It was spring in the garden, a time of renewal and joy. The sugar peas had recently flowered, and the pods were already approaching 2 inches. Spinach and beets were on their way. The cabbage, kale, and lettuce plants I’d painstakingly started from seed were green with promise.
My dream of fixing a daily salad from my garden was finally becoming a reality. I could almost taste it.
One cool evening, however, I sauntered to my garden in Franklin after a stressful commute home from Boston. Where once my bounty had been, I found only stems sticking out of the ground like so many dragon’s teeth. Only a few radishes remained.
My mind raced, cycling through a rogue’s gallery of suspects. It wasn’t a deer, a squirrel, or raccoon. And no rabbit systematically works its way down row after row, leaving only nubs in its wake. No, it had to be a groundhog.
The groundhog, as New England gardeners have known for time immemorial, is a formidable adversary. One ravaged Henry David Thoreau’s bean patch at Walden Pond. “My enemies are worms, cool days, and most of all woodchucks,” he lamented. “The last have nibbled for me a quarter of an acre clean.”
The Algonquin people are thought to have called the critter “wuchak,” for “digger,” which English settlers rendered as “woodchuck.” He’s had other names — whistle pig, land beaver — but as for me, I just call him a glutton who grows fat on the fruits of my labor.
This rodent of unusual size is both intelligent and social, able to alert their fellows to danger with a high-pitched whistle (hence: whistle pig). When cornered, they can be quite fierce, defending themselves with their incisors and front claws.
But I was angry and ready to fight, too. I wasn’t about to be bullied by an overgrown squirrel. I needed to stop him, whatever it took.
My ground war with the groundhog took place more than 25 years ago, and yet I still remember it like it was yesterday. Every year at this time, I think back to what I did wrong and what I might have done right, and what I’ve learned along the way.
A whole variety of folklore exists on ways to rid yourself of a groundhog. Some say you should gather hair from your barber and spread it around the perimeter of the garden. But I’m suspicious. Animals quickly adapt to human scents, and I’m betting the hair makes the woodchuck briefly pause and ponder, then proceed straight to your peas and lettuce. Others swear by dumping used cat litter in the groundhog’s hole. Please. The burrows can stretch some 50 feet and I had only one cat, a scrappy stray my wife and I had adopted named Casper.
So my first strategy was to finally finish the chicken-wire fence I had partially erected. It cost me about $80 in materials, and a few hours in labor, and that felt like a small price to pay. And it worked — for all of two days. The groundhog simply tunneled under the fence and sheared off what was left of the radish stems, emerging bean sprouts, and parsnip greens.
I called a fellow gardener for advice. She suggested I buy a humane “live” trap. “I guess woodchucks need to eat like the rest of us: after all, they are as much God’s creatures as we are.”
Then she added, “If you do catch him, make sure you kill him — I don’t want him coming over here.”
I bought the trap, shelling out $65, and I promptly caught a skunk. It was such a job getting the skunk out without being sprayed that I decided to retire the trap to my garden shed for the time being.
My next idea was to keep a handful of small rocks by the back door. I figured if I saw the portly pig and pelted him, the harassment might make him think twice about returning. I’d only seen the groundhog once but figured he’d be easy to hit because he seemed a slow, waddling sort.
I was becoming obsessed, like the groundskeeper in Caddyshack. First thing every morning, I found myself scanning my garden from my bedroom window on the second floor of our home. Sure enough, one morning I saw him. I raced downstairs, still in my underwear, quietly opened the back door, grabbed some stones and charged.
The groundhog heard me coming and raised himself on his haunches. I threw the stones. I’m not sure if I hit him but he did flee at a surprisingly fast gallop. The next morning, he was back again.
He seemed bigger than Casper — grown rotund, no doubt, on my greens and sugar peas. Casper never attempted to intervene, choosing instead to ignore the groundhog and go about his life.
I wondered what Casper knew that I didn’t.
