Letter From Skunk Hollow: Can a garden be deer-proof without walls?

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
The minimalist infrastructure of the straw-bale garden, rising from the earth like something Maya Lin might design if she worked in straw instead of granite.

To plant a vegetable garden in a countryside overrun by deer is a work of faith.

Or possibly just foolishness. This year I intend to find out which.

In the six summers we’ve lived here deer have been a constant, chomping presence on the hosta gardens that border the house, on the planters Sallie assembled for the decks, on most of the decorative shrubs she added where the lawn merges into the woodland.

Cruelly, they’ve seemed to favor the varieties sold as unattractive to browsing deer.

Deer deterrence is, still, more art than science, and folklore still has its influence. Whether gardeners or not, my neighbors all have their pet suggestions.

Dog hair is supposed to be a good repellent, but we don’t have a dog. Shiny, spinning gadgets are said to unnerve deer but I don’t buy it; our herd comes right up to the windows, whether lighted from within or made into mirrors by moonlight.

We’ve tried the rotten-egg repellent (“putrefied egg solids” is the label descriptor) and we’ve  tried human urine, which seemed to work at least as well and is a cinch for me and our male guests to apply while the women aren’t looking. But the supply is constricted unless I drink more beer than really I ought.

Newest craze is an electronically guided water cannon. It’s a variation on the rotating lawn sprinkler, controlled by a motion sensor which fires a blast of cold water in the direction of any deer it detects. Supposedly this sends them bounding back into the trees.

It was my best hope for a while, until I asked a master gardener about it, a retired 3M engineer who has been defending her plantings of food and flora from the deer of Stillwater for decades.

Yep, she said, that will work until they get used to it, and since it doesn’t actually hurt them they’ll get used to it in a few days.

The only sure solution, she said, is a fence so high and sturdy the deer can’t clear it. Like, maybe 8 feet high. A wall, really.

And there I will not go, for aesthetic reasons.

What about an electric fence? She smiled sadly.

“That will work until they try to jump it and break the wires.”

The problem of infrastructure

As I’ve written before, a return to vegetable gardening seemed a natural step for a guy who grew produce for more than 20 years in raised beds in south Minneapolis.

Those gardens were a joy to tend – almost easy – and undisturbed by any mammalian pests save gray squirrels, which I controlled intensively for a few weeks each spring with live traps and a CO2-powered, scope-equipped air rifle. (For safety I set up my sniper station at a window three stories above the ground, so any pellets that missed would go into the dirt,  but I’d still rather you didn’t mention this to the authorities. )

But I am not willing to add raised-bed infrastructure to our place in Skunk Hollow. Apart from all the construction and rototilling and soil amending, it would spoil one of our home’s chief charms: the minimal lawn, a wee island of grass in a big woodland sea.

So last year I decided to try an experiment with the straw-bale garden craze that has been sweeping the country for a few years.

The infrastructure is nearly nil: You lay out bales of wheat straw in a compact rectangle (my choice) or elaborate pattern on your lawn. Instant raised bed, with no landscape timbers or other materials required except some landscape fabric below to keep the grass from coming up into them.

You compost them from the inside out according to a specific schedule, adding fertilizers and lots of water, creating some black goo amid the straw. Wind soaker hoses over the top, and some planting mix for direct sowing of seed, place bedding plants by prying an opening in the straw with a hand trowel. You can plant the sides as well as the top.

Total preparation may take only two weeks if the temperatures cooperate. Because it’s kind of like hydroponics in the outdoors  – just add water and nutrients – there’s almost no weeding required, no pre-existing soil pathogens or pests.

By providing both drainage to carry water downward, and capillary action to lift it upward, overwatering is impossible.

When the growing season is over, you take your pitchfork and your farm cart and haul the spent straw away. Takes a half-hour, including removal of the landscape fabric, and if you choose to keep it around, you have, the loveliest, high-cellulose soil conditioner and lots of it.

(Example: I may do a clever kind of potato-growing box with last year’s spent straw if I have the time.)

And here was my fondest hope, my hypothesis, my leap of faith – perhaps no fence would be necessary if I placed the bales in a wide-open area close to the driveway, the front door and the porch light.

Perhaps the deer would continue to prefer the hostas to the foliage atop this weird, funky-smelling pile of straw.

Deer-proof until it wasn’t

From May until early October the bale garden was virtually weed-proof, slug-proof, leafcutter-proof and, best of all, undisturbed by the ungulates we could still see moving in the woods.

And the produce was amazingly abundant, including zucchini the size of a cat. I was in gardener’s heaven and Sallie began to reconsider her skepticism about the worth of home-growing stuff that you could, after all, purchase at retail.

Frankly, the foods I grew were even higher in quality than the produce we got every other week from our first CSA subscription,  which probably cost 10 times as much.

