Thursday, June 08, 2006

Long-legged Rats: Deer in Suburbia

"They're nothing but long-legged rats!" a gardener friend once said. They dine on expensive hybrid roses. They take a bite out of each of the melons on the vine, spoiling all before they move on. They'll yank the broccoli and lettuce out of the ground, and make short work of the perennial bed.

They're Bambis in Suburbia, Over the Hedge in 3-D real life, and not nearly so funny when they gobble up the plants that you've poured money and sweat into.

Within a half mile of our house is an abandoned orchard where the deer roam, and sometimes wander out into the surrounding neighborhoods. Recently the bulldozers have been at work, since someone plans to subdivide and build on the site (exactly who we don't know, nor do we know what the plans are, as they seem to change as often as Madonna's new "look"), pushing the deer out of their former home. They haven't turned up in our yard yet, but as there is an overgrown wood nearby, and a convenient back alley access, it's only a matter of time. Others in the neighborhood have not been so fortunate. Their excitement about the ooh-so-cute brown-eyed delicate-looking creatures quickly turns to rage as Bambi bites all the flowers off of the tea rose.

Why do they do it? Why do the take a bite here, a bite there, and ruin all the pumpkins or melons in the patch instead of feeding on just one? Because they're browsers, not grazers. It's the way that deer eat. They're also edge species, moving from wood to meadow and back again, and when we carve up the woods to make suburbs, we provide more edges than nature ever intended, increasing their habitat many times over. They we lay out a banquet of roses and veggies for them. What else are they going to do but belly up to the buffet and sample everything, then trot off to the woods to make more little deer?

When I was a kid, though, I grew up in the country, where deer made regular treks across the front lawn and through the garden. We tried all the "sure-fire" remedies that we'd heard recommended. We hung aluminum pie tins out where they'd rattle in the breezes. It helped a bit with the birds, but the deer were unfazed. We hung strong-smelling soap -- Lifebuoy was the supposed magic brand -- but it had so little effect, we half-suspected the deer were showering with it. We scattered human hair around, but the deer seemed so used to the presence of humans already that this barely registered with them. We tried sprinkling blood meal around. Great fertilizer, lousy deer repellant. The only "deer-proof" plants that were ever actually deer proof seemed to be the daffodils. The rest were fair game, even if they were only second choice, and the only thing left during the dry season of August and September.

Besides, by the time you apply all the usual remedies, and reapply them frequently, you'll spend all of your gardening time hanging up noisemakers and applying noxious mixtures. Who wants a smelly, noisy garden anyway?

The only thing that ever worked were physical barriers. A simple fence made of metal stakes with twine slowed them down a bit, at least in the raised bed in the turnaround where the roses were. Late in the summer when everything dried up, they'd still manage to hop over this. The electric fence that Dad strung around the vegetable garden did a better job, as did the wire mesh cages -- simple cylinders of hardware cloth -- that went up around the blueberry bushes. And a taller, more permanent fence that he built around the permanent garden, where the berries and grapes were, managed to protect those plantings reasonably well.

I think it's a cycle that all gardeners go through. First you try what amounts to little folk charms because someone swears they'll work and they're cheap -- cheap that is until you lose that expensive perennial that you've been nursing along. Eventually you realize that "cheap" means spending the money to do things right in the first place. Up goes the fence, and the deer move on.

Since the configuration of our yard doesn't make it easy to fence, I'm hoping that the deer never discover us. But if they do -- well, I'd better start setting something aside against that day, because fencing everything in isn't going to be cheap. Either that, or build wire mesh covers, though I don't fancy keeping a cage farm.

The Washington Post has more on the subject, here: Not Yours to Munch, Deer.


Marie said...

I'm a bleeding-heart animal lover, but after seeing what deer can do to the garden, I'm still thinking "venison!"

I've heard bottled coyote urine can work, but I don't even want to think about how they collect it!

Marn said...

For 30 years I've lived in the woods of the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada. For the first five years deer ate my hosta to the ground.

I tried all the charming folk remedies you mentioned with no success. We have a three acre clearing here and I refuse to fence it in because part of the beauty of this place is the feeling that we're part of the woods.

One night my husband and I rented a movie called "Never Cry Wolf" about a biologist who went to the Arctic to study wolves. He had problems with them constantly breaking into his camp and stealing his food until he came up with the idea of marking his territory with urine. It worked. I decided if human urine would scare off wolves, it was worth a shot to try it with deer.

Long story short (uh, perhaps it's a bit too late to say that) human urine does work. You don't have to use a lot and trust me, the tiny amount you use can't be smelled by humans, but the deer respect it.

My husband (who comes with a handy, dandy urine dispenser) collects it in large pop bottles for me. The screw top from dish detergent bottles fits on pop bottles perfectly. I only partially open the top and only let a tiny amount dribble out.

I encircle our entire property with a ring of droplets of urine and then go back and ring the hosta beds that are about two feet from the woods. It's been over 20 years since I've had a deer (or moose) come after my hosta.

I use hosta as a ground cover here. After almost 30 years of growing them and dividing them ad infinitum, I should be a deer magnet, but I'm not.

Good luck. There's nothing more heartbreaking than walking outside to find everything you love nipped off by deer.

Hanna in Cleveland said...

My MIL thought it was oh so adorable when a mother deer and fawn took up residence at the back of their property.

She is not finding it so nice this year now that the baby is grown up and has returned with mama to breed some more. They are eating all her plants and she can't keep them out.

I like that whole rat analogy. I'll have to tell her that.

Reading Dirt said...

Oh, dear. The "never cry wolf" solution. Interesting that it works. Maybe the urine marking has more meaning to deer than hair does.

Hannah, maybe your MIL can get the guys in the family to... uh... help out with a little... uh... territory determination.