Sunday, June 28, 2009

Deer-Proofing the Adirondack Garden?

“There’s a deer in the hummingbird garden,” our intern said in a stage whisper. “It’ll probably be gone by the time I get there,” I said, as I grabbed the camera and made a dash for the door. Lo and behold, the deer stood there, ripping through our hosta as though it was so much buttercrunch lettuce, completely ignoring me as I stepped closer and closer snapping one shot after another.

While this certainly gave us a wonderful wildlife encounter, it isn’t really the type of wildlife we want to see in our butterfly and hummingbird gardens. Already it has pruned the hollyhocks, and who knows what else it will munch on next. We’ve had little problem with deer before now, but once they’ve discovered the choice produce aisle, it is hard to keep them away. What is a gardener to do?

Native plants! Sure, deer will eat native plants as readily as the next thing, but it is just likely that these plants have some adaptations that might help them recover from the impact of severe browsing. For instance, every winter the deer hit the wild choke cherries hard, but every spring these hardy plants put out new leaves and flowers, and by fall are laden with fruits. Sure, they are all rather runty specimens of a shrub that could reach thirty feet in height, but no deer is going to keep them from doing their best to reproduce year after year.

Plants with weapons! Now you could go with something like Japanese barberry, which sports sharp spines and comes in shades of green and burgundy, but it is also highly invasive. I’d like to stress the use of native plants that are armmed, like hawthorns, wild roses, raspberries and blackberries. All are highly beneficial to wildlife (like birds), but are also well-protected from wildlife (deer).

Here is a partial list of some plants that are touted for their deer-resistant abilities (for more info, visit http://www.deerxlandscape.com/cgi-bin/webc.cgi/st_main.html?p_catid=9) . Those that are native I have marked with an asterix, those that are poisonous are marked two asterixes, and those that may have invasive tendencies are marked three:

Daffodil
Yarrow
Monkshood **
Anise hyssop
Bishop’s weed
Lady’s mantle
Allium (e.g. chives)
Wormwood **
Milkweeds
Buttonbush *
Bleeding hearts
Foxglove **
Ferns * (some)
Sneezeweed *
Iris ***
Spicebush *
Blue flax
Lemon balm
Bee balm *
Bayberry *
Beardtongue (Penstemon) *
Cinquefoil (Potentilla) *
Tansy ***
Mullein
Vervain

Repellents? Well, it all depends on who you talk to. Bob may give you rave reviews for Liquid Fence, but Sue will tell you that she has had no luck with it. Bert swears by tiger poo, which she gets for free at the local zoo, but John shakes his head no, it just attracted flies. Irish Spring soap is the way to go, or so says Kim, but Fred tried it and the deer just laughed. Joe made a mixture of eggs and fish emulsion and let it ferment for a few weeks before use – claimed it worked like a charm; Chaz will show you the sticks that once were cedars – the mix didn’t work for her. Go and give them all a try – maybe you’ll find one that works for you!

Your Friend the Fence. If you can afford an 8-10 foot tall fence around your property, you will probably find yourself deer-free. You may also be friend-free, since some neighborhoods frown upon barriers they consider an eyesore. Still, there are deer fences out there that are made from “almost invisible” nylon threads; sure beats a concrete wall. You can always consider an electric fence, a simple wire, strategically placed, through which a current runs, ready to zap the damp snout of a curious quadruped. Unfortunately, young bipeds are also tempted to touch the wire – it makes a great dare for your buddies.

Rover and the Row Cover. There’s nothing like a good predator patrolling your property. Unfortunately, unless you keep Rover outside 24/7, the deer will sneak in once they learn Rover’s routine. And the neighbors will probably find the barking gets old after a few nights. A simple barrier like a row cover, however, can protect your precious plants without offending your neighbors. Of course, once covered, you will be able to enjoy your plants about as much as the deer will.

The battle between gardeners and wildlife has been going on since man traded his nomadic existence for a handful of beans, and it will probably continue for the foreseeable future. We could just learn to live with it; after all, the world would be a smaller, sadder place without our animal neighbors. Maybe we should accept the idea that some of our plants/crops will go to feed the wildlife, and therefore simply plant a little bit extra. It’s worth thinking about. And, if nothing else, trying to outwit the wildlife is good exercise for the old grey matter and might just stimulate your creative juices.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





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  1. Ellen Rathbone says: