Not Yours to Munch, Deer

Deer and gardening: A difficult detente.
Deer and gardening: A difficult detente. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 8, 2006

Sixty-four years after his original star turn, Bambi the orphaned fawn once again frisked across American screens with the February release of "Bambi II." By most accounts, Bambi and friends are still adorable and the forest magical, but it's hard for some of us to view deer in quite the same way. In a more reality-based sequel, Bambi's mother would be shot not by a hunter but by a crazed gardener, driven to murder by the sight of his munched beets.

In 1942 everybody loved deer -- graceful, big-eyed symbols of wild nature. Their numbers, once in serious decline, were on the increase as Eastern farmland grew up in forest. Forest, in turn, was yielding to suburban development, and deer predators such as mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, bears and bobcats had long since been driven out. Deer, by contrast, adapt well to residential areas. The typical home landscape offers the classic "edge habitat" between field and woods that hoofed browsers love -- a shrubby smorgasbord of tender-tipped azaleas, arborvitae and yew, made all the more toothsome by doses of fertilizer.

The results have been bad for everybody. Large deer herds face hunger during harsh winters and dry summers, and collide with motorists on roads. They wipe out native forest plants such as trillium and lady-slipper while allowing barberry and other less tasty invaders to thrive. They carry deer ticks, which spread Lyme disease. And no solution is without problems, from hunting (dangerous in populated areas) to birth control (promising, but so far expensive). Gardeners gripe more about deer than they do about the weather, and even those who find deer beautiful struggle for a workable detente.

It's not for lack of ideas. There is a whole sub-genre of garden writing devoted to anti-deer stratagems, all of which work some of the time but none of which is infallible. A dog can help, but it must be just energetic enough to perform dusk and dawn patrols, but not so aggressive that it chases deer. (An "invisible fence" electric collar is one option.) Scare devices such as jets of water, flashing lights, radios, scarecrows and strands of shiny tape work briefly. We once put out a gadget that gave the call of a mountain lion every five minutes during the night. The deer soon figured out that no big cats were present, but I jumped out of my skin every time I walked by just in time for the shriek.

Repellents can have some effect. There are countless recipes involving hot pepper, garlic, rotten eggs, sewage sludge, curry powder or ground chicken feathers -- and many commercial formulations. But most need to be reapplied often and involve so much time and money that one's thoughts turn to recipes for venison instead. Bunches of human hair and dangling bars of deodorant soap work only for a short while. If your garden is large, you could spend more time making it noisy, flashy, bad-tasting and smelly than you do tending it. Still, I keep a bag of dried blood handy. A dusting, reapplied after each rain, does protect irresistible deer hors d'oeuvres such as emerging tulips, daylily shoots and young broccoli. It's also a good source of nitrogen.

Not surprisingly, I've found a good fence works best, especially for a manageable area like a vegetable garden. I've even seen small food gardens caged completely, with mesh ceilings. Electric fences are usually effective, but most are costly and a little scary. An ordinary six-foot wire-mesh fence will often do the trick, though in some areas even eight feet is too low. Two fences spaced four or five feet apart are said to deter deer, and fences with baffles that slant outward in the direction of approaching deer may have the same effect. As long as you make sure the deer can't wriggle through or under a fence, anything you can do to make them nervous about jumping the fence is helpful. A solid fence, or one with a dense hedge behind it, is good because they can't see where they'll land.

Fences needn't be ugly. I once deer-proofed my whole front yard by running an attractive lattice out from one end of the house, to support vining squash and beans, then running a stockade fence along the road with attractive shrubs in front of it. I took the next stretch through a patch of woods, nailing black polypropylene mesh from tree to tree, then rejoined the other end of the house with more lattice festooned with clematis. There you entered though a decorative gate. (The black mesh is sold by Benner's Gardens, http://www.bennersgardens.com/ , 800-244-3337.)

This tactic worked much better than "deer-resistant plantings." I have a big file of plants to avoid because they are deer favorites and another file of those that deer dislike. Amusingly, many plants are on both lists. Sadly for gardeners, deer are often so hungry that they will eat anything. Sad, too, for the deer.

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