Groundhogs can do a lot of serious damage to a vegetable garden. Photo: www.farmersalmanac.com
Budding city gardeners are often shocked to discover that they may have to deal with groundhogs in their vegetable patch. I mean, aren’t groundhogs something you find way out in the country?
Well, that may have been true in the distant past, but in regions where groundhogs (Marmota monax) live, they have long since adapted to suburbs and even the heart of the city, and seem particularly attracted to vegetable gardens. Just because a garden is urban doesn’t mean it will be spared their ravages. Community gardens and collective gardens—also known as all-you-can-eat-groundhog-buffets—appear to be an especially frequent target.
Meet the Neighbor
The groundhog is a large ground squirrel, one of 15 species in the marmot tribe (Marmotini). It’s found only in North America, mostly in the Eastern and Central United States, as well as all across Canada. (In the Western USA, it’s replaced by various smaller ground squirrels, such as prairie dogs.) There are marmots in Europe and Asia as well, although UK gardeners can relax; there are none in your country outside of zoos. Even so, the other marmot species are essentially alpine animals and people rarely garden on barren mountain tops. Only the American groundhog is a lowland species unfriendly to veggies.
The groundhog is a discrete little creature, often living mostly sight unseen in suburban yards and city green spaces. The landowner often only notices its presence in fall when the leaves drop from the trees, revealing its burrow entrance in a hidden corner, under a deck or tool shed or under shrubs. But if he has a vegetable garden, the presence of the groundhog is much more obvious, because, even if it eats a wide variety of plants in the wild, in town, it seems to have a clear preference for vegetables, including cabbages and other crucifers, lettuces, cucumbers, squash, beets, peas, beans and spinach. In addition, it’s quite the glutton: you may see an entire row of cauliflowers disappear in just one night!
Understanding Its Habits
To control a groundhog, you have to understand it.
First, it’s important to comprehend that the groundhog is largely a solitary animal. You’re not dealing with a colony, but just one animal. With the exception of mating season, males and females live separately and the young already leave their mother at about two months old to found their own burrow … which is why, in midsummer, you often suddenly find damage as the young settle into new territory and think your veggies belong to them. In the wild, a groundhog rarely lives long, only two to four years on average, but since each female produces about four pups a year, the population is easily maintained.
A groundhog lives in a burrow consisting of two to five entrances, long tunnels and at least two compartments: a nest filled with dry grass and a room that serves as a latrine. It will winter in the nest starting in late fall. Since you often see your neighborhood groundhog basking in the sun, rarely far from its burrow, that usually gives a good idea where it lives, often with entrances hidden under a tool shed, a patio or other garden structures. A groundhog will be active both day and night. It actually prefers the presence of humans, taking up residence near our homes, because it sees us as rather clumsy and stupid predators it can easily avoid, while its natural predators (wolves, coyotes, lynx, eagles, etc.) tend to stay away from us.
You can suspect a groundhog (or deer) when you find vegetables that are nibbled almost to the ground overnight. An insect simply doesn’t do that kind of damage. By observing what happens to the garden, you should be able to easily confirm if it’s a groundhog, as once it has found your vegetables, it inevitably comes back again and again.
One urban legend says that if you fill a plastic pop bottle with water and lay it on its side in the vegetable garden, the groundhog will see its image reflected in the side of the bottle and, thinking its territory invaded by a rival groundhog, will flee in panic. If only it were that easy!
However, there are other animal repellents that are more effective. By repellents, I don’t just mean odoriferous commercial products, but any item that scares the animal, whether by sound, sight or smell. So, you can place scented soap in the garden, attach aluminum plates or rags on a cord so that they move in the wind, apply repellents based on rotten eggs or coyote urine, apply blood meal, human hair, pet fur or mothballs to the soil (beware: mothballs are toxic to children!), place a plastic owl or snake in it, play a very loud radio, etc. (For a more complete list of repellents, see Do Animal Repellents Really Work?)
