For the Love of Iris

Iris ‘Stairway to Heaven’

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I fell in love with Iris as a child.  My parents accepted a gift of Iris rhizomes from a retired friend, who happened to hybridize and grow German bearded Iris.  Dad came home one summer evening with his trunk loaded with paper grocery bags, each containing the mud caked rhizomes his friend had dug and discarded from his working garden.  He needed to repurpose the  space for his new seedlings.

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I’ve been searching for those intensely colored and perfumed Iris cultivars I remember from childhood. This is one of the closest I’ve found.  Iris ‘Medici Prince’ available from Brecks.com

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My mother looked at the sheer volume of gifted plants. A conversation followed about what to do with them all.  And then, Dad started digging.  He dug long borders in our sunny Danville, Virginia back yard.  Full sun and good loam were just what those Iris needed.

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The first spring after that, we were all speechless at the absolute beauty of them.  And the fragrance!  I don’t know whether my parents’ friend was selecting for fragrance, but these were the most fragrant flowers my young nose had ever discovered.

The colors of these special Iris ranged from white to intense reds and nearly black shades of purple.  They bloomed orange and pink and many shades of blue.  I was smitten, and have loved Iris since the day these Iris first bloomed in our back yard.

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When we moved, a few years later, we labeled the Iris by color while they were in bloom so we could dig some of each variety.  Back into grocery bags, we carried this legacy to our new home.  The new place had a shadier yard, and yet we set to work digging a new Iris bed, even while still unpacking boxes and settling into the house.

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I. ‘Echo Location’

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That began a new ritual around our family’s moving.  Each time after, we would try to dig and move as many Iris as we could.  As each of us left home, and our parents aged, that became a little more challenging with each move.

Even though I dug divisions for each of my gardens over the years, we still lost many of the cultivars along the way.

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But I never lost my enthusiasm for growing Iris.  And when I learned about re-blooming German bearded Iris a few years back, I began collecting and digging new beds for Iris in sunny spots in our Forest Garden.  I bought several varieties from local breeder Mike Lockatelle, and have ordered others from online catalogs.  Now, it is as common for us to enjoy Iris in bloom in November or December as it is to enjoy them in May.

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‘Rosalie Figge’ remains my favorite of our re-blooming Iris.

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We now grow many types of Iris, ranging from the earliest winter blooming cultivars which grow only a few inches tall, to our beautiful Bearded Iris which may grow to 4′ if they are happy.  We plant a few more each year.  There is a shallow pool filled with bright yellow flag Iris in our front yard, inherited with the garden.

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A master gardener friend gave me divisions of an antique variety of bearded Iris grown in Colonial Williamsburg, and all over this area, from her own garden.  Other friends have also given us beautiful gifts of Iris over the years, and each remains special to me.  The blooming Iris remind me of friendships and loved ones; other times and places in my life.

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The ‘Williamsburg Iris’ is an antique variety found growing around Colonial Williamsburg, and in private gardens throughout our area.  Ours were a gift from a Williamsburg Master Gardener friend.

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Iris can be grown successfully and enjoyed even if you have deer grazing in your garden.  Deer will not bother them.  This is one of the reasons why we find Iris to be a good investment.  They grow quickly, and can be easily divided and spread around the garden.  They pay amazing dividends as they get better and better each year.

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Iris can be easy to grow, if you can give them hot, sunny space to spread. They are heavy feeders and perform best when grown in rich soil and are fed once or twice a year.  But without sun and space, many varieties will just fizzle out. Make sure bearded Iris get at least six hours of direct sun; more if possible.

Iris want soil that drains after a rain.  Most established Iris can tolerate fairly dry soil after they bloom, which makes them a good selection for hot climates, like ours.  Japanese Iris and Louisiana Iris species require moist soil year round, and are happy growing in standing water.

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Winter blooming Iris histrioides in January

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Sometimes, their foliage will die back; but the roots remain alive and ready to grow new leaves when conditions improve.  I was very pleasantly surprised to find these beautiful miniature Iris growing this spring.

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Iris cristata ‘Vein Mountain’ is available from Plantdelights.com. This is a North American native Crested Woodland Iris.

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I though we had lost them during last summer’s drought, when they disappeared.  I’m still waiting for our Iris pallida ‘Variegata’ to reappear, which struggled last summer, too.

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Dutch Iris, always fun to cut for a vase, grow each spring and then, like so many other bulbs, die back.  They come in an amazing array of colors and can be ordered for pennies a bulb.

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Dutch Iris can be planted alongside bearded Iris to extend the season.

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Showy Louisiana Iris don’t have a place in our garden.  They grow best with their roots always wet, usually at the edge of a pond.  I admire them, but don’t have the right conditions to grow them.  But I am always happy to grab a shovel and make a spot for more bearded Iris. 

