Monday, August 3, 2009

Bambi or Beast

With housing developments sprawling wildly across the country, it should come as no surprise that we suddenly have deer in our back yard. Yet we are surprised - and filled with anxiety - and angry when the plants we so carefully nurture are browsed down to stubs. While we hoped that the deer would just relocate in the hills, we must face the fact that the hills are covered in houses too and the only refuge for many deer is the back yards of America.
There are ways of co-existing, but it means making a few sacrifices and doing a lot of thinking on the same level as a deer. If you think carefully about what it would be like to be a deer, you can easily comprehend what they desire and are comfortable with and what they don’t like and are fearful of.
Enclosure – Deer usually won’t jump a fence if they can’t see where they are going to land, so fences have to be either too high to jump – 7 feet minimum, or solid enough that they can’t see through them or over them. If they can jump into your garden from an uphill point, you may want to consider other tactics besides fencing. If you have a very large area that makes fencing cost prohibitive, you could consider fencing a small area (artistically, of course) and using that area for a sitting garden with all the roses, and tender delicacies that the deer love, using tougher, nasty tasting plants for the outer perimeter.
Discomfort – There are ways that you can make the deer uncomfortable enough that they stay out of your garden, preferring the neighbor’s stress-free environment instead. Heavy duty fencing with 2 inch openings can be fashioned into “foot traps” by cutting sections approximately 2’x 4’ and bending the ends down 4 inches so the fencing is slightly elevated off the ground. These sections can then be laid on the ground and groundcovers planted around them. The groundcover will quickly cover the fencing. The deer will not walk on the groundcover because they don’t like the sensation of their hooves getting caught in the 2” spacing in the wire. Anything planted behind a 4-foot deep border like this will be fairly well protected. Other tricks consist of stringing fishing line across their paths, and running short lengths of electric fencing with peanut butter-smeared pieces of foil attached to it. The deer will taste the peanut butter- once.
Deterrents – There are many deterrents on the market for deer. Most sprays are egg based and need to be reapplied often. More natural deterrents like blood meal and carnivore urine usually deter most gardeners as well. Bars of soap tied into the plants sometimes work, as does human hair, but are really ugly. Chicken wire around trees will keep the deer from browsing on the new growth, but when the males are rubbing the velvet off their antlers, that chicken wire makes a great scrubber. Besides, chicken wire, soap mobiles and little bags of smelly blood meal are not conducive to paradise.
So what if enclosing, harassing and deterring doesn’t work? Than it may be time to adapt.
The best way to keep deer damage to a minimum is to populate your garden with plants they don’t care for. Like children shunning the Veggie Bar for the McDonalds next door, the deer will decide that they would rather dine on your neighbor’s roses than on your nasty-tasting hellebores. Below are a few plants that add great beauty, yet hold no culinary interest for deer.

Daphne odora – This is a fabulous plant that blooms in February when every promise of spring is cherished. The small pink flowers are intensely, exotically fragrant. The waxy, lightly margined leaves are evergreen and lend an elegant element to the garden all year. Give this plant filtered shade and heavy pruning to keep it bushy.

Liriope – Recent introductions have been taking Liriope out of the shadows and into the spotlight. L. ‘Silver Dragon’ is a breathtaking beauty with the iridescence and arrogance of a rooster’s tail. A shimmering silver stripe runs down the arching blades, adding sparkle to a shady garden.

Aconitum – For those of us who desperately want delphiniums (a deer delicacy) aconitum is a terrific substitute. It comes in different shades of blue, purple, yellow and cream on tall spires. By planting a variety of different species, you can get bloom over a long period of time. Prefers moist, fertile soil in partial shade. One caveat – Aconitum is extremely poisonous.

Hellebores – Also called Lenten Rose and Christmas Rose because of their extremely early bloom periods, these plants are not roses at all, which is good news for gardeners in deer country. They bloom in different shades of white, cream, yellow, green, pink, purple and nearly black. Hellebores have a delicate demeanor that belies their tough constitution. To keep them happy, give them filtered shade with a woodsy, humus-rich soil.

Ferns – With so much emphasis on texture, ferns are almost a necessity in the garden, and their deer-resistance is an added appeal. Deer Ferns (blechnum spicant), as their name implies, can frequently be found in deer country. They have both sterile and fertile fronds, which are quite different in appearance from each other. While the fertile fronds lie flat to the ground and are broader, the sterile fronds stand straight up out of the center of the plant and are very narrow. The resulting look is both elegant and otherworldly.

Allium – Allium is an architectural plant. There is an allium for every space in your garden. In the kitchen garden, of course, you may plant onions, garlic and chives – all allium members. The tall, purple-headed ‘Globemaster’ lends drama to the border with its vertical presence topped by a large purple ball of tiny florets. There are many dainty alliums that are at home in the rockery. A. thunbergi ‘Ozawa’ offers delicate blooms in September, A. acuminatum blooms in early summer. A few Alliums are so spectacular they can stand by themselves as accents or specimen plants. Allium schubertii has massive, airy heads the color and texture of lavender sheet metal. The illusion is of giant sparklers poised to explode at any second. Allium cristophii is another spectacular fireworks-type plant. Its head is not as airy as schubertii, but carries a profound impact nonetheless.
Note: Thanks to Scott Hoffine for the adorable picture of Bambi.

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