A. V. Walters

The Evolution of Buckets

Give. You learn to recognize it very quickly, once its import becomes clear. While sometimes it’s obvious, with loose piles of dirt in evidence of the travesty, you soon learn to tell even when it’s the most imperceptible shift, a softness underfoot, not quite spongy, but the ground seems to pull away as you place your weight. You learn to see the signs, a slight rise, or cracking on the surface of the soil. You test it with your foot and there it is, the slightest give, and you know you’ve got gophers. Maybe they’re just passing by. But maybe your favorite pepper plant has some wilt at its extremities. Tomorrow the plant will be gone. I mean, completely gone! Pulled down a gopher hole with no trace except, perhaps, a slightly sifted loamy texture to the soil. Kiss those artichoke plants goodbye; they haven’t got a chance.

Buckets started as a way to save water. Initially we lopped off the bottoms of the buckets and used them as half buried tubes to direct the watering to the roots of our pampered vegetables. This really works—plus it offers some protection from wind (here we can have some pretty fierce winds) and as a ‘curb’ from dragging hoses. But our magic system offers no protection from the underground menace. (Right about now you should be hearing the theme song to Jaws.)

A few weeks into my first year gardening here, I got the shocking introduction to the reality of our biggest downside. We have gophers, big time. I’ve never lived anywhere where there were gophers. I’ve had deer problems, the scourge of many insect pests, even the occasional bunny, but never gophers. One day, one of my baby artichoke plants seemed a little droopy. It was a warm day, so I gave it a little extra water, figuring it would recover by the next day. There was no next day. It was gone! The next week saw the end of artichokes, each day another one limp and then dragged down to the zombie underground. I began to rethink buckets.

Buckets are perfect for the kinds of vegetables that, a) gophers don’t like; and b) grow large enough to not be well suited to garden beds. So tomatoes are a bucket natural. So are the various squashes, winter and summer. I’ve only ever lost one tomato plant to a gopher. When you figure that we might have thirty to forty tomato plants in the community garden (we weren’t kidding about the community part) that’s an acceptable level of loss. Squashes are similarly gopher hardy. Granted they gave the delicatas a run for the money but the hardy ones prevailed. The peppers do well in buckets, except for the damn gophers. So, I started changing the bucket configuration.

Initially we used clean five gallon paint buckets. These are nicely sized, but they get brittle in the sunshine after the first season. By year two, we’d graduated to black nursery buckets, in various sizes. These are easier to cut and they remain flexible for years. Our first effort was to put heavy duty screens in the bottoms. The screens worked well, but had sharp edges. Planting and pulling resulted in gardener injuries. We looked for a gardener friendly option.

Instead of just chopping off the bottom, we started to experiment with cutting holes in the bottom—sized to keep out gophers. A couple seasons later we’re drilling six to eight holes in the bottom and a row or two up the sides. With fewer holes, we were having trouble with wet feet—essentially root rot. These perforated buckets are more difficult than the bottomless ones to pull at the end of the season—they have to be “dug” out. But so far they appear to be gopher-proof.

Where buckets are less helpful are for lettuces or things that really grow nicely in rows (like radishes, beets or onions.) Unfortunately, and surprisingly, these are all prime targets for gopher predation. Buckets do work, but they aren’t sized well for leafies or root vegetables. This year we’re planning a section of raised beds—with gopher screens across the bottoms. We plan to build them out of used metal roofing. We’ll have plenty of row vegies for the full season.

We don’t really approve of gopher poisons—they just end up in the cats (which tells you that our cats, especially Bob, are doing their jobs.) We’ve heard stories about the Rodenator. It’s a gopher zapping contraction that fills their burrows with propane gas and then detonates! I’ve even gone on line to watch the videos. Quite impressive. It’s tempting, expensive but tempting. The Landlord is not so thrilled with the idea though. A bad experience with a similar solution left him wary. He’s afraid we’ll blow the whole place up. I understand why—his experience with trying to address the gopher problem was perhaps more successful than he’d planned. He started out with a home-made version of the Rodenator, filling the gopher holes with propane. But he and a buddy decided (for some reason) to set it off with a stick of dynamite! We can’t be sure if the problem was the dynamite or too much gas (probably both), certainly it had something to do with beer, but he blew-up his mother’s back yard and cracked the foundation of her house. For us, at the moment, it’s buckets and raised beds.

So, now when Bob and I walk in the garden and feel that give—I know my plants are safe in their buckets, and smile. And Bob will have to make some minor adjustments to his gopher catching techniques.