urban deer

Garden Notes

I’ve kept a garden notebook for years. It contains monthly precipitation figures, comments on how well (or badly) things are going in the garden, a record of watering from June to September (so I can be sure of watering all areas equally) and lists of things to do. Turning to the notes written last summer or fall, I find: “Important Notes for 2014” in all caps and underlined. The first note is a list of plants to be netted against deer by certain points in the growing season, starting with bergenias and tulips, progressing to hostas, roses and sedums (yes, sedums, specifically the big ones such as “Autumn Joy”).

Well, so far this year I haven’t had to take any anti-deer measures. Either deer no longer find my place interesting, or there aren’t as many of them around. Of course, the tulips are pretty much gone as a result of their visits in 2012 and 2013, but bergenia blooms were untouched this spring. Last year they barely had time to sprout bloom stalks before they were nipped. I’m wondering if enough gardeners around here have fenced off their plants that the deer no longer find it worthwhile to visit the area. (In the meantime, the municipality is still entertaining the idea of a “cull”).

Note #2 says:  Introduce chicory to that patch of miserable lawn on the far side of the driveway. This is sort of interesting. I’ve observed this plant, with flowers about the size and shape of dandelion blooms, but a gorgeous sky blue, growing without any care at all on roadsides. It grows to 3 feet if left alone, but if mowed it blooms practically at ground level, much as dandelions do. I think it would be cool to see it in the scraggly lawn, looking like a bright blue dandelion, weedy but wonderful. So far, though, all I have is one seedling in a pot and seeds scattered in the lawn’s bare spots.

Notes #3 and #4 contain lists of plants to be pruned, both perennials and shrubs. Some perennials can be made to grow shorter and bloom later than they are inclined to by cutting them back halfway earlier in the season — asters, for example, and others such as Echinacea, fennel and sedums. Yes, those same tall sedums that got deer-nipped a couple of years ago. (Which makes me think — too bad deer can’t be employed as plant management experts, the way herds of goats are. But no — they’re too unreliable. Didn’t even show up this year).

As for shrubs — photinia, barberry, spirea and cotoneaster are all on the “to be pruned” list, and some of them can actually be crossed off. The photinia is done (totally — just bare stubs 3 weeks later). I whacked the cotoneaster back a couple of months ago, but decided to cancel the barberry job after I found a bushtit’s nest in it last fall, in case the birds decided to refurbish the nest this spring. I thought I was too late with the spirea, but Peter McHoy’s Pruning : a practical guide recommends “early to mid-spring,” which is where we are right now. Trouble is, the spirea is sprouting out with new little amber-coloured leaves, which makes it hard for me to even think about cutting it back. Well, maybe next year.

There’s always something else that needs to be done. Time to make a new list.



Whose Roses Are Those, Anyway?

“Those deer ate my roses! Again! They deserve to die. Bring on the Clover traps!”

So (I imagine) goes the Rant of the Entitled Gardener. The rose plants she has purchased, planted in her personal patch of paradise, and nurtured lovingly have been rudely pruned by an intruding ungulate. Of course the deer should die. How dare it destroy the private property of a human being? Being trapped, immobilized, stunned with a bolt-gun and having its throat slit (humanely, of course) is too good for it.

My roses. My garden. My property. I paid a zillion dollars for this piece of land, I pay a bundle on property taxes every year, so of course it’s mine. My word is law here. No deer, raccoon, bat, bug or microbe can exist here unless I permit it. Right here, where this line is drawn is my property. (Of course, it’s an imaginary line, but never mind that).

Right. The soil (which took thousands of years to form), the microscopic organisms that are crucial to its formation, the sunlight, rain and vegetation are all your property, even though you could not reproduce any of them to save your life. Those rose bushes exist by favour of the elements, not because you laid out dollars to acquire them.

Last night we had temperatures of -5 C (23 F) with a fierce wind from the northeast. Tonight is calm, but a low temperature of -9 C (16 F) is predicted for our area. This unusually cold weather may kill or damage some of the many palm trees that gardeners have planted here, leaving them brown and sad-looking. Except the ones whose gardeners took the trouble to wrap them in burlap or construct windbreaks. Those things detract from the look of the winter garden, but save the palms to provide that tropicalismo effect next summer.

What is the difference between this scenario and that of shrub-nibbling deer? Merely that there is nothing one can do about weather except endure it and take measures to mitigate its effects. So why don’t those gardeners outraged by deer buy some plastic mesh or chicken wire and construct deer-proof structures around vulnerable plants, exactly as the palm-loving gardeners do to get their babies through a cold snap?

The difference is attitude — on the one hand, the entitled, short-sighted, intolerant view that seems inherited from the colonial era, and on the other a realistic acceptance of the land on which one gardens.

Oak Bay Votes to Kill

Well, the council of the superlative suburb I call home — Oak Bay, British Columbia — just voted to spend $12,500 (Cdn) to “cull” 25 deer in a pilot project between now and 2015. This means trapping the animals in Clover traps and killing them with bolt-guns to the head.

