Die, Bambi, Die!



A Failure of Sorts

A Good Home-Run Swing

A Morning Stroll

A Small Stream

Applied Science


Chamber of Commerce

Close Observation of a Plant


Edith Schrantz, Pedant

Happy Birthday to You

Mission Accomplished

My Garden

Pale Yellow Light

Recycle? Sure.

Sailing to Somewhere


The Death of Zane Grey


I had long wanted a garden.  Having lived so many years in apartments, neither a balcony window box nor a few small potted plants on a sunny windowsill, nor even a small space next to your rented patio was enough for me.  No, I wanted a garden I could walk through, one that encircled my house, one that would take me all day simply to weed.  I now have that kind of garden, and I have been building it for the past six years in this suburban wasteland north of Baltimore.  Large chunks of useless lawn have been torn up, turned under, and made into flower beds.  I’ve bought perennials and annuals and planted them everywhere, some to good effect, others for the sake of learning where and how not to plant them.  I’ve lost some plants, heuchera for one, to probable overcrowding by the more aggressive types: black-eyed susans, coneflowers, common strawberries.  Others--Indian blanket, New England aster, and cardinal flower--have disappeared for their own reasons.  I composted every year--grass clippings in summer, leaves in the fall.  Each spring I worked in a thick layer of compost to improve the tilth and structure of the soil.  And as I gradually filled in the large empty space in front of the house, life flourished.

Joe-pye-weed I planted in the center of the front garden, next to the brick of the front wall of the house.  It could grow tall there, 5-7 feet, and anchor the rest of the garden.  I put New York ironweed next to it, not knowing it also grew almost as tall.  Butterfly weed, common milkweed, pink and white phlox, coreopsis, monarda, purple coneflower, anise hyssop, and common field daises filled in the spaces around them. Lilly-of-the-valley, buttercups, and blue-eyed grass grew around the feet of these taller plants, wherever light and and space permitted.

 I also didn’t neglect the foreigners--dame’s rocket, common border dahlias, peonies, bearded irises, gayfeather, hostas, lily-of-the-valley, sedum, grape hyacinth, as well as flowering shrubs--Mexican heather, azaleas, rhododendrons, lilacs, and hydrangeas.  And it wouldn’t be a garden without common daffodils, tulips, gladiolus, lillies.  Of course, annuals are a must--portulaca, begonias, vinca, coleus, marigolds, sweet william, and impatiens--to add steady color between the blooms of the perennials.  Though I haven’t consciously tried to assemble a botanical ark, "the more the merrier" has been my motto.

And as I planted these gardens--laid out is far too polite, respectful, and generous a term for my well,-I-guess-here-is-okay style--I was treated to a minor miracle.  They took hold.  The perennials grew thicker, wider, and more lush each year.  One day, about a year ago, I realized I had succeeded.  I now had gardens.  And as they grew, they began to do what they’ve been doing for millenia untold--multiply and spread.  The phlox and rudbeckia, in particular, have popped up here and there, far from where I planted the originals.  And I have both white and lavender phlox now in multiple locations, though I began with but two small plants.  The rudbeckia and echinacea expanded in like fashion, appearing yards away from where I introduced them.  Though I can’t say I have anything more than the most general of plans and guidelines (taller plants to the back, complementary colors in proximity), I have become rather happy with how this menagerie is progressing.

I suppose I’ve always liked the English country cottage aesthetic: slightly seedy, overgrown and a bit unkempt, but full of gentle fertility, perhaps what nature herself would do if she paid a bit of attention now and again.  And now I have it, at least it appears so when I see it in contrast to the bland predictability of most of the other homes on the street--a handful of daffodils, an occasional azalea or green yew, spruce, or arborvitae and a scattering of annuals, all aimless, and all doing little but highlighting the barren, green expanse of The Lawn, the living carpet which gets vacuumed once or twice a month.  That's for those who bothered with "landscaping."

With the addition this spring of the rock garden in the front lawn, and three smaller tree-base gardenettes I expanded from their former outlines, I began to get The Vision--a house transformed, beauty all around, a bit of nature’s perfection that would not only grace our lives but lift up the lives of everyone and everything in the neighborhood.  Respite for butterflies, food banks for birds, and habitat for chipmunks, leopard frogs and common toads, and all manner of beneficial insects.  I flattered myself to think it a sanctuary for nature, an oasis of life amid this suburban desert of asphalt and concrete, a bit of weight on the good side of the scales of Life and Death.

