Dealing With Groundhogs in the Garden

Reader Contribution by Don Abbott

Three or four summers ago, I had a garden pest problem. At first, I noticed nibbles on some plants, most notably spinach and broccoli. My former naive self thought it was possibly aggressive insects. A day later, a few plants were stripped and others were just gone.

I instinctively knew something bigger was devouring my vegetables, but I had no proof. Maybe a deer had jumped the 5-foot fence? The movement I witnessed in my garden the following day revealed the answer. My new friend Woody the Groundhog, also known as Woodchuck, was digging under the fence to gobble up my veggie buffet. (By the way, here’s my list of what groundhogs love to eat).

Here’s where I started to get a clue.

By this time in my gardening “career,” growing food was my path to self-reliance. I consider myself a modern homesteader (as much as one can homestead on a .91 acre rented property). Not a Little House on the Prairie homesteader mind you, but more of a “growing food is printing money” one. My garden was (and still is) an intricate part of my life and soul. Anything that threatens it is in for heap of trouble (just ask my neighbors). The feeling of helplessness and loss experienced when critters are eating your garden is like no other.

I knew I had to stop the chlorophyll bleeding, so I decided to do something about it. I purchased a box trap at the local farm supply store and placed it inside my garden fencing. Life has taught me to be careful what you wish for. While I wanted to remove my newly sworn enemy, capturing other yard interlopers (like raccoons, opossums, or God forbid, skunks) wasn’t in the plans. Several days later, after more losses (this buck-toothed menace pulled down half my corn stalks), I had my groundhog.

A trapped groundhog makes this gardener very happy. Woody’s now in a better place.

Now that I was the owner of a captured woodchuck, my next problem was what to do with him. I could either “dispatch” him or release him somewhere else. After running many horrible scenarios in my head (all which seemed to be based on Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons), I decided on relocation. Not the most legal maneuver but it beat the alternatives my imagination dreamt up. This groundhog was bringing the worst out of me.

The following year, my groundhog issue came back in spades. Woody’s sister had a litter under a woodpile 10 feet behind the garden. I reinforced my fencing but groundhogs are tenacious when hungry. The babies could pass through the fence like it wasn’t even there.

I tried using the trap again, but these guys were not falling for it. I thought about sending in River, my 15-pound Toy Fox Terrier, to evict them, but didn’t want to put her in harm’s way. Desperate, I called in the professionals. Three groundhogs, three raccoons, and $300 later, my problem was solved for now.

This little guy went off to the “upstate groundhog sanctuary.”

I discussed the groundhog issue with my landlord, and he thought a .22 rifle was a good solution. He said I could even practice with it by shooting targets off the very logs the groundhogs were living under. Had I lived within the city, this wouldn’t have been an option.

My humble abode is located just outside the city limits. It’s not unusual to hear gunshots in the distance (especially on Easter and Mother’s Day, which is a little strange in my book). At this point, I had never owned a gun and couldn’t imagine having one in my possession. Not because I was against guns, but because I was unfamiliar.

In hindsight, a firearm could have saved money and the lives of those poor innocent raccoons (legally they can’t just be released). Several times I was within mere feet of my furry groundhog trespassers. A gun would have solved much gardening heartache. I think the issue holding me back was my lack of experience plus my girlfriend’s love of groundhogs. The trappers actually told her they were taking them to be released at a special groundhog sanctuary upstate or some other nonsense  She didn’t truly believe it, but it did soften the blow.

One defensive maneuver I implemented after all this was to turn those groundhog harboring logs into a hugelkultur mound (with help from the landlord). This act, plus mowing down the brambles around the area, reduced the chances of another groundhog infestation. Leaving an overgrown area with piled wood is just asking for trouble. You are literally aiding and abetting the enemy.

Last year, I was again faced (literally) with a groundhog. He was traveling several hundred feet (and several neighbor’s yards) from his home to graze next to my garden. In his defense, I do have some really nice clover out there.

One day, I found myself nose-to-nose with him, as I ran to block his escape route. There we stood, a mere 5 feet from each other, deciding what to do next. My inner voice whispered softly, “If you only had a gun right now.” Instead, here’s the cellphone picture I took of him fleeing the scene.

Who knew groundhogs could fly? 

Fortunately, because of my giant hugelkultur mound and diligent garden fence reinforcement (including chicken wire bent in an L shape out into the grass – the Snarky Girlfriend’s idea), this particular groundhog didn’t get into my garden. But as long as they are in my yard, there’s always a danger of an invasion. This year (knock on wood) there has only been one groundhog sighted and he lives out by the road, far away from my precious vegetable garden.

I want to leave by saying I am an animal lover, which is why I’ve taken quite the twisted path to my current stance. I find myself thinking “How adorable!” when spotting a groundhog eating away in the grass next to the road. I don’t look forward to personally ending the life of a groundhog (or any creature for that matter). But since I’m not vegan, I’m eating animals all the time that didn’t die of old age. Cognitive dissidence is a funny thing. We humans kill by proxy all the time but society thinks poorly of hunters because they are “killing Bambi”. Hope the thought of harming these little guys wasn’t too much for you, my dear reader, to handle.

Don Abbott (akaThe Snarky Gardener) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent, Ohio. Professionally, he’s a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented 0.91-acre urban farm. He is also the founder of the Kent, Ohio, chapter of Food Not Lawns and received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland-based Green Triangle. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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