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Sharing my garden


by Vicky Barney
There’s something magical about seeing butterflies and hummingbirds feasting on flower nectar, or watching birds foraging for berries.  Observing a bear, moose, or deer browsing on aspen or berries is a real treat.  But when their browsing removes the flowers intended for pollinators or the berries for the birds, or when all the strawberries disappear from the carefully tended patch, the magic is gone. My “gardening for wildlife” strategy needs some work.

Butterfly visiting garden
My yard is surrounded by native shrubs and trees and was an attractive feature when purchasing the house several years ago.  I imagined watching wildlife pass through the yard from one wild space to the next, stopping to nibble aspen volunteers or newly planted native bushes. The plan was to create a place where wildlife would linger, preferably while I was watching.  Red-osier dogwood was planted (deer and elk’s “ice cream bush,” says Karen Vail in Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Southern Rockies), grassy spots were encouraged, and game trail openings were preserved.   Success!  Deer and moose have been observed, sometimes eating and resting for long periods.  Bears have also been observed munching on native berries just beyond the tended yard.

Recently, though, visitors have come through after dark, pruning flowers, pulling up newly planted pansies and devouring my small crop of strawberries covered by bird netting.  They are welcome but I prefer they browse along their path, the one lined with tasty native bushes and flowers.  The wildlife – deer, I presume - have other ideas.

Deer candy
But is it deer in the strawberry patch?  There is no evidence they have browsed there – no prints and no torn leaves.  In fact, the patch looks untouched except for the missing berries.  Early one morning I frightened a flock of birds and realized they are the culprits.  They have learned to pluck the berries out of the netting that deterred them last season, and they have a quick getaway now that the nearby bushes have grown.

The more worrisome browsers in my yard are the deer.  They consume pretty blossoms, leaving behind shorn branches and torn leaves.  To be sure there is enough forage left over for butterflies and birds, I need to make a few changes.

Garden Design - Small modifications in design may discourage undesirable behavior.  For example, cutting back the bushes near the strawberry patch – reducing the birds’ safety zone – may reduce bird activity.  Moving the pansy pots onto the patio may discourage browsing, but some wildlife may to take a liking to the patio.  Another option is to surround pansies and other “deer candy” with less palatable plants.
Sharing the garden
Plant Selection - If hungry enough, wildlife will eat any plant.  There are a number of attractive plants, though, that are rarely browsed.  They include tough xeric plants (black-eyed susans and purple coneflower), fragrant plants (lavender, thyme, and Russian sage), fuzzy plants (lambs ear and lady’s mantle), and spiny or bristly plants (oriental poppies, rugosa roses, and oregon grape).  See CSU Extension Fact Sheet # 6.520 – Preventing Deer Damage for more plant ideas.

Garden management - According to Ruth Rogers Clausen in 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants, gardeners should cut back on nitrogen fertilizer and water, ingredients for a lush and soft garden that deer prefer.  As the weather becomes dryer, deer also seek out moisture in newly watered plants, so irrigation should be timed such that plants are dry before dawn and dusk, times when most browsing occurs. 

Other ways to deter unwanted wildlife included the use of repellents and netting, but they are effective for only for brief periods of time.  Wind chimes and barking dogs may frighten off deer but will likely annoy the neighbors.  Of course, tall fencing is the best deterrent, but not suitable for my yard. 

With a few small changes in design, plant selection, and management, sharing my garden all season with all of nature may be possible. I hope so.

Vicky Barney gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011.


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