We northern Californians have to contend with slews of gardening problems, some which are native to this area and others which are common to homesteaders everywhere. However, over the course of seven years of farming, my husband and I have learned, through trial and error (not to mention a lot of good luck), how to overcome most of the predicaments that originally troubled us.
For instance, we constructed a greenhouse equipped with 55-gallon drums of water to temper the cold nights. And after first trying movable sprinklers and then experimenting with underground watering setups, we determined that a soaker system is the most efficient method of keeping our thirsty plants satisfied. We also noticed that while local farmers seem to be plagued with deer, these foragers haven't presented much of a problem to us — probably because they can drift onto our land for an occasional drink from our horse's watering trough and a lick from her mineral block. After this satisfying "snack" they march off single file to dine on our neighbor's beans!
Trouble in Paradise
But these little victories over gardening problems and predators appeared minimal in comparison to our constant battle with the army of pocket gophers that used to descend upon our crops every growing season. For years, it seemed nothing would stand in the way of these dirt-digging marauders!
We tried installing a homemade whirligig (fashioned from a plastic bleach bottle filled with gravel and stuck on a pole in the garden in such a way that it moves when the wind blows), hoping that the rattling of its pebbles would be loud enough to cause the varmints to flee. But it seems California gophers are hardened to any sort of noise — including four-letter "accolades" hurled at them from a distance!
Then there are the other, less humane, ways of getting rid of gophers such as gas and poison. We both felt that these methods could be too hazardous to the environment.
Hope in Sight
We'd almost resigned ourselves to the fact that we were simply going to have to put up with sharing the wealth of our land with our "fuzzy friends," when just this past year we suddenly began to notice that none of them had appeared anywhere on our lawn or in our garden. Still, we figured that since June had been unseasonably cold and rainy, this rare phenomenon could be attributed to foul weather and the little thieves would likely soon be back in full force to torment us once again.
Then one Sunday afternoon, my husband rushed into the house and blurted out that he'd just seen a four-foot-long gopher snake in the greenhouse! Apparently, the slitherer had made a home for itself behind the water drums and had poked its head out from behind one of them when my husband entered the hothouse. "I was pretty startled," he admitted, "but I figured that darn snake might be more friend than foe, so I told him he could stay as long as he kept at least six feet of distance between us!"
Now my spouse and I were no strangers to such reptiles. Even though we're both originally from south Georgia, where every snake is considered to be a rattler, cottonmouth, or copperhead until proven otherwise, we'd become pretty used to the friendlier sides of these creatures. How could we help it when we have a son who has had at least six snakes living in his room as pets at various times? We'd even grown accustomed to the sight of our happy youngster casually sauntering around with a corn snake peeping out of his shirt or stuffed down into the pocket of his jeans (along with his money, gum, marbles, and other treasures), ready to be proudly displayed at a moment's notice!
So, having been conditioned by our offspring, my husband and I were more than happy to welcome the gopher snake into our fold. Needless to say, we've always had a nonverbal agreement that in return for his "room," he'd have to scavenge up his own "board" (in addition to staying out of our way). This living arrangement appears to have suited our scaly tenant just fine, too; ever since Charlie, as we've named him, has been on our farmstead, we haven't seen any sign of pocket gophers!
As an unexpected bonus, our snake has turned out to be quite the gentleman. He's exceptionally well-mannered and seems to actually enjoy it when we handle him.
Spread the Word!
Not long after Charlie came to live with us, word got out about his prowess, and one of our neighbors (whose lawn was riddled with gopher holes) asked if he could perhaps borrow our silent "mouser." We thought about it and figured, why not? If Charlie was willing, lending him out seemed like a right neighborly thing to do.
At first, the snake wasn't a bit happy to be picked up by a stranger. But once Charlie was placed down by a gopher hole, he seemed to know exactly what was expected of him and slithered into the ground and went to work. My husband found our well-fed comrade stretched out in the sun beside the newly emptied gopher tunnel the next day, all ready to be carried home!
Before we knew it, lots of folks heard about Charlie and began calling us up to ask if they, too, could borrow him. So now we're lending him out (for only one day each week) to various friends and neighbors. He's booked solid for the rest of the summer! We've even considered starting a rent-a-snake home business (As more and more people turn to gardening, this sort of "hiring out" could become pretty profitable.) But in order to do so, we'd probably have to increase our snake supply, and although "the more the merrier" is a nice concept, other reptilian garden helpers might not be as civilized as Charlie. So for the time being, at least, we're content to have just one snake in our grass!