It was time to escalate this battle. It didn’t take me long to find a hole in the woods behind my house. While I examined it, the groundhog himself came barreling down the hill and disappeared into a second hole, no more than 15 feet away from me. Groundhogs make their burrows with multiple entrances, getting them close to food and so they have an escape route should a fox or another predator enter their home. These burrows are works of art, with cozy chambers lined with grass and leaves. The underground nests are higher than the main tunnel so water will not reach them and, being a fastidious sort, they actually dig a dedicated bathroom chamber. I imagine they also design in all sorts of antechambers for the purpose of lounging and gloating about the spoils they’ve stolen from above.
Finding all the woodchuck entrances and exits to their burrows is no easy task. While you might find the “main entrance” by seeing freshly dug earth mounded up, there are hard to detect “plunge holes” at certain times of year for quick access. These plunge holes have no telltale mound because woodchucks dig the opening from within the established tunnel. In short, the woodchuck is smarter than many gardeners, myself included.
Now that I’d found his base of operations, I made my move. I tried sealing the openings with rocks. He pushed the small ones aside like petty worries, the big ones he dug around. And always he was eating.
Over the summer, my well-fed enemy grew larger — and bolder. One day, I sat under our maple and gazed over the pitiful remains of my vegetable garden — a few lonely squash plants, trampled peppers, and a half-eaten eggplant. There were also several healthy tomato plants that he seemed to thumb his nose at, as if not worthy of his smorgasbord.
Once, I saw the groundhog emerge from the woods, sniff the air, and bound toward the garden. I chased him to his hole, grabbed the biggest rock I could find, and pushed it into the entrance. I’ve got you now, I thought.
And then I stepped on a hornets’ nest and went running back to my house.
By this point, it was psychological warfare, and the short furry guy was winning. My mental outlook was as desolate as my garden. I thought about the groundhog constantly. At work, I glumly envisioned him back in my garden, deciding which of my plants he was in the mood to nibble. My friends began to ask me for a daily “groundhog report,” which I didn’t find as amusing as they did. When I got home every evening, I greeted my wife with the same terse question: “Did you see him?”
A half-mile from my home was a small farm-stand run by an elderly man of Russian descent. Whenever I stopped to buy his peaches, apples, and plums, he was always brusque. But on one visit I asked him what I should do about a groundhog, and a hint of a smile emerged. “You must shoot it.”
“But I don’t have a gun.”
“Buy one. I shoot them in my asparagus, early spring.”
Shooting the critter was out of the question — even if I had a gun, which I didn’t, my suburban neighbors wouldn’t look kindly on me discharging firearms while they mowed their lawns and barbecued their burgers.
Still, the farmer and I became friendly, and I remember him telling me he and his brother immigrated to America in 1912, after traveling from Russia to England. He said they tried to stowaway on a ship, but were caught and kicked off. The ship was named Titanic. “I am a lucky man,” he said.
He was lucky, but I was not, because by now my garden looked like the Sahara, and I’d been pushed to my limit. I didn’t care anymore about a kinder, gentler garden with a picturesque fence separating the groundhog’s territory from mine in a microcosm of peaceful coexistence. That approach would never work, I figured, so I turned to another weapon in my arsenal — bombs. Yes, bombs.
My local garden store carried rodent smoke bombs, also known euphemistically as fumigation cartridges, that came with fuses and detailed instructions. The trick was to drop the bomb into the hole and then cover the opening with dirt so the noxious fumes would asphyxiate the groundhog. It’s a grim thought, but I was in a war. (Should you go with the bomb method, and you’re like me and don’t always think things through, here is a tip from an animal control officer: Don’t use the bomb on entrance holes near your home unless you intend to perhaps poison a family member, or burn down your house, or both.)
On my first try, I forgot to seal the exit hole and the fumes escaped. On my second, I sealed the hole, but extinguished the bomb with the dirt. But the third time ... ah, success. Three days passed, and not a groundhog in sight.
On day four, I sat under my maple tree, lord of my acre once more. A movement caught my eye. And there he was, my nemesis, perched like a squirrel with lunch from my garden in his paws. Right beneath the tomato plants was yet another entrance to the burrow.
