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Potted plants can keep gophers at bay

  • Juliana Jensen
  • This year has brought a bumper crop of gophers. They have not been an occasional annoyance, but rather a force of devastation that has made me glad I don't actually depend on my garden to eat.

    This spring, I put in some rather exotic annuals, hoping for an heirloom display of vegetables and flowers. Instead, I watched as the bed of Delphinium belladonna "Cliveden Beauty" disappeared from the kitchen window view one at a time until there were none at all. The cunning little flowers I had so carefully chosen and arranged for color and shape — the Lupinus regalis "Morello Cherry," the Alcea ficifolia "Black" or Black Fig-leaved Hollyhock, and the Alonsoa meridionalis "Apricot" or "Apricot Mask Flower" — vanished underground nightly.

    The garden was a wreck of holes and dirt piles. The barren vegetable beds would make me a laughingstock among gardeners. Something had to be done.

    Then I looked around the garden and saw them — ceramic pots that had been accumulating for years through various discarded theories of houseplants and patio displays. When I actually started collecting them, I was amazed at the number and variety I possessed. The solution was at hand.

    I dug up the remaining young plants and tucked them into containers and out of danger. I mixed the flowers so that each pot shared a handsome collection of plants or, in the case of tomatoes, surrounded them with marigolds to discourage pests. I placed my pots throughout the garden. I tucked them between the perennials that seemed to be eluding the gophers. I put them in a vegetable bed to cheer up my hopeless garden. Things were looking up.

    A pot garden actually has many advantages. First, if I make a placement mistake (too much sun, for instance) or just change my mind, it is much less effort to roll around a pot than to dig up a plant. Second, it has provided the opportunity to experiment with the combination "edible and ornamental garden" where vegetables are mixed in with flowers as part of an integrated garden design. Third, it has given me something to do with all those pots that were sitting in corners and under decks.

    Now that it's late summer, the pots are holding up and looking great. The flowers have mature blooms, and the tomatoes are ripening.

    If you want to try a pot garden, be sure your container has drainage — a big hole in the bottom is perfect. When planting, you need to be sure to use excellent potting soil, preferably with a big dash of compost. It should be soil that is light in texture so that the water can drain and the roots can stretch out. Most commercial potting soils are designed to be lighter than regular garden soil.

    You can use things besides traditional ceramic pots as long as there is drainage. Some people plant in horse troughs or wheelbarrows. Some people plant in old rubber boots with holes drilled in the bottoms. You can get creative and plant in almost anything made of nontoxic materials.

    There are many new biodegradable containers and fabric pots on the market. These lightweight vessels allow oxygen to penetrate the soil at the root zone, which helps healthy root development and supports populations of beneficial microorganisms and bacteria. These new pots generated a lot of interest when they were featured at the UC Marin Master Gardeners demonstration garden at the Marin County Fair.

    Plants in containers require a lot more frequent watering than plants in the ground because soil dries out much more rapidly. You can be careful to water them thoroughly by hand, or you can put them on a drip irrigation system. The irrigation hose can be threaded up through the drainage hole at the bottom of the container so that the emitter pops out at the top without exposing the hose. This technique is elegant but can be a problem when digging or changing plantings. A hose up the side of the container with a drip emitter in the pot also functions well.

    I have become a big fan of the pot garden and will be using containers in my garden from now on, gophers or no gophers.