Oh, Dear, Oh Deer!

deer fantasy
Bucolic image from recent L.L.Bean catalog cover.

This winter with the extensive snow cover and increased deer populations, winter plant browse damage is significant. Even with an application or two of Bobbex (useful at lower temperatures due to having both a scent and a taste component to the repellant formula), the feeding continues. This underscores the observation that the only way to ultimately "totally protect" your garden from deer damage is via isolation - i.e.: fencing the beds and/or individual plants. If you have extensive landscaping, fencing the entire yard may be necessary.

A truly sustainable design philosophy would be to acknowledge current reality and simply let the deer roam, planting stuff they don't like. This strategy works for awhile, but it seems that each new deer generation acquires the taste for something unexpected. A plant never touched becomes this year's new salad making. I have seen this with iris, hyacinths, forsythia and many other plants over the last few years as deer population densities increase unchecked. (It seems that deer do not read the nursery labels or pay attention to the "deer resistant" plant lists from Cornell or Rutgers...)

A longer-term environmental concern, hidden from most folk's day-to-day perception, is that the deer over-browse is creating a woodlands catastrophe: native wild flowers, spring ephemerals especially, many native shrub and tree seedlings are being chewed into possible extermination. Our woods typically now have no undergrowth or leaves from the 5 to 6 foot browse line down to the ground level. Many forestry studies show that our urban forests are growing older - demographically speaking, reaching "middle age" - yet no new young growth (replacement plant generations) can be found. Everything is eaten. Luckily, however, field experiments show that by exclusion (fencing off acreage from deer browse), the seed "library" which still exists in the soil can sprout, recovery and forest regrowth can begin. That's great news if deer populations can be controlled / reduced significantly to natural "carrying capacity" of the woodland environment.

There is a dark side beyond the question of what to do about Bambi: before any deer exclusion / reduction takes effect, typically there have been years of infestation by invasive species, many of which are not preferred deer food. Thus, invasive removal and control must be another important component for healthy forest re-growth.

Finally, it seems that in the Northeast woodlands, we have been silently invaded by Asian earthworms. These critters have a voracious appetite and eat through the forest leaf litter like crazy. In their wake, they leave large deposits of castings (worm poop) which chemically change the acidity /pH of the soil. Turns out that this change in the top layer of the woodland duff is less conducive to native species re-growth, and more conducive to many invasive species. Studies are now being talked about to figure out what percentage of the loss of undergrowth recovery is due to the deer and what percentage is due to the worms.

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