Saturday, April 28, 2012

Are Deer Eating Your Plants?

Like people, deer love the new growth plants put out in spring.  Unlike us, they love eating the foliage instead of looking at it, bringing howls of dismay from gardeners who just spent a lot of money on plants at the garden center that are now nibbled to stubs.

After trying soap, hair, and various repellants, I gave up and my husband and I installed an electric fence around about an acre of our property.  We use three strands of wire on metal posts, and we have a gate that folds back unobtrusively into the woods where the fence crosses the driveway.  Electric fences are easy to install and to maintain, as long as you buy a t-post driver (about $30) to get the metal posts in the ground.  Consider driving the posts your workout for a couple of days; it’s great for upper-arm strength, and after you install the t-posts, you can use the tool to drive garden stakes.  Stores like Tractor Supply sell the necessary supplies.  Electric fences are not dangerous if properly installed, and they give a harmless, although unpleasant, shock.

If you have close neighbors who might object to the electrification of your property, although the fence will keep neighborhood dogs from using your yard as a toilet, try commercially produced deer repellants.  Deer Scram® is the most effective product I have found.  It contains dried deer blood, pepper, garlic, and cloves.  Sprinklers activated by motion detectors scare the deer away, too.  Just make sure you turn them off before guests arrive.

Another way to minimize deer damage is to compose your garden of plants deer dislike, although they will eat almost anything if they are hungry enough.  Deer usually dislike strange tastes and textures, with the exception of roses, which they love.  Herbs, mints, and their relatives have unusual tastes and smells.  Deer do not usually like mints, but be careful with them because they can become invasive.  Plant them in a pot sunk in the ground to contain their roots. 

Upright rosemary makes a great small evergreen shrub for hot, dry places and I have never known them to eat it.  Deer avoid the mint relatives Agastache and salvia.  They don’t usually eat foxgloves, larkspur, or coneflowers.  For spring bulbs, plant daffodils instead of tulips, daffodils do better here anyway.  Deer avoid hollies, boxwood, and loropetalum.  They also dislike conifers. 

Some of the deer’s favorite plants are azaleas, roses, camellias, hydrangeas, Indian hawthorns, Hostas, pansies, and tulips.  Sometimes you can hide these favorite plants among or behind less favored plants; plant your tulips and pansies among some mint and rosemary plants. Plant favorite plants close to the house instead of at the edge of the woods; deer generally do not venture close to the house, unless there is a lot of “deer pressure,” which means that there are a lot of hungry deer and not much food. 

Don’t even try to plant a vegetable garden in deer country without protection in the form of a fence; deer love beans, peas, and lettuce, and they have been known to watch the tomatoes ripening, just as you do, and to pluck the one you were planning to harvest the next day from the vine during the night.

Before you purchase plants, find out whether or not you have deer; your neighbors will know if you do not.  In the Blythewood area, if you have any woods nearby, you probably have deer.  Garden centers, books like “The Southern Living Garden Book,” and online sites like and offer lists of plants that deer dislike.  Plan ahead to purchase plants deer dislike to save yourself the pain of walking out to admire your garden to find all the blossoms stripped from your roses and your shrubs defoliated.    

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Winter Came Back to Damage my Tomatoes

Against my better judgement, I set out about half of my tomato plants a few days ago.  The weather has been so unseasonably warm that it's easy to forget it's still early April.  The entire winter, in fact, has been so warm many plants I usually treat as annuals lived through the winter.  I chose to ignore my garden records that indicate in 2007 the temperature here dropped to 24 degrees F, and in 2008 a frost occurred on April 15.  Thinking that we were done with frost because most things are a month ahead of schedule, I set out the plants.

