Ground Effects: Deer

Heather Brown's gardening column addresses dealing with deer.

I remember when Mom and Dad moved the family to a three-acre waterfront property near Sooke. There was an old house with cottage windows and dormers set in an old growth cedar patch on the edge of the ocean. A huge window in the dining room looked out over the lawn leading down to the beach.

Many spring mornings were spent watching does with their young come into the backyard to graze. They’d pause, stare up at the dining room window, as if checking for an audience. There’d be a collective “ahhhh, aren’t they cute?”

Mom was usually putting together breakfast in the kitchen on the other side of the house and missed this. The deer would graze their way through the flower garden, buzz cut the aubrietia, prune the tulips, then lay down on the missing crocuses to nibble on the new shoots on the laurel.

Idyllic. You could almost hear angels singing in the background as the sun broke through the mist along the waterfront. When my Mom walked in carrying my Dad’s coffee or something, there would be carnage. Mom would toss the coffee aside, head out the side door, grabbing for something heavy to throw at the deer, yelling words that sounded  like “oooooh, nooooo, not my oooh-breeee-shaw!”

Over the years this became a more sedate performance. She would grab a rake, stored by the door, and march outside, muttering something like, “Venison is a good, healthy protein”.

As I became involved in gardening I realized how heartbreaking the deer damage was for Mom. She had dug up areas to plant drifts of bulbs among flowering shrubs and borders of montbretia. The bank leading down to the beach was planted with grape hyacinth, crocus, and narcissi. Her vegetable bed was dug over in early April, compost added where needed, and trellises restrung ready for the peas and beans. Everything in place for the growing season, which began right after the last tulip was eaten. An interesting note here: grass, salmon berry, salal, and alder, which are also sprouting out new growth at this time, are never touched by the deer. Just saying.

We did get a dog which was the size of a large deer. His bark, along with my mom’s vigilance, was effective.  Within three years of getting Morticai we noticed the deer weren’t doing their breakfast raids on the gardens, cats moved away, birds stopped singing and my Mom’s aubrietia flourished.

Fast forward to 1997; my husband and I just moved to Hyde Creek, near Port McNeill. We have a bit of acreage.  Have you heard the term “a river runs through it”?  In our case “deer run through it” is more accurate. It is a main deer thoroughfare.

I tried every trick known to man, and a few learned from my Mother. Our dog was no help; I’d be running after the deer waving my rake, he’d be nipping at my heels. If he saw the deer he never let on. I have a photo of him lifting his leg on the hawthorn tree, while three deer are browsing the lower branches.

What the deer didn’t eat, they rubbed the velvet off their antlers with. I thought it was a wicked-huge house cat clawing up things; it was a deer cleaning its antlers. I will not get into the flowering plants that have been decimated, suffice to say I am now muttering “Venison is a good healthy protein”.

This year my husband and I feel like we are finally getting a handle on the deer problem. When people say to you “Deer never touch my <insert plant name here>”, take it with a grain of salt. Deer will eat anything; well, at least they will try it. If they aren’t sure after the first nibble they will try a couple more just to satisfy their curiosity on that particular plant. After 15 or so tulips they may decide that they don’t really like the flowers, but the stem and leaves are okay, so alongside your missing tulip border you will find the odd flower bud lying around.

I have noticed that there is one plant that they haven’t touched in the last 15 years, the Hellebore fetoidus, Stinking Hellebore. The clue for why they steer away is the “stinking” as a first name. This hellebore grows huge, 4-6 feet, with large, jagged, shiny, leathery leaves, dark green, on a pastel green stems. It is an evergreen in that its new shoots come up in the spring, while the old shoots are heavy with flowers that start coming out in December. The flowers are apple green and hang in large clusters at the ends of last year’s stems. The plant has a “skunk cabbage” smell that becomes more pronounced when the plant is disturbed.

A lot of commercial deer deterrents are based on the “smell” factor. There is Cougar Urine (don’t ask), which many fellow gardeners swear by. There is the Egg Formula, Deer Off, etc, etc. They all work when first applied (usually by spraying) but need to be re-applied after every rain. This could be a daunting task for larger gardens.

There is a homemade concoction that uses eggs and Tabasco sauce, thinned with water, which is sprayed on the leaves.  I have heard plenty of success stories with that recipe.

One would be remiss if they didn’t mention the Irish Spring Cure, and the Hair Ball Thing. Apparently deer do not like Irish Spring; the odour is a bit too strong. Simply place shavings of Irish Spring in a net bag, and tie to a branch of a tree or shrub. The more the merrier. It needs replenished after a few rain showers.

The Hair Ball Thing works on the theory that deer don’t like the smell of human hair. Curious, but apparently true. Place clumps of human hair in net bags and hang about the garden. Make friends with the local hair dresser and you will be set for life. I personally don’t like the visuals of hair balls hanging about the garden, and Irish Spring makes me sneeze but whatever works, eh?

Bone meal and especially blood meal have a fetid odour that deer don’t like.  A ½-cup around young trees will keep deer away from the base of the tree. The unfortunate part of this cure is that dogs love the smell of bone and blood meal. Tasty, apparently.

I came across one deer deterrent accidently. I was looking at some badly damaged laurels, actually about 50 of them. They had been eaten back to the stalk, then thrashed and shredded. I pruned off the broken branches and noticed buds developing around the bottom of the trunks. A week later these buds had developed into the start of new branches. They looked a bit yellow. I thought I’d mix up a batch of Fish Emulsion Foliar spray. I covered the upper and lower edges. By the end of the summer the laurel had greened up and looked like a short healthy hedge. I think this worked because of the smell of the fish emulsion. It ain’t no bed of roses.

This year we have put up deer fencing around the perimeter of the back garden. It is eight feet in some places.  We’ve added some height since then, as deer can jump pretty high. Once they are in, well, it is like a huge salad bowl for them while they wait to be let out. We have added to the bottom of the fence in some areas as deer can lift the edges and wiggle under.

I hung a mobile of tinsel and CDs from the arch of a gate at the back of the property, thinking that will scare them off.  Two days later a deer was browsing through the Black Lace Elder Berry trees. I grabbed up the rake, yelled for the dog and headed out. The deer looked up at me, a magnificent five-point stag. I waved the rake and yelled, the dog barked. The deer pronged away towards the gate.  Without hesitating it went through the arch.  The last I saw of it, it had my tinsel and CD mobile attached to its antlers and was leaping gaily along the fence.  Next year, next year…