Many people only think of groundhogs in February when it’s Groundhog Day and they want to know if winter will continue, or spring will come early. However, for the home gardener and homeowner, groundhogs can cause extensive damage and a desire to figure out a way to get rid of groundhogs.
Groundhogs are also known as woodchucks in some areas. These mammals have a big appetite and can quickly destroy vegetable garden crops. Alternately they can also dig and live under sheds and decks, causing potential structural damage and foundation problems. Today I’ll share more about groundhogs and how to get them out of your yard or garden.
Get Rid of Groundhogs
What are Groundhogs?
Before we talk about how to get rid of these pests, let’s discuss a little bit more about what groundhogs are. Punxsutawney Phil is the famous Pennsylvania groundhog pulled out of his burrow on February 2 for the popular North American holiday.
On this day we look to see if the groundhog has “seen” his shadow or not, to determine the duration of winter. The holiday is so popular it was also made into a famous movie starring Bill Murray. Outside of this holiday a lot of people don’t think too much about groundhogs until they enter their yard or garden and start causing destruction.
Groundhogs are members of the rodent family and they hibernate in a burrow for a portion of the winter, usually around four months. Animals that hibernate go into a deep sleep, a state of rest, for many months during winter. Then starting in February they emerge, along with a strong appetite.
Woodchucks are a larger rodent, much bigger than chipmunks or squirrels. Because of their size, up to 15 pounds and as long as 2 feet, they eat more and have strength to cause swift destruction. Last August my garden was attacked by a hungry groundhog and within a week I had lost dozens of tomatoes.
While groundhogs are maybe best known in Northern America they live in many states from Alabama to Alaska, according to Illinois Extension. They are most common in rural areas but have moved more frequently into suburbs and cities. Most groundhogs spend their time on or in the ground, but they can climb as well.
Are Groundhogs the Cause of Your Damage?
Groundhogs typically eat grass and flowers, but will easily enjoy fruit and vegetables in the home garden. They tend to live solitary and dig their burrows in the summer. Trouble also ensues when that burrow is made under fences, garden boxes, sheds, decks and other structures.
Like many others in the rodent family, woodchucks have large incisor teeth, according to PennState Extension. They most frequently feed in the early morning or evening hours. They also enjoy a variety of vegetables and legumes including soybeans, beans, peas, carrot tops, alfalfa and clover.
Their burrow entryway is typically 10 to 12 inches in diameter and accompanied by a large mound of dirt. There is typically one main entrance and one to three secondary entrances to the burrow. Groundhogs usually explore areas 50 to 150 feet from their den and quickly retreat back to their den if threatened.
If you have a groundhog problem in your yard, and the den is not in your own yard, their den is likely nearby such as under a neighbor’s shed or deck. This was the case for me, the groundhog was not living in our yard but I believe under our neighbor’s seldom used deck.
After emerging from hibernation, woodchucks will breed in March and April. Each litter two to six young which are weaned by mid-summer and set out on their own. Once a burrow is dug and occupied, a groundhog may live there for several yers. Groundhogs usually live three to four years. Other animals are predators to them, along with humans and automobile traffic.
Get Rid of Groundhog
What Does Groundhog Damage Look Like?
In addition to looking for evidence of a burrow and actually seeing the presence of the groundhog, damage can be identified by a few other means. Groundhogs have larger feet than other rodents. Looking for footprints is an option. In my case I did find some muddy footprints one morning on top of a mesh grate covering my lettuce box.
Groundhog damage to crops can be extensive. Typically you will wake up to find multiple fruit destroyed and many left behind damaged on plants or tossed on the ground. It’s like the groundhog wants to take a bite out of each fruit without finishing a single one. Branches of the plants may also be broken or damaged.
Damage is most common in the early morning or evening so you can also try spotting the groundhog in the act. Again, in the case we had with my tomatoes we did in fact see the groundhog on several occasions, but unfortunately after the damage had already been caused.
How to Get Rid of Groundhogs
Once you have determined a groundhog is the cause of damage in your garden or yard, it’s time to decide on what tactic(s) you want to try to mitigate the problem to get rid of groundhogs. In some cases if the damage is not extensive or long-term, you might not find a need to remedy the situation.
However, if you do there are some options to look into. These options can vary in severity in terms of harm caused to the animal so you might only choose ones you feel comfortable with and/or are allowed by local ordinances. Also it is wise to keep in mind your personal situation when determining a method such as if you have pets which could be impacted, children, etc.
1) Fencing in of Areas Prone to Damage
If a groundhog moves in, one of the first options to pursue is adding barriers such as rocks or fencing, also known as an exclusion method. This can make it difficult for groundhogs to dig their burrows. If the area is unpleasant for digging they may find a new area.
This is also a good general practice for small structures such as sheds and decks. When adding these structures consider a concrete slab, lattice fencing and digging and inserting strong wire mesh to prevent digging and burrowing underneath structures.