Then came the deer.  The subdivision our house abutts the thickly forested buffer of one of the three large reservoirs supplying water to most of the county.  And the northern part of the county, just above us, is mostly rural farmland, so deer are plentiful, though they’re mostly invisible except when they lie stiff-legged with bloated bellies along the roadsides.   Like their cousins, the cows, they browse.  Grasses and tree leaves in spring and summer, leaf buds and tender twigs in winter.  And, like us, they enjoy the bounty of nature that summer brings.  They’ll munch corn, tomatoes, and peppers, but they’ll also eat cosmos, coleus, impatiens, phlox, and black-eyed susans, to name but a few.  They're not too particular.

Knowing that, I should have expected trouble.  A sloping, wooded hillside lies behind our house.  This two-acre triangular piece of no-man’s land faces the setting sun in winter, so it’s a pleasant spot for the deer to rest during the late afternoon.  It’s also in the midst of a dozen contiguous backyards--opportunities for buffet-line browsing. Last winter the deer stripped three of my azaleas and a neighboring juniper, browsing nearly every bit of green leaf on them, down to the bare twigs. The shrubs recovered this spring and summer, but it should have been a warning.

Instead I gambled that a large rock garden, in the open near the sidewalk in front of the house, would be safe from their predations.  I planted annuals for steady color--yellow and burgundy coleus, deep purple petunias, pink begonias and multi-colored portulaca.  They looked small against the large stones, but I imagined how lovely they would be when they filled in the spaces.  And as spring gave way to summer, they did just that.  The portulaca, a succulent, had grown especially thick and full of flowers, and I rejoiced at the rainbow of colors amid the large stones.  I was taking a chance, and I knew it.  I had planted an apricot sapling out front the year before, and after it got heavily chewed in late August, I fenced it in.  I had other warnings as well--signs of nibbling on impatiens and marigold flowers out front.  Yet as the flowers in the rock garden grew lush in the full sun and abundant rain, their beauty, and my enjoyment of it, seemed secure.

Then the deer struck, as usual before dawn.  I noticed the petunias missing first.  The day before they were a wide, meandering purple stream, flowing over and around most of the rocks in the rock garden.  Gone.  Nearly every blossom.  All that remained were a few purple cups, lower halves of the trumpet-shaped blossoms.  The coleus, which had grown thick as small bushes, complimenting the petunias in shape and color, had been chomped, each plant neatly topped as if buzz-cut.  The worst, though, were the tender portulaca.  While Bambi and her family ate only the petunia blossoms and munched just the tops of the coleus, they ripped nearly every portulaca plant out, roots and all, as if they'd gone berserk.  To make matters worse, rather than stand or walk on the grass around the rock garden, they stood in the garden while eating, smashing with their hooves what they weren't eating.

When I came out that morning and saw what they'd done, my anger mixed with sorrow at the senselessness of it all.  "It's summer, fer chrissakes!   There's food everywhere!  Why do they have to eat my flowers?  They can't be getting that much nutrition out of a handful of flowers!"   As I continued cursing the deer and clearing away the debris, trying to replant the portulaca whose roots hadn't completely dried, my anger found release in fantasy--the sharp clack-clack of a pump shotgun, a sudden thunderous shot,  and a shower of bloody gore as deer guts splattered across the lawn.  I even imagined ramming their bloody, severed heads on pikes and planting them around the house.

Like all storms, the rage subsided.  The deer had also apparently gone elsewhere.  Over the next week, I saw no sign of their presence.  And as my fury ebbed, somehow, my thoughts changed.  They grew in another direction.  I don't know why.  I like to think it was my father's humility once again leading me.  "Deer got to eat, too, y'know."   And then I saw it.  The deer were just doing what I do--using plants as I do--for their purposes.  After all, my lettuce and tomatoes don’t care who eats them--the deer, groundhogs, rabbits, or me.  Yet more than this epiphany of self-effacement, I had what might have been an insight into something deeper--the effect of browsing on plants. 

I'd vaguely noticed this with the black raspberry canes I'd been nurturing in that triangle of wooded area behind our house.  I found them when I had removed the Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose that had been choking all the undergrowth there.  Once freed from those competitors for light and space, the native black raspberry quickly expanded into the now open spaces.  Yet no sooner had they grown more lush and abundant than the deer added them to their menu, thorns and all.  I felt frustrated and angry.  Not only had my hard work been for naught, but my dreams of an abundant harvest of fresh berries had disappeared into the stomachs of marauding deer.  Yet weeks later, when the raspberry harvest didn't seem much the worse for the deer's browsing, I had a first glimpse of that larger truth.  Suddenly it made sense--raspberry plants must have co-evolved with lots of browsers, particularly the eastern whitetail deer.  So the plant, whose only wish is to scatter its seed, whether into the stomachs of deer, elk, black bear, or people, must have evolved some way of doing this.  Then the penny dropped--apical dominance, a salient gardening concept I'd learned from my reading.  Cutting the tops of plant stems just encourages growth of side shoots.  The deer were "pruning" the raspberries.

