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Oh, Deer — And Other Garden Miscreants

July 8, 2020

deer breakfast deterrentLike many gardeners, I am always negotiating the boundary between making my garden wildlife-friendly and making it too wildlife-friendly. Thanks to the work of Doug Tallamy (see especially Favorite Garden Books: Bringing Nature Home), I have learned to ignore most of the insects feeding on my plants, and even to welcome many of them. I do pick off and drown Japanese beetles feeding on roses and other plants, and I occasionally hose off aphids when large numbers of them seem to be overwhelming a plant. The long stretch of unusually hot and dry weather we had in May and June seemed to have provided perfect conditions for a large incursion of grasshoppers eating plants. Fortunately, just when they were beginning to feel like a biblical plague, several inches of rain dampened their numbers.

I find it more difficult to deal with some of the non-human mammals who visit my garden than with the insects. In early spring, deer come through and feed on newly emerging plants. I have one low-growing Euonymus that is exactly the same size as it was when I planted it almost twenty years ago because deer browse it down to the ground each spring. I don’t mind the annual pruning of that plant, but deer damage to the newly emerging perennials in my serenity garden at the edge of the woods made me feel less than serene until I learned to cover the entire flower bed with bird netting in April when plants start to put up new growth and take it down in May when the danger is past.

This year, however, I had a pair of yearling deer who continued to frequent my garden in May, long after there was plenty for them to eat in the woods. The big front slope and side slope plantings in my new front garden were their favorite place for a pre-dawn breakfast. I tried to ignore the effects of their daily browsing until I found all the leaves and buds stripped from one of my peonies one morning. That was a call to action – but what kind of action? After some thought and a little online research, I decided on a three-pronged approach: First, I set up metal frames around the perimeter of these two flower beds and unrolled about 120’ linear feet of bird netting across those frames. The netting is only 7’ wide and I think the deer could have jumped over it if they were highly motivated, but I hoped it would provide enough discouragement to convince them to go elsewhere for breakfast. Next, I put some pieces of strong-smelling soap into nylon sacks and hung these from some of the frames. As a third deterrent, I attached white plastic shopping bags to some of the frames; these fill with air and blow in the breeze, spooking the deer. I left the netting up for three weeks, until the deer seemed to have broken their breakfast habit and then took it down, but left the frames, soap and bags. When I noticed that the deer had shifted their attention to the blue and yellow border in the back garden, where they were eating all the hostas, I put out three more white plastic bags attached to poles there, which quickly solved the problem.

No sooner had I solved the deer-browsing problem, however, when I noticed a pile of sand dug out of a hole beside a plant on the front slope. “Oh, no,” I thought, “woodchucks.” The woodchucks (AKA groundhogs), large herbivorous rodents, are my garden nemesis. They live in underground dens and come out to feed three times a day. A woodchuck will eat a plant right down to the ground, so that you look at the open space in your garden and try to remember what was growing there just yesterday! Two years ago, an ambitious woodchuck built a large den under my front porch, with exits out to several different parts of the front garden. (I call it the “woodchuck palace.”) In desperation, I hired someone to trap and remove the woodchuck; but no sooner had he done so, when another moved in, and then another after that one was trapped. (I imagined the word going out on the woodchuck grapevine: “Hey, did you hear? That big place at the end of the dirt road is vacant.”) The following spring, we trapped the woodchuck that had spent the winter hibernating under the porch, and then another that moved in after that one was removed. But this year, I hadn’t seen any sign of woodchucks in my garden – until now.

Fortunately, however, when I filled in the hole and watched what happened, I realized that I was not dealing with a woodchuck. This was the work of chipmunks, digging many smaller holes that seemed to indicate work on a chipmunk annex to the woodchuck palace. Chipmunk populations seem to have exploded this year, so there are a lot of them around, but I don’t find them as problematic as other rodents. They can be a nuisance as they chase one another around and dig holes, but they don’t try to move into the house and they don’t do significant damage to the garden. Indeed, chipmunks do some beneficial garden work. In late spring, they vacuum up the red maple seeds, keeping them from germinating into a gazillion seedlings in my flower beds. More recently, they have been busy gathering acorns and caching them for the winter – acorns that as a result are not sprouting into unwanted oak seedlings. I even think the chipmunks get credit for having planted this nice weed-suppressing groundcover of wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) at the corner of the patio, transporting seeds in their digestive systems after they ate some of the wild strawberries I planted on the side slope.

wild strawberry groundcover

16 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2020 2:04 pm

    I share your pain Jean. Since moving back to Michigan to a more rural area, I’ve had to deal with numerous critters. Silly me, I planted annual clover as a cover crop where I removed grass until I could plant there in the fall. Deer are attracted to clover! I also have Mr. and Mrs. Woodchuck and scads of chipmunks. A local man told me he pours pickle juice around his rhododendron to deter deer. I guess they don’t like the smell. Ah me. The joys of country gardening.

    • July 14, 2020 8:08 pm

      Kathy, I didn’t realize that deer are attracted to clover, which I have lots of — both wild and intentional. It would be nice if the deer ate more of the clover and less of my perennials.

  2. July 8, 2020 3:16 pm

    You are a great storyteller, Jean. I was riveted to your account. Euonymus-and-hosts loving deer to chipmunk excavators its all very familiar to me, but you bring an extra dose of humor, kindness, and plain old energy.

