Beneficial animals Harmful animals

Groundhogs Garden Too!?

A person watches a groundhog gardening
A groundhog gardening? Image: Julie Boudreau.

I hesitate to praise the groundhog. Most of the time, they are gardeners’ worst nightmare, who struggle to cope with their depredations and greed…. Recently, however, I came across a scientific study praising a close relative of the groundhog, as the first example of a non-human mammal farming!

In fact, there is a small rodent in Florida called the Southeastern pocket gopher (Geomys pinetis) that can dig a vast network of tunnels as big as a football field. By comparison, our beloved woodchuck rarely digs a tunnel longer than 23 ft (7 meters). So scientists wondered why such a vast network of tunnels?

Southeastern pocket gopher (Geomys pinetis)
Southeast pocket gopher (Geomys pinetis). Photo: inaturalist.ca.

Eating Up the Daisies!

Yes, this gopher feeds in part on the roots that invade its tunnels. But it has the brilliant habit of not devouring the entire plant: it leaves just enough for the roots to grow back. Thus, it can nibble on the same plant several times. It’s estimated that about 20% of its diet is made up of these roots crunched under the ground.

In addition, this Florida gopher doesn’t have a dung chamber, like marmots. It relieves itself everywhere in its tunnels. Thus fertilizing the soil around the plants that feed it.

Of course, the debate is on whether this animal’s practices can be considered real gardening. Opponents will say that it doesn’t weed or multiply its plants. They will denigrate the work of this little beast by comparing it to that of fungus-growing ants which really cultivate mushrooms, carry out phytosanitary treatments, multiply their crops…

This being said, some studies also underline the contribution of woodchucks to the benefit of biodiversity. Indeed, we note increases of about 7% of the biomass in the fields where marmots live. Also, being fonder of plants of the Fabaceae family (legumes), they make nitrogen available to other plants through their excretions.

groundhog (Marmota monax)
The groundhog (Marmota monax). Photo: Pixabay.com

I don’t think the groundhog will suddenly gain my sympathy, but it’s a great example of how all living things have a purpose and there’s a fascinating natural balance all around us. And far too often we leave ourselves out of that equation.

Having groundhog issues? Read this: Nix Groundhogs in the Garden.

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

3 comments on “Groundhogs Garden Too!?

  1. Pocket gophers are the bane of my existence. They love to come up through a newly mulched area leaving a huge pile of soil loaded with dandelion and thistle seed. They dig in my vegetable garden burying seedlings with their piles of soil eating all the root crops, In the winter they completely eat the roots off of trees and shrubs resulting in huge losses. I know they are Nature’s little soil aerators but their services are not required in my garden.

  2. On rare occasion, they kill unwanted plants, . . . ‘on rare occasion’.

  3. William MacMillan

    I found that a rag dipped in ammonia and placed in the hole will discourage groundhogs.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!