I think this is a crude and ultimately ineffective way to deal with urban deer. This region has thirteen municipalities (13 mayors and councils, folks — think of that!). Not all have chosen this option of deer “management.” Saanich, the largest municipality, adjoins Oak Bay; in fact, the boundary between the two runs through the campus of the University of Victoria. Deer live on the university grounds and in other parts of Saanich, and I doubt that they know where the border is. The 25 animals killed as part of Oak Bay’s pilot project will shortly be replaced from adjoining populations.

Aside from the brutality of the methods used, the thing that bothers me is that other, creative options were not even considered. The only question was whether to have a cull. Why not spend the $12,500 on testing fertility control, monitoring deer movements or setting up a way for gardeners to share information about deer resistant plants and plant protection techniques? Why the big rush to kill, rather than taking time to observe, learn and share information?

I am a keen gardener. My garden has been visited by deer and sustained a certain amount of damage, but really, it’s not the end of the world. Plants recover, or can be replaced. Paying attention and protecting susceptible plants, or setting up simple fencing can make a huge difference.

The issue of deer being hit by cars is a misleading one, as though it’s better to kill the animals with bolt guns before they can be hit by cars. Oak Bay is almost 100% residential, with no high-speed roads. The maximum speed limit is 50 km/hr (30 mph), with many streets having posted speeds of 40 or even 30 km/hr (25 or 20 mph). If people insist on speeding or distracting themselves while driving, you can hardly blame deer for the subsequent collisions. Apropos of this, when a resident wanted to put up a warning sign based on her observations of deer using a certain spot to cross a road, she was told this wasn’t permitted.

Then there’s the trumped up safety issue — savage deer attacking children and pets. If such an incident had occurred within the borders of Oak Bay, you can be sure it would have received maximum publicity, which has not been the case. There are people (such as myself, for example) who are terrified of finding big white grubs when digging in the garden — complete with adrenaline jolt, panicky little dance and running away screaming — but I don’t expect the municipality to start a grub eradication program on my behalf.

Urban deer are here to stay. The sooner we figure out how to live with them, the better. I hate the idea of this cull becoming an issue that pits neighbour against neighbour, leads to demonstrations, letter-writing wars and a divided community. I am distressed at the prospect of Oak Bay becoming known as “that place where they kill deer.”

March 2, 2013

This buck used to hang out in my back garden until I put up some deer netting across his preferred point of entry. I’d rather have him around than guys with bolt guns.

The Urge to Cull

Yesterday I was browsing around the displays at a local garden centre, admiring the clever combinations of new varieties in autumnal colours and wondering if I would find something absolutely necessary for my admittedly overcrowded beds. I happened to overhear a conversation among three prosperous looking middle-aged women. One was holding forth vehemently about the injustice of being a gardener in a place where urban deer were not being “culled.” It was simply outrageous, she said, to expect gardeners to erect fences and other barriers to keep the pests out. Something Must be Done. I knew that if I stayed within range, there was a good chance that I would intrude into the conversation with what would be distinctly unpopular opinions, so I moved farther away, but as always seems to be the case when you’re hearing something you don’t want to, it was almost impossible not to. (Besides, people used to expressing strong opinions often have carrying voices). So I left.

A post about urban deer has been inevitable since they became more populous in this area a year or so ago. I had my first visit by a buck last March, as I reported in earlier posts. He ate quite a number of plants here, but certainly did not destroy the garden. I find that the plants whose loss I’ve regretted the most in the past couple of months are the hostas, especially a large green and white one whose presence was the finishing touch in the area near my pond. Right now I’m missing their gradual colour change to the rich, tarnished gold that is the very essence of the turning year.

But I find it difficult to understand these women’s continuing anger at these creatures. Why can’t they be grateful that they have gardens at all, in this very fortunate part of the world? It’s not as though they are farmers whose livelihood is threatened by marauding deer. And why is the preferred solution one that requires the destruction of nonhuman life forms? Do these people really want men with clover traps and bolt guns roaming around the neighbourhood? Why are human beings so eager to kill things?

Okay, so at this point I make myself remember my own rantings about raccoons, whom I find more annoying and destructive than deer. Instead of nipping at foliage, they dig deep holes, sometimes uprooting plants that dry out and die before I am aware of their plight. How many times have I had to fish around in my pond for rocks from its edge that these critters have dumped in while looking for worms or bugs? How many times have I referred to raccoons in terms that I hesitate to use in print? I don’t deny any of this, but have I ever wished them dead? Have I ever so much as contemplated calling a “pest” control service? Never, because I actually think that the wild creatures that inhabit the garden and the region in which the garden is located are a necessary part of the place, and that I as a gardener must accept them, like the weather, weeds, slugs, droughts and windstorms.

In other words, ladies, suck it up. Use your superior Homo sapiens brains to think of ways to outwit the deer. Get rid of plants that are deer magnets, or be prepared to net or fence. At the very least, step out of your smug, entitled rut and try to see the world you live in from a different angle.