    • July 14, 2020 8:10 pm

      Sarah, It’s my revision of the serenity prayer — “Grant me a sense of humor about the things I can not change.”

  3. July 8, 2020 3:25 pm

    Deer and groundhogs, yes we have them, too, and I also have used bird netting to protect hostas and other plants. We have chipmunks and squirrels as well but they don’t bother me. So far, we have few insects and I wish I knew why. I want to plant roses but I fear an invasion of Japanese beetles.

    • July 14, 2020 8:16 pm

      Pat, I haven’t found Japanese beetles a big problem. There is a small tachnid fly that lays its eggs on Japanese beetles and was introduced as a biological control. I find it relatively easy to pick off beetles and drown them in a container of soapy water, but I have been taught to check the beetles first for white dots on their heads, which are the fly eggs. If the beetle has been parisitized, we should leave it alone and let the fly larva do their job of killing it while the flies multiply themselves.

      • Pat Webster permalink
        July 15, 2020 9:40 am

        That’s very helpful information, Jean. Thanks.

  4. Pat Leuchtman permalink
    July 8, 2020 3:48 pm

    Animals in the garden can be a big problem. When we live out in the county we had deer, moose and bears – although none of them did serious damage. Now we are living in town and I never expected trouble with animals. Then I learned a neighbor had a bear (in town!) knock down her bee hive. And yesterday I saw that some creature had gotten in my tiny raspberry patch and broke down several canes. Shocking!

    • July 14, 2020 8:20 pm

      Pat, I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages from Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: He goes out in the morning to find that the raccoons have raided his corn patch during the night, and he writes, “Compared to the cat burglaries of deer and woodchucks, this looked like the work of the Manson family.”

  5. July 8, 2020 6:22 pm

    Oh, how I sympathize, Jean! We’ve experienced a critter explosion here too. Squirrels, possums, skunks, raccoons and the occasional coyote are long-term residents. Bunnies showed up last year and they returned again this spring, although I think the coyotes may have finally cleared them out. Peafowl, which have lived on this peninsula for 100+ years now, recently decided to spread their range to include my neighborhood and I’m now getting daily visits from one particular peacock, although thankfully the peahens seem to have chosen to nest elsewhere. My most troublesome “guest” is a gopher who has thus far tunneled through 3 beds. I’ve done my level best to encourage him to move east, toward my back slope or beyond into the canyon, but he stubbornly persists. I’ve got solar-powered sonic devices inserted in the ground to annoy him and I’ve been deep-watering deterrent granules into the soil. He moves but he doesn’t seem inclined to leave. My husband, neighbors and friends have suggested kill-traps but I haven’t had the heart to go that route. As you experienced with the woodchuck, I fear that eliminating one will just lead to another one moving in. I’d hoped that the coyotes would do me a service with respect to the gopher, especially as they appear to be working on an extended schedule (I ran into one at my back door at 9am recently) but that hasn’t happened. Raccoons used to be my biggest adversaries but my attitude toward them has been readjusted – at least they eat snails.

    • July 14, 2020 8:22 pm

      Kris, I try to rely on the foxes to keep the various members of the extended rodent family under control, but some years they are more active than others. The foxes get the credit for finally getting the woodchuck palace cleared out last year.

  6. July 12, 2020 10:19 am

    When a fawn was born and trapped in my fenced suburban yard this spring, the mother fed from adjoining yards. All my plantings were safe. Unfortunately, a month later, the deer are back. The netting protected my snow peas and lettuce, which are both bolting from the heat now. I am taking off the net now to let the black swallow tails lay eggs on my parsley and dill. They are allowed to ravage my garden. I plant extra. My hostas are down to short stems. Two days ago, I lovingly tended a small tomato bush in a metal cone. This morning, the whole bush is gone with the cone still in place!?? My biggest problem with the chipmunks is that they love crocus bulbs. I have planted squill instead. I can’t imagine what it must be like in the country!

    • July 14, 2020 8:24 pm

      Debbie, I think deer actually tend to be more of a problem in many suburban areas than they are here. There is lots of wild land here as habitat for them, and lots of fall hunters to keep their numbers under control.

      • July 15, 2020 9:44 am

        Actually, deer or so plentiful in my suburban municipality because developers continue to build more homes and destroy wooded area. As a single home on three or four acres of wooded property sells, that property is developed into homes on quarter acre lots with no trees. Then the wildlife has no place to go. Last year my subdivision, due to new deer control regulations, was able to hire certified bow hunters to come in the fall and hunt the many areas of common ground. The meat is processed for local food pantries. We have seen a few less deer this year. But if the deer hang out in my fenced yard they can’t be hunted. Hope they don’t figure that out.

  7. Kate Hartland permalink
    July 13, 2020 6:44 am

    Best action I took in dealing with groundhogs was to enclose the under-deck, under-porch, and under-shed hiding places with hardware cloth, stapled to the lower end of the building and going 6″ underground in an L shape. Groundhogs like to be close to their holes. Give them nowhere to hide and they will be less likely to come around. It has worked at my garden for several years now. Lot of work to install, but then it’s done forever. (No more skunk smell in the middle of the night either. Apparently everyone enjoyed the under-porch hotel.)

    • July 14, 2020 8:25 pm

      Kate, Thanks for the hardware cloth tip. It seems like a doable solution.

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