Gardening with deer

By Page H. Gifford

Gardening in rural areas can be challenging. Master gardener Sue Tepper explained the pitfalls of gardening to a group at Lake Monticello on Sunday (April 7). The program was presented by the Lake Monticello Wildlife Committee regarding the difficulties and frustrations newcomers have when planting gardens that deer, rabbits, and other creatures find appetizing.

Along with Tepper was Walter Hussey, a master naturalist familiar with wildlife and their habits. Together they stated that gardening with wildlife, particularly deer, is daunting but can be mastered with planning and dedication.

Gardening in the Piedmont area has many challenges of which people need to be aware before planting anything. Knowing what type of gardener one is goes a long way in determining the type and style of a suitable garden. Having a landscaper design and plant what a homeowner had up north, or simply plants the homeowner likes, will usually result in disappointment and disaster.

Any gardener, whether planting in containers, beds, or an entire front yard, can benefit from Tepper’s tips.

Though it may sound clichéd, the gardener’s goal is to be in harmony with nature. Tepper described her “deer-resistant tool box,” listing the tools she uses for a successful garden. She said there are five important things to remember before one plant goes in the ground: observing, planning, designing, selecting and maintaining.

“With observation, you want to identify features in your yard, such as plants that may be candy to the deer, or water features that would draw them and other animals,” Tepper said. She added that at the Lake there is a higher concentration of deer, and thus more damage, in certain sections. Deer follow patterns – houses may be on their feeding path – and they teach their young the same patterns. To some this may seem hopeless but the right management practices are key. “They are creatures of habit,” Tepper said.

“Also, observe the deer browsing seasons,” she said. “They love newly planted young plants so note the age of the plant that was damaged.” She added that they eat anything that is considered a soft mass in spring, including twigs, buds, flowers and grasses, and will eat four to 10 pounds of vegetation daily. In the fall they eat what is known as hard mass, which includes seeds and acorns.

“We have a part in what happens to our gardens, “ she said, adding that ornamental shrubs are a direct invitation to the deer. Planting and landscaping is a considerable financial investment as well as repellents and fencing. “Become knowledgeable and educate yourself.”

Regarding designing a garden, she suggested looking for or creating a focal point, including containers, rocks and ground cover. She also suggested terracing a garden since deer do not like multiple levels. Rock gardens can also be utilized for a nice effect and a deterrent.

“Select your plants wisely. Deer will eat all plants but some are more preferable. They do not like anything that smells, is spiny or fuzzy,” Tepper said. Replace any damaged plants with deer resistant plants. Ideal are boxwoods, grasses, pachysandra, lantana in containers or in the ground, daffodils, lavender in containers, mountain mint, rosemary, basil, other herbs and native plants. She recommended doing some research before rushing to the nursery.

“Regarding damage, know whether it is deer or rabbits. Deer leave ragged leaves and rabbits are a straight cut,” Tepper said. As far as deterrents go, Irish Spring soap and other similar remedies are considered old wives tales passed from gardener to gardener but are not proven methods. Many deterrents need to be reapplied after it rains. Tepper recommended Bobbex.

Regarding fencing, Tepper said that double fencing could be an alternative to explore for avid gardeners but Lake Monticello has rules regarding fencing.

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