I’ve been moving Iris around my parents’ garden, the last few years, to bring shaded plants out into the sun.  I hope to salvage and increase what is left of their collection. We are enjoying the fruits of that effort this week, as they have gorgeous Iris blooming here and there around their home.

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These yellow flag Iris grow wild along marshes and creeks in our area, as well as in our garden. They go on year after year with minimal care and maximum beauty.

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We discussed plans for a new Iris bed when I was there last weekend.  While I’m moving them, I plan to cull a few divisions for myself, too.  And, I will take them a few roots from our garden, too.

Sharing is one of the nicest things about growing Iris.  No matter how many roots you give away, more will grow.  Each division of rhizome needs at least one leaf and root.  Plant the division in amended soil, with the top of the rhizome visible.

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Siberian Iris

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Cover all roots well with good earth, and mulch lightly around the newly planted roots, without covering the exposed rhizome.  Water the plant in, and then keep the soil moist until new growth appears.  I feed our Iris Espoma Rose Tone each spring when I feed the roses.  A light application of dolomitic lime or Epsom salts makes for stronger, faster growth.

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This Iris, ‘Secret Rites,’ was new to the garden last year.

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Once each flower blooms and collapses, gently cut it away from the main stem.  A single stem may carry 5 or 6 buds, each opening at a slightly different time.

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I. ‘Immortality’

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Once all of the buds have finished, cut the stem back to its base.  Remove browned or withered leaves a few times each year, as needed.  With a minimal investment of effort, Iris give structure to the garden year round.

And when they bloom, oh, the fragrance and color they give…..

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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Soil Security

Saxifraga stolonifera, Strawberry Begonia

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Gardens offer endless surprises and seemingly endless challenges.  One hopes to discover most of the challenges in the first year or two.  Better to address them right off and be done with it, right?  But that’s not how this business works…. things change….

Ours is a very steep property.  Our bit of James City County spreads across ridges and ravines.  We happen to live and garden on the slope of a ravine.  Water drains down across the yard to a creek running through the ravine, which flows to a pond and then out to College Creek.   Managing all of that water during a heavy rain remains a challenge for us.

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This area suffers serious erosion in heavy rain, and is frequented by voles.  It is hard to get anything much to grow here.  We have just added the stones to offer some protection and planted a dozen seedling Hellebores to help hold the bank.

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Our county’s division of  storm water management staff advise:  “Plant more plants!”  I take that advice to heart, regularly, and have struck up a working relationship with one of the staffers.  They work with the local Master Gardeners to help homeowners design rain gardens to catch some of the run-off after a heavy rain, and offer grants for those who install them.

I like that proactive, cooperative approach.  This spring, I’ve done a bit of reading about how to construct a rain garden.  And one of the first things I realized is that steeply sloping land isn’t a very good place to site one, unless you are prepared for a major project of earth moving and engineering to construct a berm on the down slope side.

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This was our steep, eroding slope before our work began this spring.

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As I thought about rain gardens, and walked our property looking for a place to catch run off and use it in a new planting bed, my partner pointed out a new erosion problem on the very shaded and inaccessible slope beside and below our driveway.

This is an area we’ve largely neglected over the years.  Towering, mature Ligustrum shrubs cast deep shade across this slope.  Their leaves drop here year round, and the ground has been covered in a tangle of Vinca vines and wild growth.  Where there is bare earth, it has been covered with fallen leaves. I planted  some Mahonia and Hydrangea in this area when we first took over the garden, and they have expanded, but never bloomed.

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Daffodils have replaced Caladiums here at the base of our driveway, where a great deal of water runs off when it rains.  An Autumn fern has thrived here for five years or more, and I decided to expand the planting last summer.

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But last summer, I began clearing some of this strip, nearer to the drive, and planted it in Caladiums, Zantedeschia, Ajuga, Oxalis, some transplanted Liriope and a few ferns.  We enjoyed it enough that when we dug the Caladiums in October I planted Daffodils and Arum in their place.

Below this planted area, we noticed a new area of erosion a few weeks ago.  Storm water had found its way into a vole tunnel, and a whole piece of the bank had collapsed.  There was a gorge, partially filled with leaves and other debris.  Finding that bit of erosion sealed the deal that we would invest our time, energy, and gardening dollars in fixing this neglected, and now crumbling, bit of the garden.

Too steep for a single ‘rain garden,’ we decided to create several terraces to catch and slow the flow of water down the slope, directing the run-off from one planted area to another.  We found several Rhododendron shrubs to anchor each terrace, and planted the first right into that nasty gorge to stabilize it.  We found some sturdy trapezoidal concrete blocks for building the terraces.  They fit together snugly to make a secure wall.  We installed the first ones below that Rhododendron to hold it in place.

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The first Rhododendron we planted to stabilize a gorge caused by erosion over a vole tunnel. We planted in the hole and stabilized the area with two concrete blocks.

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We trimmed up the lowest Ligustrum branches to let in light and make the area more accessible and raked back the leaves and debris.  Then, we studied the area for several days to decide where to place our blocks to form natural terraces.