Healthy, undamaged tomato plants

Healthy, undamaged pepper plants
 Even while I was working in the garden, clouds formed in the sky and the wind increased.  I checked the weather forecast to see if thunderstorms were expected, and to my dismay, I learned that temperatures in the thirties were expected last night.  I stopped setting out plants.  Although I covered the plants, below is what I found after I removed the plastic sheet.
Frost-damaged tomato plant

This morning at about 7 AM, the thermometer registered 37 degrees F.  In the early morning hours, the temperature was lower, and temperatures below 40 degrees will damage tomato plants.  When I went out to release the chickens from their house, I noticed white frost across some plants.  The cold temperatures caused the blackened, shriveled leaves.  These plants may recover; I will give them a chance before I pull them out, but I doubt it.  Tomatoes are delicate plants.
Another frost-damaged plant
I planted out my Irish potatoes at the proper time, February, and usually expect them to have a some frost damage.  These leaves are not damaged because the upper leaves protected them.
Lower leaves of potato plants are not damaged by frost

The frost damaged the upper leaves of these potato plants.  The potato plants should recover from the damage; they normally get damaged during their early growing period.  As I mentioned above, the garden is about a month ahead of its usual growth rate because of the warm weather, and I don't remember seeing plants this large with frost damage before.  I believe they will recover, though.
Frost-damaged potato plants
Here is my potato patch, with the tops blackened by frost.  I could not cover them because there are too many plants.
Frost damage visible across the entire potato patch

Next year, no matter how warm the spring is, no matter how many other people are putting out tomato plants, I will not set my tomato plants out until April 15 or so.  That's two weeks past the average date of last frost, April 1.  Maybe I'll wait three weeks past the last frost date.  I'll plant my potatoes at the usual time, February, because they need cool temperatures to grow and will not make a crop during the hot weather they'd experience if I waited until April to plant them; tomatoes need hot weather.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Weeds Love the Warm Weather Too

It is true confession time.  I recommend organic gardening methods, and I practice them at home.  Usually, anyway.  I have resorted to killing the weeds in the lawn with a broadleaf weed killer, and I have used a non-selective chemical herbicide on some areas where the weeds have just gotten out of control. 

I do not like to use chemicals, but sometimes I find them necessary to maintain order in the garden.  This winter, the weeds have been worse than usual because of the mild weather.  I tried using the chickens as weed-controllers, and they did a fine job of mowing the weeds and fertilizing the lawn.  The problem is, if I left them on the lawn long enough to dig up and remove the weeds, they would also dig up the sod.  So, along with healthy sod, I have lovely green patches of extra-healthy weeds where they sojourned. 

I can mow the lawn to control the weeds, but to control the weeds, it would probably require several mowings of weeds before the actual grass gets tall enough to mow.  That will cause pollution from the gasoline engine of the lawnmower that would probably equal or exceed the pollution caused by the weed killer.

The most environmentally friendly solution would be to abandon the lawn for a meadow, or to let the weeds grow tall without worrying about it, or let the chickens mow the lawn constantly.  None of those options suits most people, including me, although when I no longer have children who need a lawn to play on, I may reduce its size.  Even if I let the weeds grow tall, though, they would go to seed, which would spread more weeds into my garden areas, where they are definitely intolerable.  Maybe I should get a flock of sheep to mow the lawn…

When I apply the chemicals, I read and follow the directions carefully.  I make sure I don’t apply too much, and I don’t put them down just before a rain so they wash away.  I keep children and pets off the lawn for at least 24 hours after their application.     

Part of my weed problem is due to the very warm winter we’ve had which has allowed the weeds to grow all winter.  Another reason for my problems is that in September, we had 100 trees cut, and the sudden absence of both their shade and the competition from their roots for moisture has allowed long-dormant weeds to flourish.  I hope my perennial garden, also free of the competition and shade, will also flourish.  I have neglected some weeding chores in favor of preparing my newly cleared land for an orchard, and I have not been as vigilant about getting mulch out as in past years.

I don’t use weed killers on food crops, and I used them only when I have given up hope of eliminating weeds any other way.  I do not apply them routinely.  I have two giant mountains of mulch from the trimmings of the 100 trees we cut, and over the past couple of weeks, I have spread numerous loads of mulch on paths and in flowerbeds.  From my father and from a horse-keeping neighbor, I have spoiled hay, and I am in the process of covering the garden with it after I tilled it. 

Next winter, I hope the wood-chip mulch, which I have put down heavily, will still retard weeds in the paths and flowerbeds into next winter.  Winter weeds are always my biggest problem, I think because after working hard all summer I want a break after the frost comes, and I neglect the garden for a while, long enough for the winter weeds to become established.  Weeds are the bane of the gardener’s existence, but in some ways, I am thankful for their presence because they get me out into the garden, working and exercising, and noticing all the blossoms and new growth I might otherwise miss.