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Question. Dear Mike: Last year a groundhog ate all my pumpkins and summer squash. Do you have any tips on getting rid of this pest? Thanks!
---Tava in Cleveland
Dear Mike: I've got a couple of huge ones under my porch, am getting ready to spend a lot of money on landscaping, and want to make sure they don't eat the new garden.
---Kathy; NewCastle, Delaware
I spent tons of money on a deer fence and then a groundhog moved in! I will not be able to have a garden this year unless I get rid of it. I am open to some type of murder. Thanks,
---Marion in Media, PA
Do ultrasonic pest control devices work against them?
---Julia in New town, PA
Having groundhog trouble is like living in the Bill Murray movie of the same name. You go to bed and wake up to the same exact thing every morning—in this case, a giant furry butt on legs eating your landscape to the ground. But this picture is NOT a comedy. Although weather-guessing Punxsutawney Phil has made this giant squirrel—yes, that's what they are—seem cute and cuddly, they are actually a serious menace that people often underestimate until it's too late.
They eat huge amounts of vegetation; their extensive burrowing can undermine the integrity of homes and other structures; those burrows break untold numbers of legs each year—often badly (the design of the hole 'catches' the legs of unwary humans and livestock in such a way that it tends to cause exceptionally nasty breaks); and the large creatures have been known to tear into children and pets with a surprising viciousness.
If you have groundhogs, this is the time to act. These true hibernators are now waking up across their VERY wide range (almost all of the U.S. except the very deepest South and the West Coast), and you want to be rid of them before they can breed and increase your problems geometrically.
Unfortunately, ultrasonic devices do NOT repel them. In fact, I've never seen evidence that these devices repel ANY pests. In fact, several studies suggest that they actually attract burrowing mammals. So I don't recommend them.
Fencing does work to keep them out of designated garden areas, but it has to be a very specific design: My famous 'Critter Proof Fence'—which also keeps out rabbits, skunks and lots of other mammalian pests. You'll need enough sturdy, six-foot high animal fencing to surround the area you wish to protect, with stakes for every six feet of length. (Use small-gauge 'rabbit' fencing or something similar; not flimsy chicken wire.)
The hard part (but you only have to do it once!): Because no burrowing creature goes below a foot and a half, dig a two-foot deep trench around the area. (Rent a trench digging machine!) Fill the dirt back in, then stake the fencing so that three feet of it ..is nice and straight above ground. But I said SIX foot fencing—that's only five feet so far!
…Because you're going to bend that top foot outward at a 90 degree angle. That's your groundhog baffle. These wicked waddlers are surprisingly good climbers, and as soon as they realize they can't dig under your fence, they will attempt to clamber up it. The baffle will prevent this, dropping them back down on their furry butts, safely outside your Eden. I've heard they're pretty stubborn about this and will try and try again—so feel free to drag out a lawn chair, pop open the beverage of your choice and enjoy the show. Maybe create little Olympic scorecards to hold up for especially floppy falls.
For larger areas, consider trapping. Most sources recommend lethal traps; that's your choice, but I'm too much of a wuss. I use large 'live traps' (like the "Hav-A-Hart" brand) instead. To get the best results, wear gloves when you handle the trap to disguise your scent, and bait it with apple slices first. If that doesn't work, try rotating different veggies. No matter what, change the bait daily. Place the trap close to the groundhog tunnel's front door ("distinguished by a large mound of excavated earth, the main opening is approximately 10 to 12 inches in diameter"), and create a kind of 'pathway' with small logs or branches something similar to try and 'funnel' the creature inside.
Once you have one trapped, you can take it far away and release it in the woods, but animal experts say that such creatures have a very low rate of survival. It's probably kinder to have it humanely euthanized by a Vet. I know some of you will be adamantly opposed to this; maybe you can find a wildlife rehab facility to accept it.
Or use 'repulsion' to chase the beast over to the neighbor's tomatoes and begonias. Researchers have noted that groundhogs are THE most fastidious of underground creatures, constantly digging new latrines and sealing off old ones to keep their runs 'Martha Stewart fresh'. So obtain some used kitty litter—preferably from a litter box that went too long between changes—scoop out and properly dispose of the solid waste, and then pour the ammonia-rich remainder into that main entrance hole. The groundhog's reaction will be the same as if someone had dumped a truckload of the stuff into your living room: "Honey—we'll never get this place clean! We have to move."
The groundhog will almost certainly dig another tunnel nearby. You can foul that one right away or be mean and wait a week or so. Listeners who have tried this assure me that their giant squirrels have always moved on to less fragrant surroundings after the 3rd or 4th fouling.
You Bet Your Garden Question of the Week ©2006 Mike McGrath