Look around your yard or property to identify other gaps or openings where the groundhog may be easily entering and work to shut off those areas to make access more difficult and digging more challenging for the critter. Be sure to check with local laws on any guidelines for fencing.
Fencing should be at least three feet high to be effective against groundhogs. When underground it should be buried at least 12 inches. Fencing options include heavy poultry wire or woven-mesh wire. Some also find success with using a single electric wire placed a few inches above ground to protect the area.
2) Frightening the Groundhogs Away
This is also known as using scare tactics to frighten an animal. If the area is unpleasant the groundhog may opt to live elsewhere. Tactics may include loud noises and flashing lights. For groundhogs in particular other suggestions include using scarecrows. The scarecrow should resemble a natural predator of the groundhog, for example a hawk.
These should be moved regularly. In addition it helps to have a high level of human activity in the area. In our case, every time I saw the groundhog and approached, it became frightened and retreated quickly to the burrow. This is another idea if you are searching for what is a natural way to get rid of groundhogs.
3) Contact or Area Repellants
Repellants may be used to try to control and deter groundhogs and how to repel groundhogs. Use of these repellants can vary by state so be sure to check with your state and local ordinances. Examples of products designed to repel groundhogs include: I Must Garden and Bonide.
4) Toxicants to Poison Groundhogs
Poison can be used to kill groundhogs when the consume the material. This might be illegal, however, depending on where you live. Be sure to check with local and state laws to see what, if any, toxicants are approved for use against groundhogs. An example includes Strychnine. This is another method you can use to get rid of groundhogs.
5) Fumigants to Poison by Air
Fumigants work by producing a toxic odor in the burrow. These are only effective on burrows actively being used by the groundhog, not old burrows. Examples include gas cartridges, also known as carbon monoxide cartridges and aluminum phosphide, a restricted use pesticide.
Be sure to read all directions thoroughly and practice safety when using fumigants. Be aware that fumigants will result in the death of the groundhog. They are typically deployed in the burrow and can be harmful to nearby wildlife. They are also known commonly as gas bombs.
6) Trapping Woodchucks in a Live Trap
Next to fencing, trapping is probably the most common method used to try to deter groundhogs. This is also the method I sought to try after covering any openings and trying to physically scare the groundhog. In order to trap a woodchuck you need a larger size trap appropriate for their size.
One recommendation from PennState Extension is to make sure your live trap is at least 10 x 10 x 24 inches in size. I was able to borrow a trap from my brother. He had two sizes and we agreed the larger trap would be best for a groundhog. When using a live trap you need to bait the trap for the groundhog.
Examples of especially tasty food for this mammal include: apple slices, carrots with tops, cantaloupe pieces, lettuce, cabbage or a good handful of fresh peas. I selected to use cantaloupe and purchased one as bait. Traps should be placed after nightfall when the groundhog is already done feeding for the day.
Then when they come out of their burrow for feeding in the early morning the trap will be set and ready. After trapping the groundhog you must decide what to do with the animal such as killing it, releasing it elsewhere on your property (this is good if the property is very large) or releasing the groundhog elsewhere, but at least five miles from it’s previous residence, according to Purdue Extension.
Local laws may restrict how and where you can release a groundhog so be sure to check. It is advisable to have a plan prior to trapping. Once trapped the animal will become frightened. When transporting the animal for release, covering the cage with a blanket may be helpful to create a dark ambiance to calm the critter.
7) Shooting of Groundhogs
A final option or resort is to shoot the groundhog and then safely dispose of the carcass. Check with your local or state officials for more information on this tactic and what resources are available. Also there may be restrictions for trap and release, depending on where you live.
Some states consider groundhogs game animals so if you live in an area where this is the case and it’s not suburban you might be able to legally shoot groundhogs. Laws may also detail what type of firearm can be used. A skilled marksman may be able to eliminate a groundhog problem quite easily.
Getting Rid of Groundhogs
There are quite a few options to consider when eliminating groundhogs on a property. The options range from easy to more difficult and some are more humane to the animal than others. Which options you pursue will depend on the severity of the problem and your comfort level.
Keep in mind the that preventative measures can be undertaken as well to try to make your yard or property less enticing to groundhogs such as barriers and fencing and making sure fencing or foundation is installed under decks and sheds.
In my most recent groundhog experience just last summer, the groundhog actually opted to leave my garden alone once the tomatoes had been devastated. While this was saddening for me as a gardener, I was somewhat relieved that the critter decided not to return for any other vegetables. I still have the trap, however, in case the groundhog emerges this spring following hibernation.
Are groundhogs a problem in your garden?
Sources: Getting to know Illinois’ largest hibernator this Groundhog Day (2021), Illinois Extension; PennState Extension Fact Sheet on Woodchucks; and Animal Damage Management Woodchucks, Purdue Extension.