The bliss endured right up to the October morning when I went out to the bales with my morning coffee and found all the of the second-crop collards and chard, all of the new heirloom lettuces, all of the slow-growing kale and fast-growing spinach and arugula – pretty much the whole project save the tomato, zucchini and nasturtium vines – clipped off as clean as if a barber had given my bales a hot towel, lather and straight-razor shave.

The deer also cleaned out the two EarthBoxes that were sitting on the deck, a couple of feet from the front door and porch light.  

Like Maya Lin in straw

This year’s bales, when I laid them out, rose from the lawn so beautifully and gradually and geometrically that I thought,  this is what a Maya Lin monument might look like if she worked in straw instead of black granite.

And in a few weeks, when I first have a free afternoon for it, I will add a minimalist kind of fence that capitalizes on the notions that now seem most plausible to me:

  • A series of eight-foot-tall, 2×2 stakes or 2×4 posts driven into the ground on a perimeter line about 18 inches away from the bales, with holes drilled every foot or so above the planting surface.
  • Through these holes, I’ll lace some clothesline to encircle the garden with a lightweight version of a boxing ring’s ropes, spaced perhaps a foot apart.
  • From the clothesline I’ll hang streamers, counting on them not to repel the deer but just to be sure they notice the possibility of entrapment.
  • If bunnies become a problem – they didn’t seem to be last year – I can always add some wire-mesh fencing at the bottom.
  • And at season’s end, I can pull the posts, package them with the cord and store them for the off-season.

Should work, don’t you think?                                          

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/03/2015 - 09:26 am.

    Ha!

    I’m trying a straw bale garden this year. The composting wasn’t as efficient as I was led to believe. Still, it seems to be working the way it should now that it occasionally seems like late spring/summer out there.

    I’m not surprised that the deer finally gave in to temptation. I just wonder why they didn’t earlier. Hopefully your new setup will deter them long enough to harvest all of your stuff. If not, it was a good run.

  2. Submitted by Scot Wilcoxon on 06/03/2015 - 11:21 am.

    Harvest season for all

    At least the deer know when it’s harvest season. Same time when they need to fatten up for winter.

    Let us know in November how well your cheerful deer banquet table performed.

  3. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 06/03/2015 - 11:58 am.

    Can a garden be deer-proof without walls?

    Got Wolves?

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/03/2015 - 12:31 pm.

    “that will work until they get used to it”

    The deer, like so many critters in the wild and its fringes, are magnificently intelligent and adaptable. Perhaps we should emulate them.

    from http://mylandplan.org/content/how-attract-whitetail-your-land, it appears they are describing pretty accurately what you are doing now – so for a laugh, show this excerpt to your spouse:

    “The first thing many landowners do to attract deer is to plant food pots and establish feeders. While these can be part of a successful management strategy, they are relatively expensive and intensive tools. Instead, consider managing natural vegetation to attract deer, rather than sacrificing time, money and productive acreage to food plots and feeders.”

    Here is an idea for which I have a thin foundation, but which I find intriguing in your case: surround your vegetable garden with plantings which the deer may prefer to your garden species.

    I mean, you’re already in the deer-attacting business, but with a product which works to attract deer only halfway, or part time. Why not go all the way ?? Let’s stand this problem on its head !!

    Give them something they PREFER to your garden species !! And give them lots of it !! Surround your garden with it, plenty of it. They’ll go away bloated and ready for a nap, before they even get past these delectables, therefore never reaching your garden. This is a thesis worth testing.

    One risk here is that rumors may spread within the wider deer population, so deer come in great numbers over long distances just to get to your chicory and birdsfoot trefoil. So your plot could get to look like the deer version of Sunday morning at the farmer’s market. If this should happen, I have no Plan B, so you’ll have to figure out what to do in that case.

    See http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/deer/foragespecies.pdf for a list of species which deer are known to enjoy, along with advice on planting, seasonality, etc.

    I know someone who followed this kind of planting regime to attract deer for hunting purposes, and it works !!

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/03/2015 - 01:53 pm.

    If you have the will, here’s the way:

    Buy chain-link fabric, lay if flat on the ground, let the grass and plants grow up through it. The deer can’t stand walking or standing on the fabric. Figure out where they have to stand to eat the food and lay it there.

    It’s more effective and less noticeable than a vertical fence.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/03/2015 - 03:57 pm.

    Deer and bunnies

    I like Steve’s idea, and Neal’s as well. This project sounds like a fine opportunity for experimentation!

    I see deer in my neighborhood of Minneapolis, too, though not in abundance. Now, if I could just deter the bunnies…

  7. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 06/03/2015 - 08:12 pm.

    Netting

    Our garden “up north” is 3 raised beds surrounded by a 3 ft high split rail fence. Wire mesh around the bottom of the fence keeps the small animals out. But the deer would jump in to eat the leaves off the green beans – and only that. Plastic netting draped over the beans seemed to do the trick.

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