Grazing deer get a taste of gardeners' frustration

Hot sauce, soap part of residents' arsenals

May 22, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Desperate to keep marauding deer from treating their plants like canapes, gardeners in the area are shaving pungent deodorant soap, blasting country music all night and decorating freshly tilled soil with cotton puffs soaked in coyote urine.

"This year I planted 50 tulips in exotic colors," said Mary Bobnar, a nurse who lives in Ellicott City. "And the deer waited until the night before they bloomed, came through and pulled them up by the roots and ate every one. They even ate the leaves."

Some gardeners in the region douse their fledgling tomato plants in Tabasco sauce or dust them with cayenne pepper, which are rumored to give deer a four-alarm jolt. Still others raid barber shops for clippings of men's hair -- preferred over women's because it is washed less, they say -- to sprinkle around the rim of the garden.

Bobnar has opted to deodorize her yard.

Shaved bars of Irish Spring soap, whittled with a potato peeler, have been mixed into her mulch this season after rumors spread over the backyard fence that the strong pine scent is enough to turn deer away.

Some who surrendered

One of her neighbors played country music outside all night, hoping the twang would do the trick. "It didn't work -- and now I hear he's given up gardening altogether," she said.

So has Steve Pusateri. This year, he placed plastic red, white and pink flowers in his Howard County back yard "because we were spending hundreds of dollars in bedding plants that were nothing but deer food.

"When my mother did that I used to think it was tacky," Pusateri said. "But I got tired of them eating all of our stuff."

W. Sherard Wilson, 92, put a $600 electric fence in the back yard of his Ellicott City development -- deer have devoured 100 azalea bushes on his property since 1996. Surrounded by homes that sell between $194,000 and $299,000, Wilson's fence is a conversation piece, but he says it hasn't worked each time.

"Ten years ago, we used to look out the window and see one deer and say, `What a beautiful little thing,' " Wilson said. "Now when you look out, you see 11 to 13 of them chewing on your plants and you're not too happy."

Wild deer today total a record 300,000 in Maryland, state Department of Natural Resources officials say.

With their former habitat replaced by townhouse sprawl, most deer graze through backyard gardens as a means to survive, said Doug Hotton, leader of DNR's Deer Project, which monitors the animals in the state.

And that's where the battle begins.

"If there's not a lot of repellent, they can strip your trees pretty well," said Bill Roesch, who works at Metzler's Garden Center in Eldersburg. "It's a big problem. some people are desperate."

Roesch lectures homeowners on how to keep deer at bay with whimsically named repellents such as Foggy Mountain, a $12.99 jar of coyote urine with a predatory scent that is supposed to shoo deer away; Tree Guard, a $44.99-per-gallon chemical spray; and "RoPel," another chemical spray for trees and shrubs.

He advises gardeners to plant certain trees, bulbs, shrubs and perennials that deer typically won't bother: Colorado blue spruce, dragon lady holly, daffodils, lily of the valley, boxwood, lavender, bleeding heart and yarrow.

"Then there is the electric fence," he says, "and aluminum plates placed on sticks that rattle and flash."

Losses to farmers

David Greene, a Carroll County extension agent for the University of Maryland's agricultural sciences department, said deer cost farmers a lot every year.

"In Carroll County, it's mostly the farmers that have lost crops like corn, soy and wheat to deer," Greene said. "It's an estimated $38 million loss -- and that's not chicken feed. That's a direct loss to the farmer."

In more suburban counties such as Howard and Baltimore, herds of deer that total up to 50 fearlessly saunter through subdivisions in search of vegetables and flowers, he said. Many wander onto porches and sun decks to devour the neat, colorful contents of a window box or planter.

"They just decimate the landscape and then move on," Greene said.

Deer Busters, a Frederick mail-order business, offers more than 80 animal repellents ranging from $19.95 to $79.95. "We are booming at this time," said saleswoman Kathy Myers. The 5-year-old company just mailed 19,000 catalogs nationwide.

"Most people start to worry about their gardens when the deer start to come in," Myers said.

On the Internet, discussion groups such as Deer Mail and allow for commiseration, while Web sites such as offer products.

"All our customers are having trouble -- they are eating everything down to the bone," said Etta Cox of the Horizon Nursery and Garden Center in Freeland, just south of the Mason-Dixon line.

"They are worse than rabbits and there's only one way to get rid of them. Hunting."

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