Oh, deer! Where did the garden go?

Photo by: Kerry Riley, 2009

By:  Kerry Riley

In an effort to lure spring to the region, a few more thoughts on gardening…

The devil can be a tricky fellow, a master of disguise –-
sometimes even appearing, as the saying goes, “as a man of God.” If he really wanted to fool everyone, though, he’d turn up in deer’s clothing.

Unless you enjoy being deliberately obtuse, you simply have to admit that a deer is a lovely thing.  So delicate, so elegant, so refined -– it’s impossible not to be charmed. There’s a whole list of words and phrases, like “limpid” and “liquid,” and “innocence incarnate” whose invention, I’m certain, was driven simply by the necessity of describing their eyes. All of which helps explain why it is possible to stand mesmerized as one of the creatures proceeds, in the most elegant and refined manner imaginable, to relieve you of the contents of your garden, bewitched into the impression that your are having a beautiful experience. It’s only later that you realize that you have been abandoned, bean-poor and zucchini-less, in your broken, trampled, shadow of a garden, and that horns, and little cloven feet were involved. Think about it.

Others have — thought about it, that is, and the resulting anti-deer arcana available in the popular literature is of a complication and sophistication worthy of the archfiend himself. Here’s as concise a summary as possible, of deer exorcism rituals currently in vogue.

From the “know your enemy” school of gardening comes the idea of studying deer behaviour in order to design a garden which they find naturally repellent or unappetizing.

Deer find food the scarcest in late winter and early spring, and this is the most dangerous time for a garden. Trees and shrubs that bloom early are quite vulnerable. Although forsythias an exception, it’s best to choose later blooming varieties which may be ignored in the overall profusion of food. Fibrous, fuzzy or tough plants seem to pose problems for deer — they will generally avoid fern, wormwood, lamb’s ears, members of the borage family, and things with furry, gray or silver leaves. Also rejected are flavours of  lemon, mint, pepper, or a those spicy or bitter. Alyssum, snow-in-summer, candytuft, nasturtium, pinks and sweet william are unlikely to be bothered Neither are sage, thyme or oregano. Ditto for foxgloves, lily of the valley, daffodils and poppies. Other plants which turn up fairly consistently on anti-deer lists include astilbes, bleeding heart, columbines, irises, lavender, sunflowers and large periwinkle (vinca major).

In a similar vein, there are various repellant chemical sprays available, which reportedly give plants a bitter coating. Unfortunately, they must be applied as often as every two weeks, with variable results.

More fanciful proponents of “natural” deer control have suggested liberally sprinkling the garden with coyote urine or lion dung. Reports on the efficacy vary widely, but really, you have to ask yourself, “How much time do I want to spend in a garden drenched in either?”

Since fibrous, fuzzy, tough plants and things with furry leaves also pose a problem for most people, and few chemical sprays are safe for edible plants, the vegetable patch remains a difficulty. This may account for the existence of at least two other theories of deer repulsion.

From the Star Wars school of pest control come the modern scare tactics — motion sensing robots which stand on guard, ready to blast water at deer (and anything else) that dares to move within your garden. Very popular, I’m told, in America. While this method has its enthusiastic supporters, others dismiss it, claiming that the deer soon become blasé. In my experience, anything that shoots water is irresistibly attractive to youngsters of any stripe — I suspect it would be no time at all before all the neighbourhood fawns would be over playing with it.

Which brings us to theory number three. From what I like to think of as the “urban mentality” school of gardening (motto: there’s no problem a fence can’t fix) come suggestions for enclosing everything from acreage to individual plants. If your budget is inexhaustible, then simply enclose your garden within a ten foot, solid, permanent fence. It will probably keep the deer out.

If you’re not interested in growing the world’s most expensive vegetables, you could try wire fencing for the garden, individual rows or even, single plants. Helpful hint: while you do want to keep the deer out, you, at some point, will have to get in — remember to include a gate or lid.  Wire fences for garden perimeters must be at least eight feet high (up to ten feet on sloped ground).

The slanted fence is a somewhat cheaper version of its more common vertical counterpart, requiring fewer, shorter supports and finer guage wire. Its combination of width and height seems to undermine a deer’s faith in its jumping ability. Ministry of Natural Resources guidelines suggest using two metre wire mesh slanting out from garden, secured to the ground and supported at a forty-five degrees by a guy wire strung between one- and- a- half metre posts.

Finally we come to the electric fence, which scores very low aesthetically, but has a reasonable  reputation for success. Most farm co-ops, and some hardware stores carry the necessary supplies and can also provide the technical information needed to install it. You will, however, have to remember to turn it on.

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