to your garden, such as trees, buildings and fences.

  • Roof rats don’t really tunnel, but they will use old gopher tunnels and burrows. They also will build nests under ivy, in wood piles, in attics and garages.

  • You can try attaching flimsy wire to the top of fences that will wobble and won’t support the rat’s weight. Also, by tilting it outward, the wire will prevent the rats from climbing over the fence from next door.

  • Trapping is a good solution for controlling the ever increasing rat population. Protect the traps to make sure only the rats will be caught in them and not other creatures.

  • Do not use poisons. Second-generation poisons, which kill the rodents but can then poison creatures who eat the dead or dying rats, are no longer available to the general public, Heckly says, but first generation poisons aren’t good for wildlife, either.


  • Many people don’t want moles in their lawns, but they are beneficial.

  • Moles can eat up to 600 grubs a night, pretty much keeping the grub population under control.

  • Their tunnels also can help aerate your lawn

  • Moles eat insects, so they generally don’t harm your plants. They can create unsightly tunnels, however, and their tunneling can accidentally damage plant roots.

  • Let the mole be and get a little exercise by stomping down the tunnels.


  • Voles are a little like mice in appearance. Their populations swell some years and all but disappear in others.

  • They eat bark and can damage trees.

  • Control of voles is pretty much taken care of by nature. They are a popular food source for a number of creatures.

  • Using flashing around trees will prevent the voles nibbling.


  • As a visitor to your garden, skunks aren’t all that bad, unless you have a dog.

  • They eat mice and rats, and gophers if they can get them. They also will dig up and destroy yellow jacket nests.

  • Skunks are not climbers, so blocking entrances into the yard should keep them out. They will dig beneath fences, so make sure the barrier is secure.


  • Snakes in your garden can be a good thing; rattlesnakes, too, unless you have a pet or children.

  • Rattlesnakes can’t climb, so a solid barrier around your yard will keep them out.

  • Be careful if you have gophers. Rattlesnakes can use the tunnels to get under the barricade and into your yard.

  • Try letting other snakes live in peace in your yard.

    What not to do

  • Trapping an animal in your yard and then relocating is illegal under state law. It also is not good for the animal, which may not be able to find food in its new location, or may find the new area hostile.

  • Relocating so-called nuisance animals means you’re making your problem someone else’s, and they may return the favor.

    Harvest update

    So far this year, Our Garden has produced almost 3,000 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables, which have been donated to the Monument Crisis Center in Concord.

    Our Garden

    Our Garden offers free gardening classes 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. every Wednesday, through October. The garden is located at Wiget Lane and Shadelands Drive in Walnut Creek. Master Gardeners are available to answer your questions and diagnose disease and pests, and there is a wide variety of plants for sale.

    Next time in the Garden: Pest management for a healthy planet with Master Gardener Steve Griffin.

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