Of gardens, deer and research

Deer in Oak Bay

Photo by Flickr user r.a. paterson. Neither my fence nor garden are nearly as nice.

Deer fences have been on my mind, which believe it or not has to do with writing.

It all started in my community garden around the Fourth of July. That’s when I noticed a garden neighbor, a quiet gentleman in his late 60s who tends to weed in a button-down shirt, walking down the garden path flourishing red, white and blue leis. By that time, my fellow gardeners and I had been grumbling about the nibbles for a while. Hungry, overpopulated deer had eaten whole crops of string beans and beets, and gobbled my Swiss chard plants down to nubs. Even my tomato plants, which are supposed to be deer-proof, fell victim.

“The deer obviously didn’t read the gardening books,” I remember another plot neighbor quipping. “Tomato plants are supposed to be poisonous!”

That day with the flashy leis, I knew it was time. I had to address the problem so I could enjoy the bounty of my 400-square-foot growing haven. And I had to address it simply and cheaply. Otherwise, I might as well give up the whole gardening thing and buy my veggies retail.

I was still considering my own approach, dabbling in research as if I were going to pitch a story. I wanted to, as freelancer Amanda Low suggests in a recent article, “flesh out” my thoughts. (Whether dealing with deer or editors, this approach allays embarrassment and extra work later).

So I watched with interest as the buttoned-up man hung the accessories from a string between metal T-posts. Rather than focus on a physical barrier for hungry deer, he fell in with several other plot holders who seemed set on a ruminant psych-out. Though this was the only patriotic display, other operations adhered to a similar principle by dangling strips of white T-shirts and crime scene tape. They had decided that deer won’t leap over what looks like an obstacle, even if it isn’t solid.

The strange thing was that, when I turned to Google, I found completely different advice. Phrases like “garden deer fence” returned suggestions for heavy, costly or complex fencing. Many suggestions for electric fences ranked high in the results, streaming in from commercial landscape suppliers, individuals and universities’ agricultural extensions alike. The next most popular advice was to buy a commercial repellent or whip up a solution of garlic, cayenne, egg, soap and sometimes ammonia to spray on any plants the deer seemed to fancy.

So what was the right answer to my munching deer woes within the constraints I had set? What is the best way to research and report an idea?

Whether it’s deer fences or pitch research, I want to get the most thorough picture possible, and that means a multi-pronged approach. I like to hit the streets as well as the keyboard, talk to experts and officials as well as bystanders milling around. And as my Hopkins program director, David Everett, always urged us, I have to go there. In this situation, going there means perusing the various deer-deterring contraptions and maybe even sniffing the breezes coming off the chard bed.

For now, I’ve opted for the string fence. I set wooden stakes around the perimeter of my plot and ran two rows of twine around it, one at what I think is thigh height for a deer and another around eye level. My innovation is hanging bits of shredded T-shirt dunked in a garlic-soap concoction, rather than drenching my plants with the unpalatable stuff.

I’ll see how that goes, and move to plans B and C as needed. I’ll also fertilize and water well, so the damaged plants can bounce back quickly and my next plantings get a strong start.

As Low writes at the end of her piece, backups are good. “Don’t quit your day job,” she advises, “– or have a spouse, partner, roommate or really well-trained pet who can bring in some income, too.” So I won’t forgo the farmers market or grocery store just yet. Those tomato plants are going to need some time.

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Deer Fence Info

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