Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dastardly Deer

Deer have been identified as the most widespread form of wildlife damage to crops, nurseries, orchards, and hay production. States that compile yearly damage estimates from these vermin often report figures nearing $30,000,000.00. Yet the critters are protected year around in every state in the union, except during very controlled hunting seasons. What on earth is a gardener to do?

Venison for dinner? That is the tastiest cure I know for those hoofed locust. But this, of course, is not always practical. If you happen to be a vegetarian or if your neighbor works for fish and game; you may need other tactics.

Long ago I was a city slicker child who used to love spending summers with my Auntie who lived in the woods. She had a home on top of a hill surrounded by oak woodlands and lots of deer. Those deer were definitely a problem to her landscaping. She learned to live with a few plants that the deer didn’t eat. Not really being a flower lover, she was content.

However, if you are like author and gardener, Carolyn Singer, you have got to have flowers in your yard. Ms. Singer spent 27 years researching what exactly she could grow in her Sierra foothills landscape, so age could enjoy the company of deer and flowers too. The result of this research and conversations with other gardeners in deer country is a great new book, Deer in My Garden. Volume 1 features 53 perennials and sub-shrubs that will grow in our area. Singer also lives in zone 8. The main difference between the climate where she gardens and ours is average annual rainfall. The plants that she recommends as being drought tolerant will need a well drained spot in our gardens.

She gives full details on each plants care, what zones it will grow in, what it may need in snow country, and how to best use the plants in the landscape. She also goes on to share related plants that the deer will eat. Near the back of the book she lists plants that are commonly reputed to be deer resistant, that the deer have devoured in her gardens. Her main strategy is to plant yucky tasting plants. While that works for ornamentals, it is not going to work in the vegetable garden. But my Auntie found a solution for that.

Auntie had a vegetable garden down the hill from the house. It was in a spot where the oak trees opened up a bit and allowed some sun to hit the ground. The first year the dogs did a pretty good job of keeping the deer out of the garden, at least until the produce was ready to pick. The deer had been keeping a close eye on the vegetables and the dogs. They developed a tag team approach to raiding the garden. A small group of deer would lead the dogs on a merry chase, while the rest of them treated themselves to midnight snacks. Auntie decided a fence was in order.

The first fence was five feet high. It only slowed the deer down for a few weeks. Then they gleefully leaped the fence to feast out of reach of the noisy dogs. Next, Auntie added pieces of pipe to the top of each metal fence pole. She strung some wire between the pipes and tied on strips of flash tape. That tape makes noise when it moves in the breeze and it is very reflective. It bought Auntie a few more weeks, then the deer just sailed right over it and began to munch. The fence was now high enough that they couldn’t leap it from inside, so they would still be there munching in the morning. She went down to the garden with a frying pan and a metal spoon. First she opened the gate. Then she headed to the far side of the garden, outside the fence, and used the pan and spoon to make a ruckus. Them there deer thought Auntie was rude and they took right off. But the garden was a shambles.

Next Auntie installed a second fence, six feet outside the first one, and six feet high. This did the trick. Every once in a while one of those deer would jump the first fence. It would still be trapped between the two fences in the morning. Auntie would make good use of her pan and spoon and the offending vermin would high tail it back into the woods. As far as I know, this double fence strategy is the only deer defense that works, every time.

We all know that fencing can be expensive. Double fencing, doubly so. Auntie used metal posts and wire mesh but there are other options. Polypropylene mesh deer fencing is available in rolls 7’x 100’. I have checked around for prices and have included a source at the end of the article that has the best prices I could find. To use these fences you will need to supply cable, posts, and tie downs of some kind. It is also a good idea to invest in anchoring pins or staples to keep those wily critters from shimmying under your fences. Flash tape is a good idea for new fences. It will make the fencing more visible and sinister to the raiding critters.

If you don’t fancy the idea of fencing, there are other things you can try. I found it interesting that while the companies that produce these stinky or zappy products claim they work, none of them comes with a guarantee. I was able to find user reviews for some of the products. And it seems they work for some people some of the time. I suspect these items are about as useful as the less expensive home remedies. Some people have success hanging mesh bags stocked with hair (human or animal), soap, crushed garlic, citrus peelings, used cat litter, and other stinky or scary stuff from fences or trees. Personally I am glad I don’t have a deer problem, but if I did, I would find a way to afford the double fence solution for the veggies, and I would avail myself of Carolyn Singer’s experience in the yard.

Here’s the catalog with the great deal on the deer fencing. (They also carry some extra large ‘staples’ to secure the bottom of the fencing. They don’t carry cable, poles, flash tape, or tie downs.): Gardener’s Supply Company, (800) 427-3363, (But don’t just take my word on it, shop around, maybe you will find a better deal.) For more information on Carolyn Singer’s book, Deer in My Garden, ask at your favorite book store, library, or contact Garden Wisdom Press, (530) 272-4362,


Tim said...

My impression is that deer will jump a fence into a large enough area but not into smaller areas. Instead of a double fence it may be more expedient to have several fences enclosing smaller garden areas.

Harvest said...

Thanks Tim, and that may work in some instances, however, in the case sited of my aunts garden, the deer in fact did jump into the narrow area between the fences from time to time, and then had to be let out. It is entirely conceivable that they would jump into a small garden space and not be able to leave if they didn't have enough room to jump out.

At the community garden where I am the coordinator, the deer previously were walking up a wheel chair ramp and using it to jump into the garden at the low part of the ramp. They would then stay in the garden until someone let them out, even though it is fairly large. The jump from the wheel chair ramp was doable for them. They jump from the ground back out was too high. Since then we have installed a lattice panel along that section of the wheel chair ramp, and haven't had a problem. Seven foot fences, that the deer can actually see, seems to work pretty consistently for nearly everyone. They will absolutely find any low spots or gaps.

Thanks again . . . some strategies may work better for some situations than others.