Yet there was more to this sense of humility than biology.  New questions began forming in my mind, questions strange to a gardener with so much desire for beauty, so much ambition to create.  How many flowers do I have to have?  How much is enough for me?  Do I own my plants?  Do I own their beauty?  Do they bloom to please me?  Yet I wasn't only re-thinking my desires for plants philosophically.  I was re-connecting with an older part of myself--contempt for the arrogant stupidity and grasping excess of modern life.

To be sure, deer can eat a plant to death.  I've been in state forests where there is almost no understory, no future trees, because deer have eaten them all like a herd of cows happily ruining a cornfield--get it now, and to hell with the future.  And since we have suburbanized large swaths of farmland all up and down the eastern U.S., we've created thousands of little fast-food stops for Odocoileus virginianus, the white-tailed deer.  And as we've also eliminated wolves and mountain lions from every place east of the Mississippi, deer have nothing to do but eat, reproduce, and dodge our cars and trucks as they cross the roads.  Unsurprisingly, their populations have soared along with ours.  A few weeks of controlled hunting in the late autumn merely caps their population.  

Yet why vilify them?  Who is vacuuming the oceans to the point where codfish, bluefin tuna, swordfish, and a host of other once near-limitless species are near collapse?  Who ruined the Chesapeake Bay fishery, acre for acre once the most productive on earth?  Who shot the passenger pigeon into extinction, and nearly did the same with the bison, and in neither case out of actual hunger?

Thoughts like that brought me to my senses.  I saw that my problem with the deer was just that--MY problem, not nature’s or the deer's.  Rather than eliminate their threat to my misplaced childish desire--living free from the constraints of the natural world--I realized I had to learn to live with them or outsmart them.  Plant what they won’t eat, disguise or hide the planting of flowers they like, and protect what I want to keep.  And I did.  I planted some aromatic herbs near my daylilies--a "smelly" defense the deer have yet to penetrate.  I moved the tulips out in the open, near the street where nervous deer don't linger.  And I've simply put up a winter fence around the azaleas--the can't eat what they can't reach.  Finally, I covered my annuals, including more of that delightful and succulent portulaca, with floating row covers.  Yes, I have to "tuck them in" every night and remove the covers in the morning, but I also have to brush my own teeth if I want to keep them. 

So there were no shotgun blasts in the wee hours of the morning, no bear-traps, no vicious pit bulls on long chains.  I've simply accepted it. And the deer haven't eaten all my flowers.  I still have lots.  The plants themselves don't care--well, maybe the annuals, but certainly not the perennials--and since the deer's life span is so much shorter than mine (10 years in the wild), who am I to begrudge them a little food?  How much is enough for me?  What, after all, have I "lost"?  Hadn't I "eaten" my visual aesthetic fill of my flowers for days on end?  And who said the plants were mine?  No, I was being far too proprietary, far to commodity-oriented.  

The hardest to accept, though, was the loss of the lillies I had waited three years to see bloom.  In fact, I had waited that long just to find out what kind of plant they were, let alone to see them.  Yet, there are two ways of looking even at that.  One way is My Desire, which was to Eat My Lillies and Have Them, Too, hence the shotguns and poison to protect my property and investment, although I paid nothing for the seeds [a gift], the sun, the air, or the rain.  The other way is the Salome Approach--seduction and desire held in abeyance till next year. Now I know they are lillies, and that the color of the blossom will likely be dark orange--are they Turk's cap lillies?   Will they survive the deer next year?  Will Our Hero devise an ingenious way of foiling his adversary?  "Curse you, Bambi. But be warned--I shall have the last laugh!" 

The problem, as was once said, lay not in my stars but in my self, my attitude.  Thankfully, my gardening philosophy has a new form.  Be less greedy for beauty.  Enjoy the days when "my" plants are in bloom.  Remember their beauty whether they get eaten or merely fade.  See the beauty that is the deer.  Remember that we belong to life, and not the other way around.



Copyright © Mark McTague 2003