Uninvited Dinner Guests in Your Garden

Oh, winter-weary gardener, fear not; spring has arrived with its mixed bag of warm balmy days and gray snow showers blended with a touch of bone-chilling rain. But alas, we know that all we have to do is wait, and those delicious days of warming sun and sprouting flower beds will melt our frozen souls. We hale and hearty New Englanders know how to persevere. We are tough, persistent, and oh so very patient. Are we not?

So, when after months of winter slumber and paying high heating bills we at last shrug off one layer of fleece and search for our garden gloves, we are ready to get on our knees and dig in the dirt.

But, what is this? Something has eaten away at the budding trees and consumed every ripe, red tulip. The hosta leaves, once so green and full of lush promise, are gone. And the Asiatic daisies have been chewed down to the mulch line. Oh, my aching heart cries out, “Not again!”

Yes, again. If you, like I, have foolishly cultivated flower beds in the migratory munching path of deer, you know of what heartache I speak. Deer are merciless as they maraud through well-groomed yards. Their gentle tiptoeing persona isn’t to be believed. They are out to eat from the salad bowl known as your backyard. When you go into your garden full of sweet innocent anticipation and find that deer have invaded your beautifully landscaped flowerbeds, you’ll clutch your hoe and, in warrior stance, proclaim, “Let the games begin.”

I’ve been gardening my plot with mixed success for two decades. I’m a slow learner. But now I fully appreciate the need to work with Mother Nature, whose bounty includes plants deer won’t find so tasty.

This year, I’ve taken the time to educate myself and sought counseling from local garden experts. A visit to a few websites was extremely helpful, and there is exciting news. We can have beautiful gardens full of texture, color and variety with the added bonus that deer won’t find them yummy.

You have a big investment in your property, so it’s important that the information you use has been vetted. First and foremost, take the time to select only plants that have been scientifically proven as deer resistant. To name a few, try dwarf Alberta spruce, Devil’s walking stick, blanket flower and bleeding hearts. There is catmint, peonies, yarrow, ferns, and American or sharp needle holly. Ornamental grasses do well along with pachysandra and bamboo.

Steve Gonsalves, co-owner of Eden’s, suggests Skip Cherry Laurel, a type of flowering bush that grows as much as 2 feet per season. These magnificent bushes make a lovely natural screen for borders or privacy. A member of the cherry, or prunus, genus, this is an evergreen variety originally from southeastern Europe and Asia Minor. It produces flower spikes in April and May known as “racemes,” and is well-loved for its endurance and deer resistivity. Gonsalves also uses Russian sage, vinca vines, boxwoods and Chinese ginger in garden designs.

Tim Ramey of Horticultural Creations shared with me that arborvitae, roses and rhododendron are all favorite snacks for our deer neighbors. He selects mountain laurel, Japanese Andromeda (pieris) and leucothoe for local landscapes.

Both gardening experts caution, however, that in a very difficult winter season, if feed is hard to come by, deer-resistant plants may suffer some damage.

A visit to www.masshort.org will give you access to a world of knowledge on the subject of plants that resist the hungry temptation of deer. Their hotline number is: 617-933-4929. Or, you can go to www.mass.gov and click on Energy and Environmental Affairs, which contains useful information to help you in your quest. But probably the final word on the subject of deer-resistant plants can be found at www.rutgers.edu/deerresistance, where an A-to-Z list is waiting for you. Armed with all of this data, you’ll be ready to build gardens that can withstand Bambi’s advancing troops.

If you are planning a vegetable garden, you’ll have to provide the ultimate in deer protection, a 6-foot or taller fence. There is simply no way to ensure your lettuce, peas, kale and broccoli won’t serve the nutritional needs of the deer if left unguarded.

For those of us who have shade garden spaces loaded with tasty hosta and day lilies to die for, we’ll need to resort to spraying these specimens with deer repellants. There are many varieties available, and they all smell equally repugnant. The more expensive brands work, as well as some lower cost solutions, so shop around until you find one that meets your budget. Using repellent sprays is a true labor of love as you’ll need to reapply frequently, especially after each wash down by rain.

In summary: Have courage, fearless gardeners. Use a three-pronged approach for harmonious cultivation.  First, replace damaged plants with ones that won’t interest deer; second, install 6-foot fencing around tender veggies or other floral investments; third, spray deer repellants on plants that are susceptible to being eaten. Garden on dear reader, garden on … What the X%@#&*?! Is that a woodchuck?!

By Marilou Newell

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