Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Deer in the garden

After a long, snowy and cold winter - we had snow on the ground for six weeks in a row and new residents of this part of Colorado were beginning to ask why it is referred to as the "banana belt," I figured that the Monet's Garden Mesclun lettuce mix I had seeded in last fall was a goner. When we peeled back the row cover the first warm day in March and there were still baby lettuce sprouts alive, I was amazed (thank you, Rene Shepherd for the fabulous seeds!). The Catalina spinach sprouts were actually growing, their dark green and crinkly leaves spread flat on the warm soil surface, but they're tough. I expect them to survive the winter. The survival of lettuce sprouts through nighttime lows down to minus twenty came under the heading of miraculous, and I thought they'd made it through the worst.

As the warm days grew longer, the lettuces began to grow, their leaves lengthening from thumbnail-size to something more visible, and their distinctive shapes and colors beginning to emerge.

Monday, five weeks we uncovered them, fist-sized lettuce heads packed a whole section of my kitchen garden in a beautiful variety of colors and forms - dark red oakleaf lettuces with their leaves sticking out at all angles, tight red-tipped heads of cupped leaves, pale green heads with crinkly leaves, dark green oval leaves curled together. They were gorgeous, and almost ready to harvest. I picked a pound and a quarter of Catalina spinach leaves from the section of the bed next to the lettuce, and said to myself, I'll pick the lettuce tomorrow.

Wrong. That night under an almost-full moon, two mule deer visited our garden, hopping up onto the bench-high raised beds and strolling about, munching what pleased them. Tuesday morning, we found a trail of delicate twin-hoofed prints pressed into the moist soil, the naked stalks where they'd nibbled the strawberry leaves, the nipped-off pea sprouts, and the chewed remains of lettuce heads where my thriving Monet's Garden Mesclun patch had been.

I refuse to fence my garden - fences are ugly, and dangerous to the other wildlife I regard as neighbors. Deer repellents aren't very useful on food plants, but I've had success with other deer-discouragement measures: I plant smelly herbs at the ends of the rows of my garden, which keeps the deer away once the herbs have grown large enough, and I use loose pea gravel on the paths (the deer won't walk there because the gravel makes too much noise underfoot). In early spring though, the deer can jump right up onto the garden beds. Last night, my husband, Richard, figured out how to outwit them: put the winter row covers back over the beds at night. This morning: no deer prints in the garden. Too bad we didn't think of that out before they ate the lettuce.

By the way, writer Bobbi Chukran's featuring deer in her garden blog too. Hers is cuter, and not eating her garden - yet!

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