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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Front Porch: Waging battle with deer – for dahlias this year

The first dahlia ever to bloom in Stefanie Pettit’s garden thrives in a deer-free zone last year. Following her friend’s instructions last year, Pettit carefully stored a dahlia tuber that she has planted this season. (Stefanie Pettit / The Spokesman-Review)

I have discovered dahlias, Dianthus and Salvia. Of the three, last year I could not have told you what two of them were. I knew dahlias were flowers, though I couldn’t have picked one out from a field of blooming things. I had no idea the others were flowers, too.

As someone who came into this whole grubbing-in-the-dirt gardening thing well into middle age (though I’m significantly past that age now), there are almost always new lovelies for me to encounter each year. Such is the joy of gardening.

I came across a Dianthus plant at a store this spring. It was pretty. I looked it up. Deer resistant, yes! It came home with me and now resides in my front yard. The variety I purchased is a perennial, so I’m hoping it will be there for years. I am learning what its needs are for proper care so that it thrives under my amateur efforts.

I came across Salvia last year, almost by accident. Frustrated that the deer had outwitted some of my control efforts midseason, I talked with someone at a nursery about what I might put in that would thwart them. “Have you tried Salvia?” I was asked. Obviously, no. So I put in one plant, which did quite nicely – and also had the side benefit of attracting hummingbirds.

That plant was an annual, but I learned that there are perennial varieties as well. I have now put in three of those in the deer zone this spring. I am encouraged.

But the dahlias were my biggest surprise and delight. The season was already underway last year when a friend asked if I’d like a dahlia, which, sadly, the deer do find yummy. However, the flowers can be grown in pots, and I could put one on my deck, high above deer territory, which is also where my one-and-only tomato plant resides.

So, following her careful instruction, I took the dahlia tuber she gave me and did what she told me (I need guidance for almost all gardening tasks). The tuber was already sending up a nice little stem in its tiny transfer container, so mostly all I had to do was transfer it to a larger one and add soil as the stem(s) grew. And, boy, did they grow, producing the most beautiful red flowers – though not very many, as I’m pretty sure I didn’t fertilize appropriately.

My friend Kris told me how she overwinters her dahlias. Uh oh, I thought – digging them out, protecting them, not killing them before spring. This might be more than I was capable of, even though we were just talking one little plant. I am easily intimidated by the plant world.

But I did my best, wrapping the cleaned tuber (with a tad bit of stem still on it) in plastic wrap. I was surprised to find that Kris had written the variety of dahlia on the tuber with a permanent marker. Once wrapped, I put it in my cool basement next to some jars of canned applesauce … and ignored it.

Kris and I had lunch together earlier this month, and I snatched the little garden package up with me before leaving the house and dropped it in front of her at the restaurant.

“Tell me if I killed the thing,” I said. She gently unwrapped it – and, lo and behold, there was new growth. It was silly of me, I know, but I can’t tell you how much pleasure I had at that moment. I may not have a proper green thumb just yet, but perhaps it is beginning to sport a slight light greenish cast.

My dahlia is now planted, with some appropriate fertilizer, as instructed by my friend.

A few days later Kris sent me a text, noting that she has dahlias to spare and might I like a few more. If so, what colors. I felt like a kid in a candy store, considering the possibilities and not knowing what to choose. So I settled on three, possibly a multicolor, another one yellow and perhaps one white. We’ve yet to arrange to pick them up, but I am so looking forward to it.

I never saw myself in this place in my life, when I would join that group of women happily fussing about in the garden. I’m not so gung-ho that it consumes a whole lot of my time, but the time I do devote to it has become very pleasurable.

Except for when the deer come marauding through the front yard. This year, I’ve upped the ante on my deer-go-away procedures and have installed a new low-tech system, a variation on what I did only marginally successfully last year.

Deer aren’t supposed to care for the smell of Irish Spring soap. Last year’s wrapping of soap in cheese cloth yielded a soggy mess. So this year I’ve put big hunks of Irish Spring into a number of tea balls and hung the tea balls on garden stakes at assorted locations in the geranium zone at the front of my house. Fingers crossed.

As I look out over the yard and deck, I am anticipating a bloomingly happy summer filled with beautiful colors and nice surprises from the garden.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at