I knew the situation was out of hand when a neighbor pulled into the driveway to deliver the news that at that very moment a herd of vandals was destroying my lettuce.
“Twenty-nine!” she shouted. “I counted 29 of them!”
Deer, that is.
I operate a market garden, a 16-acre salad bar for deer. But it was the same when my garden was a mere 50-foot square in the back yard. A garden is contested land.
Every week of every season brings another small battle between the gardener and some outside force with a claim against that cultivated piece of earth. Weeds desire its nutrients, aphids its succulent plants.
I’ve crossed swords with voles, rabbits, groundhogs and crows, all of which see the garden as their birthright. I have grappled with the visible (bugs and slugs), and the invisible (fungus and mildew spores).
But deer are the most fearsome.
The voles have not been vanquished, but they have been pushed back. I have good cats.
Deer are more challenging.
There are three main classes of weaponry: repellents, scare tactics and barriers. Actually there is a fourth, but that involves firearms, special permits and good aim, and is inappropriate in a suburban setting.
First, repellents. Deer, it is said, have sensitive noses and will shy from unfamiliar or threatening scents. Bars of soap - preferably the cheap, perfumed kinds - are said to discourage them.
This strategy works reasonably well in some situations. Young trees and shrubs can be protected by being festooned with motel-size soap bars. But you need a lot of soap. My deer will munch to within about 18 inches of each bar.
I’ve also tried dirty socks, soiled diapers, rags soaked with men’s cologne, rotten eggs (the basis for commercial deer repellents), dried blood and vials of a foul-smelling substance said to be the concentrated urine of lions. All worked poorly.
Diapers and socks, like soap bars, have to be hung close together. I can handle a shrub decorated with soap bars, but not with used Pampers. Decoctions of rotten eggs, blood and lion urine can be sprayed on but must be renewed after each rain or heavy dew. Too much work.
So, on to scare tactics. Deer are jittery animals. The idea is to keep them spooked with strange noises or flapping objects. I’ve tried plastic trash bags tied to tomato stakes, soda cans strung up so they rattle in the breeze and transistor radios tuned to a heavy-metal station.
All these methods work for three days or less. Deer adapt quickly. In fact, they seem to be unlearning the quick-flight instinct. Deer on my place stroll right into the strawberry patch while I’m picking. If I yell, wave my hands and stomp my feet, they saunter away. Slowly.
The last and best method involves barriers. A 10-foot stone wall, topped with broken glass and concertina wire, would probably do the trick. At a minimum, experts advise a woven-wire fence at least 8 feet high, angled slightly outward to confuse the deer’s sense of depth.
Those are pretty expensive options, so I use a portable electric fence that I got from Premier Fencing in Washington, Iowa, (319) 653-6631.
Such fencing is fairly inexpensive: If an electrical outlet is handy (my setup is solar powered), half an acre can be protected for less than $200. The system has ribbonlike plastic tape threaded with wire and strung on fiberglass rods. The tape is strung at two levels, about 2 feet and 4 feet from the ground.
Every 6 feet or so, the tape is smeared with peanut butter. Deer love peanut butter. I want them to put their moist little noses up to that 4,500-volt fence and get the charge of their lives. I want behavior modification.
(Manufacturers say the voltage won’t harm the deer, other animals or humans, but the jolt will certainly warn children away.)
There are other barrier options. One that works pretty well is 4-foot-wide chicken-wire fencing laid on the ground around the garden. The deer can’t see the wire, but when they try to walk across it, their hoofs become entangled.
At least my deer battles amuse the neighbors, who are always stopping by to see what scheme I’m trying now. “Saw a deer inside your fence,” one told me recently. “He had a little white towel folded over his arm, and he was saying, ‘Bambi, table for four ….”’
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