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Front Porch: Backyard adopted by deer for nursery

Ever since we moved into our house in the late 1980s, there has been a steady stream of urban wildlife – mostly deer – moving through our backyard on the way toward Browne’s Mountain.

Even in winter, there is a clear indent in the snow where the deer trail goes from behind our neighbor’s arborvitae, through our yard and up the embankment to the street. When I start raking up pine needles in the spring, I need to step carefully to avoid the droppings that our four-legged travelers have left behind. And throughout the year, if we’re looking out the back windows at the right time, we can see one, two or a small group of deer – sometimes reaching up to eat leaves from the apple tree or, come fall, witnessing their having passed through courtesy of the rhubarb stems left behind as the big green leaves have been munched away.

But rarely do the deer hang around. We keep our front yard all civilized – green grass, shrubs, flowers, landscaping – but the backyard remains wild. The only attention it gets is from my rake as I remove copious heaps of pine needles. I do provide some occasional water to the two big fruit trees in the yard. Clearly, I’m not an orchardist.

And with minimal attention paid to the rhubarb, I do get significant quantities each year. It’s the easiest thing in the world to grow, only killable, I think, with bags of lye or being beaten into a pulp with a shovel.

I decided to make a significant change in how I do things out back. Last fall I had the apple and cherry tree pruned – I mean seriously pruned – after a long time of benign neglect. I thought that since we’ve got the trees, I might just give it a try to see what can be grown beyond the five or six apples the tree manages to produce and the next-to-zero cherries we harvest. There’s also a tiny sprig of a pear tree that has never produced fruit, though it occasionally blossoms in the spring.

This spring I jury-rigged something of a consistent watering system courtesy of hoses, tomato cages, plastic plant coasters and twist ties. It’s ugly, but it works. And so the steady watering began. Rhubarb grows in two locations – most of it over by the cherry tree, so I can easily water both with one set-up. In order to hit the other rhubarb plant and the apple and pear trees in one shot, I had to have a wider spread, which had the unintended effect of sprinkling some adjacent grass (normally short and dry due to benign neglect).

So a strip of grass grew taller and greener. And then the most beautiful thing happened.

I went out on the deck earlier this summer and chanced to look straight down. There was a tiny fawn curled up in the grass where mama deer had left it while she went off foraging. I may be a city girl, but I know enough to leave a baby deer alone, recognizing that mama is off feeding. Later that day, I checked the spot again, and the baby was gone, retrieved by its mother.

I checked the next day or two, but no deer had returned. But then they did. Every few days or so now, babies are back, but now a pair of them. I don’t know if I didn’t see the second baby the first time or if these are different animals. So I watch from afar and have been enjoying these summer days seeing them grow, wander a few yards from where they had been left to graze on some grass, but pretty much stay put, as they know by nature to do, until they are fetched by their mother.

They are being parked closer to the big apple tree now, where the adjacent grass is taller and denser than it is by the deck.

It’s not at all surprising what regular watering can do, and we’ve already had a nice little cherry harvest this year. We’ll see what comes of the apples, but I can see on the puny little stick tree that has never before put out any pears, six pears starting to grow.

And as pleased as I am at the prospect of bountiful fruit, I am just so very delighted at watching the baby deer thrive and prosper. It makes me feel good inside – and it’s a benefit that came about purely by the accidental provision of harborage. It’s really nice when that happens.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at upwindsailor@comcast.net.