In fact, anything new will scare the groundhog and keep it away from your vegetable patch … for a while, usually no more than two weeks. When it realizes that there is no real danger, though, it will be back. So, the secret to success with repellents is to keep renewing them. If you change them every 10 or 12 days, the poor groundhog will keep feeling there is something new and dangerous each time and will stay away from your vegetables.
Most repellents are DIY household products or inexpensive sprays or granules, but to save you a lot of money, be aware that the ultrasonic devices that are supposed to keep groundhogs away (and indeed, almost any animal away) are no more effective than other repellents, yet are much more expensive. So, you might want forgo that category!
A dog is also an effective groundhog repellent. Groundhogs are instinctively fearful of dogs and most dogs would make short work of a groundhog if ever they caught one, but for a dog to be an effective g-hog repellent, has to be able to roam freely near the garden 24 hours a day. If the dog is tied up or if you bring it indoors at night, the groundhog will quickly learn its limitations or its schedule and use your vegetable patch as smorgasbord when the dog is not around.
Plants That Groundhogs Don’t Like
Another possibility of living in harmony with a groundhog is to only grow plants that groundhogs don’t like to eat. You can find a list of such plants here: Plants Groundhogs Tend to Avoid.
Trap and Release
You can also catch your groundhog with a Havahart-type trap, a kind of cage with a one-way entrance pests can get into, but not out of. You can set up such a trap yourself or call in an exterminator. Or maybe the animal control department of your municipality can lend you one. For bait, use an apple slice coated with peanut butter. When you’ve caught the groundhog, release it at least 5 miles (8 km) from your home; otherwise it may return.
The problem then is: where to release it? Farmers will not appreciate the addition of more groundhogs to their property and municipal parks won’t accept them. People have released (illegally!) so many groundhogs on the campus of my local university that, early in the morning, you sometimes see more groundhogs than students.
Fence Them Out
You can also fence in your vegetable patch. Groundhogs don’t jump nor are they really good climbers. A simple chicken wire fence attached to bargain basement wooden stakes is inexpensive and will offer good protection it as long as it is at least 3 feet (90 cm) high aboveground … and if another foot (30 cm) is buried at the bottom. Bend the buried part bend out (not in!) at a 45 ° angle away from the garden. That way, when the groundhog tries to dig, it will keep running into a barrier and soon give up. Of course, you’ll need a gate for your own access … but don’t leave it open by accident!
Hunt the ’Hog!
For a more “muscular” intervention, groundhog hunting is usually allowed in all seasons in areas where it is found … in the countryside, that is, but, of course, not in the city. You’ll probably need a small game hunting license to practice groundhog hunting. Groundhog meat is perfectly edible and quite delicious, tasting something like rabbit.
Drop a Bomb
You can also use a smoke bomb (or hire an exterminator to apply one). You’ll find this in hardware stores or online. This involves plugging all but one of the holes in the groundhog’s burrow, lighting the bomb and placing it inside, then plugging the last hole. If you see smoke, you’ve missed a hole!
The Most Effective Treatment
But the most effective treatment for most gardeners under most circumstances is a motion-activated sprinkler. You install it by connecting it to a garden hose and adjusting it so that it’s directed towards animal’s usual access point. When it makes a visit, day or night, it gets blasted with water. Water is, of course, harmless, but the shock of getting sprayed is terrifying. If there is one thing that a wild animal won’t tolerate, it’s being touched. It will give up any effort to visit your vegetable garden if it gets sprayed every time it tries to approach it.
A motion-activated sprinkler is also effective against deer, raccoons, skunks, cats, pigeons, crows, squirrels … and neighbors who cut through your yard. Any animal, in fact, larger than a chipmunk. If you can’t find this kind of sprinkler in your local garden center or hardware store, it’s easily accessible on the Internet.
So, there are ways of gardening even with a groundhog right next door. You just have to learn to think like one … and then put the proper controls into place.