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In gardens, the battle to gain the upper hoof

Deer devouring flower beds spawn home-grown remedies: try garlic or rock music amid snap peas

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 2004



KILLINGWORTH, CONN.

Behind the old white clapboard farmhouse perched above the Saw Mill River in this rural Connecticut town, Betty Pellegrini used to have a big vegetable garden.

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Then came the deer, and the battle began.

Her husband put a radio in the middle of the garden and kept it on, loud. Then he put up a fence and hung foil strips all over it. Some people recommended soap shavings, others garlic.

"People said, 'They don't eat this and they don't eat that,' " Mrs. Pellegrini says of her flower garden nearby. "But to me they like it so well here, they eat everything."

As spring's warm breezes entice gardeners across America out of their winter boots and into their sturdy Wellingtons, they are preparing not only to mulch but to take on the foraging hoofed bandits.

In the past quarter of a century, the dramatic growth of the deer population has turned the beloved symbol of the wild - once a rare sight - into a garden pest of ecologically historic dimensions. From the rolling hills outside of Lynchburg, Va., to the rocky coast of California, the overabundance of deer has transformed gardening from the gentle pursuit of beauty into a daily battle for the survival of the roses. It's spawned not only frustration and a book full of old wives' tales, but a flurry of research as well as a small industry. Their goal: to ensure that those lovingly planted tulips get a chance to blossom, before their heads are unceremoniously bitten off.

"Many people have just given up, and a lot of garden centers don't sell certain plants anymore because the deer eat them as fast as they can plant them," says Jerry Walters, the inventor and developer of Plant Pro-Tec, a garlic-based deer repellent. "There are lists of deer- resistant plants, but I don't know a deer that can read."

Dr. Walters got into the business of beating back deer as a matter of survival himself. He was a research forester in Redding, Calif., an academic who studied trees and plants and was judged by the quantity and quality of his research. He'd start on a really interesting project, only to be stymied when deer ate his subjects, time and time again.

He thought of spraying, but that could change the plant's basic physiology. He tried mothballs, but they only workedfor a few months at a time.

Then they tried blood meal from slaughterhouses, which kept the deer away, but drew hungry dogs. Finally, Walters experimented with highly concentrated garlic oil how to package it. He came up with a system that worked for up to eight months at a time. But he cautions that deer are adaptable, and nothing's a sure bet. His advice to gardeners:

"Be persistent, whatever you're using. Do it before damage starts.... And it's better to err on the side of using too much repellent, and a combination of things if you have to," he says. "For instance, if you have Italian deer or ones with a runny nose, I wouldn't recommend our product."

Outside of Lynchburg, Va., Dr. William Massie is contemplating putting an electric fence around more than 15 acres on the small mountain in the heart of his family's farm. Over the past 30 years, he's lovingly cultivated the woods there, nurturing and transplanting the native rhododendrons, azaleas, and wildflowers. But this year, for the first time, the deer have started to take a toll. "The surest way to keep them away is with some kind of barrier," he says. "The deer are such a great threat when you see what they can do."

For many scientists, that threat extends way beyond the garden to the habitat's ecological balance. When there's an overabundance of deer, they browse intensively through the lower six feet of the forest. That's where many birds build nests, but if suddenly they have no habitat, they'll disappear. The deer can also consume all the wildflowers, and their taste for tree saplings tends toward the more desirable species.

"The bigger issue in residential areas is to build consensus on how to manage the deer population," says Jonathan Kays, natural-resources specialist with the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Keedysville. "All of these other things, the vegetation management, use of repellents, scare devices - they don't solve the problem. They just push it off to somewhere else."

That is another debate. But back at the Pellegrinis, the deer have won, at least for now. Mrs. Pellegrini turned in her trowel.

But as she looks at the daffodils that have survived so far this year, she longs for the days when her garden could flourish. "It turned out to be a losing game," she says. "But I miss my gardens."

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