Here is a quotation from Henry Beston, writer and gardener, that seems an apt ending for this post:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

The Garden at Midsummer

Technically, I suppose midsummer is actually the second week in August, but to me August feels like late summer.  Mid-July is high summer, when the ornamental garden pauses at a peak (hopefully) before starting a decline into its tired, seedy late summer state. Vegetable gardens, on the other hand, at this stage should be showing a promise of harvest.

Ha (as Henry Mitchell used to write). I no longer have a vegetable garden, and the tomato plants in their pots do not look promising. There aren’t even any little green tomatoes, although the wretched plants have actually started to bloom. This is amazing when you consider that they spent the last few weeks swathed in a set of old lace curtains, looking a bit like wistful brides whose grooms have failed to show up. I resorted to this rather desperate measure after I realized that the neighbourhood buck (or some other visiting deer) has a taste for tomato foliage.

Deer, whether a single one or several, have certainly made their presence felt this summer. I don’t think they come here for their main course, but definitely for dessert or appetizers. Flower buds are a favourite. Lilies were ignored until they formed visible buds, at which point “Golden Splendor” was quite thoroughly disbudded. Granted, it hadn’t been as vigorous as in former years (when it had more than 30 blooms), but an early count promised about 20. Now there are only two buds left, because I swathed them in lace as well. No daylilies will bloom here this summer, or Phygelius either. Hosta buds have been nipped, and even the small, dark red flowers of Potentilla atrosanguinea have been sampled. Ditto alstroemerias. The big blue hardy geraniums, Geranium pratense, bloomed well, but have since lost most of their leaves to the visiting ungulate.

“Bucky” Right at Home

The funny thing is that a casual glance over the garden fails to reveal these losses. Because of the cool, damp spring, things still look pretty lush, and the tough plants, knowing a good season when they feel one in their tough little tissues, are revelling in it. Only the gardener knows for sure that all is not well.

Back Garden Beds

The gardener, these days, is run off her feet doing things only slightly related to gardening, namely painting a new gate, an old gate and a set of refurbished porch steps. The first step, of course is priming, with an oil-based primer that has left leprous-looking spots all over my hands. But while applying this stuff to the new gate, which also includes an arch, I’ve been considering what clematis to plant as an arch-adornment. I’m thinking that Clematis viticella “Julia Correvon” might be the one, or perhaps some other member of the viticella group, because tree roots are a problem in  this spot, and the viticella clematises are reputed to be fairly tough. But I have a few more months to think about this before planting time next spring.

Another recent worthwhile garden project was lifting a set of stepping stones from under accumulated soil. I’m still amazed that I lost sight of them to the point that they had to be dug up and reset. Now that they are visible once more, the path they demarcate looks mysterious and inviting once more.

The Path Behind the Pond

And the weather?  Well, we had a taste of summer for the last week or ten days, with temperatures in the mid-20s (mid 70s in Fahrenheit). But after a doozy of a thunderstorm on Friday night, things reverted to cool and damp — just in time for the painting project. C’est la vie.


Now it’s spring, both by the calendar and in reality. We’ve had several days this week with high temperatures in the double digits (just barely, though, unlike the mysterious East, where summer arrived early). With daylight lasting longer as well, it’s time to get back into the garden.

So far, all I’ve done is wander around the place taking note of things that will need to be done eventually and picking up wind-pruned birch twigs and Ailanthus branches. Pruning — I’ve also done some of that myself, notably whacking hollies down to a reasonable height and shortening the lollipop photinia by two feet to prevent it from getting too friendly with the power line from street to house. But that’s all. There are still some of last year’s dead perennial stalks around, even as the plants prepare to start growing anew. And I haven’t even planted tomato seeds inside yet, something I usually do in mid-March. It’s  just as well that this spring looks like being cool and damp.

Today an unexpected project came up — removing parts of an old white lilac that developed a westward lean after recent windstorms, exerting pressure on the metal pole that anchors the far end of my clothesline. A section of the shrub now looms over a neighbour’s garage. I managed to extract several sections of the plant, liberating the clothesline pole and with luck reducing the possibility of further collapse for a while.

Slumping Lilac in Need of Removal

I have noticed this tendency of old lilacs to keel over. Usually there are enough new shoots to keep the plant going, but this habit is something to keep in mind if your garden has a mature lilac bush.

As if this garden needs more challenges, it has acquired a new one, in the form of the buck with the injured leg that turned up a few weeks ago. This week he was back, snacking on hyacinth blooms and tulip buds. Only the flowers of the hyacinths were eaten, but some of the tulips were reduced to half-inch stubs, so I wonder if they will survive. I can’t think of anything to do about this guy, since he can cruise the neighbourhood early and late, chomping plants while their owners are asleep or away at work. And he does add a certain excitement to the garden; I never know if I’ll see him out there.

Peering Over the Fence

So back to the endless list of Things To Do — turn the mess of the ex-vegetable patch into a “herb garden,” distribute the old compost and “manage” the new compost, edge all the beds, start tomato plants, hoik out dandelions, cut the grass. And keep an eye on that buck.