They're little dears with big mouths Pests: Bambi was adorable, but that was fiction. In real life, deer and other critters will eat your garden alive.

September 22, 1996|By Denise Cowie | Denise Cowie,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

In many areas, it may be gardeners' most-often-asked question: Is there any plant deer won't eat?

And the answer?

"Sure. Silk or plastic flowers, and fake Christmas trees."

Duane Binkley laughs when he says it, but he's not entirely joking. Few horticulture professionals will say with any surety that one plant or another is deer-proof.

"It's hard to tell exactly what a deer will like and what it won't like," says Binkley, assistant horticulturist for a Philadelphia-area horticulture society. "You hear contradictory stories from gardeners. Deer can be very frustrating in that way. They have a great range of taste. If they eat down everything from the A list, then the B-list plants might suddenly become delicacies."

Joe Seals, chief horticulturist for W. Atlee Burpee nurseries, agrees: "Deer like just about everything in lean years." But, he adds, there's a long list of plants they probably won't eat if other food is available.

Deer may be the biggest of what are sometimes called nuisance animals, but they certainly aren't the only ones. Add rabbits, woodchucks (a.k.a. groundhogs), squirrels, chipmunks, moles, voles and mice, among others, to the lineup that can drive mild-mannered plant lovers to distraction.

You may decide the best approach is simply to share and coexist as peacefully as possible, a philosophy endorsed by a handy and practical guide called "Living With Wildlife" by Diana Landau and Shelley Stump (Sierra Club Books, $15). Or you may opt to do all-out battle with your least-wanted animal visitors.

Either way, there are some things you can do this fall to maximize your chances of gardening success next spring.

First, know your environment, say both Binkley and Toni Bilik, a state master gardener coordinator with Pennsylvania State University. Problems you are likely to have in a suburban garden differ from those you'll find in the city.

If you're a new gardener or have just moved to an area, check with your neighbors to find out what to expect in the way of animal damage.

If you're starting from scratch in an area where deer and rabbits are a big problem, you may want to consider one of the most effective, though expensive, deterrents: fencing your garden area. Deer fences should be 8 feet high and made of high-tensile-strength wire, mesh fencing or electric wiring, according to "Living With Wildlife." The fences should have a top section protruding outward to prevent jumping. Fences also should extend below ground level 1 foot or more if you want to discourage burrowing animals, and should have fine mesh around the bottom to deter rabbits.

Alternatively, you can fence or cover with mesh any particularly treasured shrubs or small trees, or wrap wire mesh (allowing room for growth) around trunks to protect them. Make sure the mesh extends a couple of feet above the normal snow line.

Too much effort and expense? Then consider repellents and defensive planting, along with traps (for small animals) and some common-sense precautions.

Repellents. First and foremost, never use anything poisonous in your garden if you have children or pets. It's a good idea to avoid poisonous deterrents anyway, because you never know when guests may bring children.

Repellents come in many guises, both home remedies and commercial mixes. No two gardeners seem to agree on what works.

Most commercial repellents are effective, up to a point, for deer, rabbits, woodchucks and the like. They're often made from the urine of predators (such as coyotes or foxes), from egg solids, or from bitter-tasting ingredients, and you can find them at garden stores and hardware stores or in many gardening catalogs.

Then there are the home remedies: Raw-egg and milk sprays ("This sometimes smells so bad, it might keep you out of the garden, too," warns Seals), bars of soap hung from branches, garlic and hot pepper sprays (whip them with hot water in a blender), human hair scattered on the ground or hung in nylon bags from branches, blood meal or dried blood (from garden centers) sprinkled in the garden, rags soaked in ammonia or creosote, and so on. You might even consider human urine -- one Philadelphia area gardener in heavy deer territory marks his garden borders with urine on old rags, renewed nightly. He swears it works.

Deer, unfortunately, adapt when they learn that a particular repellent isn't harmful, so vary your approach.

Some gardeners endorse a combination of castor oil and warm water injected into the soil around mole tunnels. Others claim that woodchucks (which hibernate in winter) won't go near black plastic mulch.

Almost without exception, any repellent, commercial or homemade, has to be reapplied regularly, especially after rain.

"It's not as though you're spraying your coffee table with Pledge," says Binkley. "Repellents wash off pretty quickly. You have to keep constant." That includes during the winter, when shrubs and trees may be most at risk.

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