I began to wonder what I would do if I caught the groundhog, as unlikely as that seemed. I’m a fan of author David Grayson, who in his 1936 book, The Countryman’s Year, recounts a battle with his own garden thief. Unlike me, Grayson appointed a deputy — an elderly trapper who guaranteed that if shown the robber’s burrow he could flush him out. On the appointed day, some neighbor boys carried buckets of water to the mouth of the groundhog’s den in an alfalfa field. They dumped all of it down the hole at once. “Suddenly we heard a gurgling sound,” Grayson recounts, “then a snort, and a great furry head emerged at the entrance of the hole.” The trapper pinned down the groundhog with a broom handle, grabbed her by the nape of the neck, “and held her up, squirming, and showing her sharp white teeth.” He put her in a box and he was off, marching “up the road carrying the prize of war.”
Grayson never said what happened next, but I suspect the critter became the trapper’s dinner. Author Kerry Hardy, who has written about the Native Americans of New England, says we shouldn’t wrinkle our noses at the thought. “Woodchuck meat is quite pleasant to the taste,” he writes. “Unlike today’s feedlot-finished cattle, these guys are actually herbivores.” Native Americans roasted groundhog on sticks and let the copious amount of fat run off into the fire.
Even Thoreau himself, the great idealizer of nature, eventually grew exasperated with the groundhog in his bean patch. “Abandoning his not-too-strongly-held vegetarian principles,” biographer Walter Harding writes, “he trapped, killed and ate it as a culinary experiment.”
Don’t tempt me.
In the end, I abandoned the smoke bombs and other thoughts of murder with a measure of shame. Instead, I began to feel something like respect. I ultimately captured my adversary in a live trap (he could not resist cabbage). He had a large black snout, sizable claws, and whenever I approached, his back went up. In a fair fight, should one of us not have been locked in a cage, I have no doubt who would have won.
I drove him to a wooded conservation land several miles from my house and released him into the woods. This, I was quickly informed, is illegal in Massachusetts. (And as I write this confession, I wonder: Has the statute of limitations expired?)
Learn from my mistake. The reasons for not relocating wildlife range from potentially spreading disease to a new environment, to causing social stress because of potential conflict with the animals in the new spot, a brochure from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife informs me. Besides, “other individuals of the same species” will likely be attracted to your garden anyway — and sometimes the original offender will make his way back.
The law forbidding the movement of wild animals means if you use a live trap because you don’t want to hurt the animal, you are wasting your time — you either have to let it go where you caught it, with little more than a stern warning, or you have to kill it. (The thought of drowning a woodchuck inside a barrel of water turned my stomach, even if he was my sworn enemy.)
So that brings us back full circle, to where we began: Our best defense against these hungry marauders is apparently a fence. You can install an electric one, but it’s a costly proposition, so that was out of the question for me.
Or you can erect a traditional fence with a couple of key features. Buy a 4-foot-wide roll of chicken wire and then fold it in half in an L shape. Two feet of wire then form the fence and 2 feet lie on the ground, encircling your garden. Apparently, most groundhogs don’t realize they can simply back up 2 feet and burrow under the fence.
My groundhog was obviously on the high end of the IQ range. He had burrowed from the woods 20 feet away and then popped up inside the garden. Other groundhogs, I’ve been told, simply climb over such fences. So you might want to make it 4-feet high and have some kind of baffle on the top that gives them another challenge to outwit.
Or you can skip the fences and do what I did: move. I can’t say my groundhog was the main reason my wife and I pulled up stakes in Franklin, bound for a new home in town just a couple of miles away. But I can’t say he wasn’t one of the main reasons, either.
That fall, not long after I’d driven my groundhog to the conservation land, I was packing up the contents of my garden shed when I heard a noise. Listening closely, I swear a mocking, half-whistle was coming from the woods.
Michael Tougias is the author of many books; his latest is Extreme Survival: Lessons From Those Who Have Triumphed Against All Odds. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.