Nothing breaks a gardener’s heart more than having animals decimate a crop, whether it’s flowers in full bloom or a patch of vegetables or fruits you nurtured all summer and were just about to harvest.

Many animals damage gardens: raccoons pull down and eat rows of corn, woodchucks level just-sprouted pea vines and tulips, and chipmunks take one bite out of each and every ripe strawberry. (Do they do it for spite?)

But the biggest problem in Maine gardens is deer, especially in southern Maine. It’s our own fault. We have built houses right in the deer’s natural habitat. At the same time, we’ve eliminated their natural predators. But because these areas are now densely packed with people, many communities have banned hunting. So the deer population goes up and up.

The deer quickly eat all of their usual food in the woods and fields. When those food sources are gone, what’s left is your garden, which must look tasty and convenient to them.

You see lists everywhere of deer-resistant plants. Yes, deer are less likely to eat such plants, but as Jeff O’Donal said during a talk at the Portland Flower Show last spring, if deer get hungry enough they will eat anything that isn’t concrete, stone or plastic.

White Flower Farm sent out an email offering coreopsis, liatris, reed feather grass, echinacea, salvia and Shasta daisies as a deer-resistant collection of plants. Other nurseries have their own lists.

I got a call last winter from a reader who had planted hemlocks at a camp because hemlocks are supposed to be deer-proof. It was a rough winter, and guess what? The deer ate them all.

It is not just what deer eat that causes damage. In summer, their antlers are growing and have velvet, and they itch like crazy. To scratch that itch, the deer rub their antlers against full-grown trees. If the scraping removes bark all around the tree trunk, the tree dies, according to O’Donal. Wrapping trees with chicken wire will prevent such damage.

So, how do you keep deer away? You have four options: repellents, noise, dogs and barriers.

People like the idea of repellents because they’re invisible, and most work – for a while, anyhow. Repellents use items like mint and rosemary, which deer don’t like to smell or taste. But eventually, the deer get used to the scents.

Coyote urine works better, because coyotes prey on deer. But the Humane Society of the United States urges people to avoid those repellents because the urine is collected from caged animals at fur farms. “The animals suffer from terrible, cramped conditions and die extremely inhumane deaths,” the Society says in an 2013 article on its website. Because of that, several local nurseries have stopped selling the products.

Another animal that deer fear is us, and Milorganite – a fertilizer made from sewage – is, well, people poop. That will repel deer as well; human hair works in a similar way.

Mothballs repel pests because they exude a poisonous gas. But it is illegal to use them outside of a closed container. Don’t fall for the online advice to use them.

Farmers often use sound – explosions, whistles or other loud noises – to keep animals away from their crops. But if you try that in Portland, the neighbors will be knocking on your door. Also, in more rural areas you can let your dog roam the yard, but towns often have regulations forbidding loose dogs.

If you’ve tried all of these tricks and nothing has worked, you’re going to have to get a fence – and not just any fence. Deer can crawl under a barbed-wire fence that is less than a foot from the ground and can jump over a fence as high as 12 feet, O’Donal said. You can make it shorter if you angle the fence 15 degrees out from the garden, as deer will see the fence above them and not attempt to jump it.

Deer are also confused by patterns in a fence.

But deer are just one problem faced by local gardeners.

Woodchucks eat both flowers and vegetables, and the burrowing rodents are right at home in the suburbs. Repellents simply don’t work. I have had some success finding their dens – holes in the ground, usually with two or more exits. When we had cats, we stuffed the holes with used kitty litter. Since we no longer have cats, we fill the holes with rocks and soil and pour ammonia over them, which won’t harm the animals, but will persuade them to build a home farther away from your garden. Electric fences will keep them out, as will fences that extend at least one foot underground. Raccoons are smart and they can climb most fences, so you need an electric fence to keep them away.

Candi Oliver, an avid Gorham gardener, uses a 6-foot-tall plastic fence to keep out deer and an electrified wire 6 inches above the ground to discourage smaller garden thieves. But if grass touches the electric wire, it will short out, so she has to be sure to regularly mow the grass under the wire.

The fence works on deer and also on turkeys, she said, which don’t fly much. Because Oliver takes it down in winter, she has to put it up very early in spring or the turkeys pull up her onion sets.

I had a report earlier this year about porcupines destroying some espaliered fruit trees at a home. Porcupines eat all sorts of wood, especially wood touched by humans, because they are attracted by salt. Fences work, although porcupines – who often live in trees – are good climbers.

Woodchucks, raccoons and porcupines – as well as squirrels and chipmunks – all can be trapped and moved away from your garden. But that takes time and patience, and meanwhile, these creatures are snacking.

Oliver has trouble with crows eating newly planted corn seed. She uses balloons with scare-eyes to keep them away, but once the corn has sprouted, she takes down the balloons; otherwise the crows get used to them.

Another method to ward off turkeys and some other garden-devouring animals are motion-activated sprinklers. If turkeys are scared away a few times, they aren’t likely to return.

Basically, you need to stay one step ahead of garden pests and put up resistance right away. And you need to keep resisting them for as long as you can. It’s a war out there!

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]


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