When I, a novice gardener, first moved to Chapel Hill in 1992, there was no deer problem—and gardening was a blissfully innocent pursuit. Growing roses, hostas, and daylilies took relatively little thought and while we might worry about a rabbit or two, gardening life was really rather simple. Five years later, the equation had changed.
It turned out that my area in downtown Chapel Hill supports a herd of approximately 37 deer. We see the does and fawns all the time but the reclusive males only appear in October and November when sex is in the air. The does and fawns are not only tame, but getting increasingly brazen, no longer limiting their feeding times to dusk and dawn. They know our patterns, know my dogs weigh less than twenty pounds, and that I sleep throughout the night.
Once I figured out why I had no blooms on my rose shrubs, I tried coexisting with the deer. We spread milorganite throughout the rose garden in an effort to repel them. Coyote urine and hanging bars of Irish Spring soap had absolutely no effect. I tried every deer repellant under the sun but nothing kept them from going after my top of the line deer candy: roses, hostas, and daylilies. To give them credit, they left the hellebores, euphorbias, ornamental grasses, English ivy, and the edgeworthias alone. I would have loved it if they had chomped on the English ivy—but my deer were in no mood to help me out. Nothing repelled them on a long-term basis: I simply had too many tame deer.
Daylily season was exhausting. I have lots of daylily cultivars, all collected from Holly Hill Daylily Farm when it was in operation, and even have ‘Kit’s Circus Wagon’, which Jim Massey thoughtfully named after me. One year, despite daily spraying, I saw exactly two blooms. I, who am petrified of guns, even contemplated hiring an armed guard to patrol the garden on a nightly basis—but guns, dead deer, and armed guards in downtown Chapel Hill do not pass muster so I abandoned that idea.
While I pined by daylilies and roses, I wanted to expand my gardening horizons. I wanted hostas, phlox, and sedums. The truth was that I wanted to garden as if it were in the good old days.
My neighbors erected a deer fence, which meant I had even more deer. And then one morning I saw a deer had ripped apart my Sabal minor. Enough, I said, is enough. I made the move, calling my builder to build a fence. Fortunately, the way my house is situated, it was esthetically possible to erect a six feet high wooden fence.
The first year the deer peered through the fence—and then something remarkable happened. They showed no curiosity about the garden, they never jumped the fence, although they could, and we began to experience peaceful coexistence.
I now planted with abandon. The ornamental grasses became fewer in number while my sustainable rose mania grew. Daylilies no longer needed copious applications of deer repellent and I could enjoy their short-lived blooms.
I would love to tell you that everything was perfect—but there was a problem: I now had to use rabbit repellent. As perfect as the fence was, it didn’t keep out the rabbits or the copperheads. Rabbits have an uncontrollable appetite for lilies in particular and I had planted a lot of asiatic and orientpet lilies. I also managed to step on a copperhead, beautifully camouflaged against the pine bark mulch and I crassly decided that I was too old to step on copperheads. So, I called my builder.
This time he lined the bottom third of the wooden fence with a stiff wire mesh, which has effectively kept out the rabbits and snakes. Of course, the polar vortexes of last winter played havoc on many of my lilies but I was delighted to see the climbing aster, Ampelaster carolinianus, a plant beloved by rabbits that I had never seen bloom, making a comeback on the trellis. I no longer worry about my hostas, daylilies, and roses. Now if a plant doesn’t survive, I only have myself to blame.
A serious gardener for the past twenty years, Kit Flynn resides in Chapel Hill. She is also a Durham Master Gardener.