Oh deer, what can the matter be?

The lengthy legal wrangle over control measures for Biltmore Forest’s burgeoning white-tail deer population was probably unnecessary. At least that’s my take after reading Solving Deer Problems (The Lyons Press, 2003) by local garden guru Peter Loewer.

“Don’t plant it and they won’t come,” is the major message I gleaned from this comprehensive, highly readable look at deer and the gardens they infest. And for gardeners, “infest” is the operative word: Deer are big, hungry critters with ecumenical tastes. They are known to ravage vegetable or flower gardens and can leap surprising heights and distances to gain access to the goods.

But while deer appetites are wide-ranging, their dislikes apparently also run deep. So the best defense, Loewer explains, is to plant offensively. There are dozens of herbaceous beauties that deer simply refuse to consume; thus, a garden composed entirely of such plants can be both beautiful and left ungnawed. More than one-third of the 218-page text, in fact, is devoted to a carefully explicated list of annuals and perennials, herbs, vegetables, trees and shrubs that deer just won’t eat.

My take on it, then, is that the problem in Biltmore Forest is one of landscape design, not animal incursion.

On the other hand, for gardeners determined to grow what they like, come hell or high antlers, the author also offers other strategies for protecting the homestead. Fencing of various sorts — from low-tech to high — is discussed in detail, with tips on when and where to use each to best effect (and at the lowest cost).

Next in effectiveness are the self-help schemes — usually based on scaring the unwanted visitors. Dogs; electronically triggered bells, whistles and lights; gas exploders; human hair; tankage; soap; meat-eaters’ urine; and a fascinating bamboo “thwank!”-maker all collect their share of credit or skeptical critique. Sometimes they work.

Commercial repellents, says Loewer, are useful up to a point, but they should be regarded as damage-reducers rather than sure cures. The products he lists contain all manner of natural substances, from rotten eggs to coyote urine to blood meal and cayenne pepper; the book also includes information on how to obtain these concoctions by Web or mail order. All of them require more or less frequent reapplication to boost effectiveness.

Loewer’s depth of horticultural knowledge and infectious whimsy lift this book above the usual run of how-to guides. In one chapter, for example, the author (familiar to Xpress readers and WCQS listeners as “The Wild Gardener”) sits down to tea with Henry David Thoreau to discuss groundhogs — with all of Thoreau’s lines lifted verbatim from the Transcendentalist’s published work. Later, Loewer calls on Gort (the robot in the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still), rejecting the famous line “Klaatu barada nikto!” (at least where deer are concerned).

(The author seems to assume that readers will know what that line means and why it fits. I have no clue — but am amused nonetheless.)

Loewer doesn’t entirely confine himself to deer, however. Late in the book, he takes the reader aside to discuss the gardener’s second-most-terrifying enemy: the vole. This voracious herbivore is often confused with the beneficial and carnivorous mole (moles eats grubs — the enemy of my enemy is my friend). Voles, however, eat some part of almost any plant and reproduce like mad: Where there are a few, there will soon be many. The author also takes note of other lesser pests: rabbits, woodchucks and chipmunks, with control suggestions for each.

All in all, this useful and entertaining volume will appeal to any gardener, not just those beset by cloven-hoofed despoilers. And if the Biltmore Forest library doesn’t already have several copies of Solving Deer Problems on hand, they’re missing a sure bet.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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