Garden Pt. 2 - Oh Dear, Deer!

Gardening always presents challenges that one must constantly surmount. The weather is always an unknown from year to year. Blights and infestations crop up. But our biggest hindrance for quite a few years of gardening was black walnut trees. Our neighbor had several mature walnut trees growing adjacent to our garden. We were unable to grow tomatoes, except in pots, because of the juglone which is in the leaves and roots of black walnuts. Potatoes were also impossible. Juglone is toxic or root-stunting to many plants. The plants would start out nicely but within a month or so start turning sickly and die. The toxic zone is 50-60 feet from the trunk of a tree and our garden was well within that zone. In autumn the walnuts would fall into our compost pile and it well should have been a hard hat zone as well! They are black messy things once the shell is broken open and stain anything they touch. As you can imagine the only ones happy about it were the squirrels which we have in abundance. They will bury the walnuts anywhere they please and those walnuts easily sprout, but don't appear until they have established thick roots that are about a foot deep. We were never so happy as gardeners the day the last black walnut tree was cut down! It took a couple more years but eventually we were able to grow tomatoes successfully.

Then three or four years ago we were faced with another issue. Deer started showing up in our yard. Within a block or two there are several small wooded hills where deer have established themselves and grown in population. The younger ones have never lived outside their little urban zone so are quite tame and unaware that there is a wider world available to them outside our neighborhood. Naturally there is plenty of vegetation available for them to feed on and our garden is one of their buffets. They do most of their grazing at night or in the early morning. Almost every day there would be new hoof prints in the garden beds, damage to plants and occasionally deer droppings in the yard. It had gotten so bad that by last year we'd nearly given up on the idea of even attempting to have a garden. It wasn't just the vegetables but flowers and shrubs as well. There were a handful of things they didn't touch: coneflowers, my blue hydrangea, daylilies, daffodils, peonies, marigolds and lilacs. Everything else was fair game.

My first attempt to make the buffet less inviting was brewing up some homemade deer repellent spray. Not only is it repellent to deer but to me as well. Phew! Stinky stuff. There are several recipes you can find around the internet. The one I use involves a concoction of raw eggs, garlic and hot peppers which is left to ferment for a few days until it is a godawful reeking putrid potion. Then it gets sprayed around all the plants you want to protect. The problem is it stinks up the whole yard and when you're working in the garden you get it on your hands and have to worry about touching your face and getting hot pepper in your eyes and so on. At most it was a slight deterrent for a few days and had to be reapplied whenever there was rain. I made it in large batches and applied it with a gallon hand held sprayer.

Our next line of defense was trying to block the vegetable beds with some fencing. All that did was make it more difficult for us to get access to the garden and the deer could easily reach over to munch on the tops of the pole beans and tomatoes. It also didn't do anything for the flower borders and other landscaping that we weren't able to fence off. There is nothing so disconcerting as to pull into the driveway in the middle of a lovely day to find four or five deer lounging in the back yard like they own the place, happily munching away. Or, as in one case, step out the front door to retrieve the mail and find a deer standing right at the bottom step a few feet away as if guarding the homestead.

I haven't tried some of the other methods I've heard of like Irish Spring soap-on-a-rope , strewing hair around the garden, and even...ummmm...peeing in the garden. Ewww. One person I read about used Tidy Bowl with some success, the type that you hang inside the tank, which they hung around their garden. I think I prefer a more organic approach and would worry about the chemicals.

This year we're trying something new and I am almost afraid to say that it appears to be working for fear of jinxing it. We heard about a product called Milorganite. It's eco-friendly, organic, and safe to use on vegetables, flowers and lawns. It's a slow release non-burning fertilizer that has the added side benefit of seeming to repel deer. And it is made of Milwaukee sewage waste. Yep, you read that right! I found it locally at just $6.95 for a 36-pound bag. It was flying off the shelves so I suspect there is some truth to the claim. I've strewn it in all the garden areas and around the perimeter of our lot and so far so good. I haven't seen a hoof print ever since nor evidence of damage to a single plant. I'll also be using it as a lawn fertilizer throughout the season. It's recommendation is for four applications but I'm planning to use a crabgrass preventer for my first application since we haven't done that in a few years and I need to knock that stuff back. I will remain skeptical until our garden gets really growing but will let you know the results further into the summer. I'm holding my breath, knocking on wood, and keeping my fingers crossed. Maybe this will be the year I can grow some swiss chard, which must be like candy to them, and get a nice crop of beans. With any luck it will work to keep away rabbits and woodchucks too!

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