After building the terraces, and planting three more of the shrubs, I began filling each terrace with plants.   I selected a variety of perennials which will thrive in shade, tolerate a lot of moisture, hold and cover the soil by spreading, put down extensive root systems, and stop voles with their poisonous roots. Oh, and did I mention they also must repel deer?

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The terraces before today’s torrential rain.

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Remember our mantra:  “Plant more plants!”  It was going to take a lot of plants to fill these spaces.  Luckily, we have a pretty steady supply now of a few perennials which fill these criteria.  They are ours to dig, divide, and transplant as needed.

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Divisions of Strawberry Begonia transplanted from another part of our garden. Each division will send out numerous stems, with a tiny plant growing at the tip of each.  They will form a thick mat over time. 

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I was able to transplant Hellebore seedlings, Ajuga and Saxifraga stolonifera in nearly unlimited quantities from other parts of the garden.  The Hellebores have  poisonous roots, and so I planted them around each of the Rhododendrons to protect their roots from curious voles.  I also planted them below the lowest row of blocks to form an additional vegetative barrier for any run-off.

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This Rhododendron is ringed with seedling Hellebores.

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I purchased holly ferns, Japanese painted ferns and Autumn Brilliance fern.  Although the Japanese painted ferns aren’t evergreen, they spread wonderfully and give about 7 months of presence here.  I also purchased some little 2″ Columbine and Heuchera and a couple of quart sized Tiarella .

I prefer to buy the smallest pots of perennials I can find to  minimize the size of the holes we must dig.  Living on a slope, we dig as little as possible.

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Tiarella is a shade loving native perennial which runs and spreads over time. It blooms each spring, feeding hungry pollinators early in the season. It resembles Heuchera, but proves more deer resistant.

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Heuchera is the only perennial in our palette for this new bed which may be grazed from time to time.  I am willing to take the chance for its beautiful foliage.  The rest of these plants have already proven themselves in our garden and I have confidence in using them here.  They are tough and thrive in our climate and soil.

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Heuchera ‘Melting Fire’ and Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ anchor the end of this terrace. I will add Caladiums next month when the weather is settled.

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And this was surprisingly good soil!  While we have clay in other parts of the garden, this was good, rich dirt.  Although I had stocked up on compost, I was able to build these beds without adding a great deal.

The key to planting on sloping ground is a good gravel mulch.  We’ve learned over the years to minimize digging, top dress and even out the ground with compost, and then mulch heavily with gravel. Finally, we pack this all down firmly with hands and feet.

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Columbine and Tiarella anchor this terrace. Two tiny lady ferns, grown from bare root starts, will one day flourish in this moist bed.

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We discovered that the first gardener on this property often used a large stone or hunk of concrete or brick to anchor shrubs he planted on slopes.  I’ve followed his lead and often anchor a newly planted shrub or perennial with something heavy to hold it in place until it establishes.

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Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ will eventually grow to three feet. This evergreen fern has interesting spring color on new growth. We have anchored it with stones as it sits at the top of the slope.

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We’ve been working on this new area over the past week or so.  We have been trying to fix the erosion ahead of the heavy weather forecast for this week.  The rains have shown us the weak spots, and where more work was required.  We had to go back and re-pack the area around the first Rhodie’s roots, for example.  And we also placed some stones above it to divert the flow of water around it from the slope above.

A front came through mid-day today, with torrential rain, about an hour after I finished the last of the planting and gravel mulch.  We were pleased that the terraces held.

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Additional erosion after today’s rain left roots exposed. It showed us additional engineering was needed where water pours off of the driveway.  The terra cotta pots helped anchor plastic bags to protect the Hydrangea on the right during freezing weather in March.  It is slowly recovering and finally pushing out new leaves.

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There were only a few spots of erosion, and only one Hellebore partially washed out on a terrace this time.  But the path along this slope was badly eroded.  Ligustrum roots were exposed where the path was washing away.

We studied the path the water took from driveway to ravine, noted where the gravel had washed out, and re-engineered parts of the project.  Translation: Back to Lowes for more concrete blocks, a few more bags of gravel and a bag of topsoil.

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Additional engineering should slow the run-off flowing into the path from heavy rain.  My partner placed the blocks to divert the water’s flow.  We’ve added topsoil and gravel over the Ligustrum’s exposed roots in the path.  Sadly, some daffies may be sacrificed in the process….

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We aren’t quite sure why the erosion on this bank suddenly got worse in the last year.  We must have made some small change in how the water flows, without even realizing it, when I planted the Caladiums last summer.  But whatever the cause, the problem was getting worse with each heavy rain.

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“Soil security”

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When you live on a slope, stable soil is a measure of security as heavy weather blows through.

We’ve created terraced beds throughout the garden, planted lots of shrubs and perennials, and dumped hundreds of bags of pea gravel on this property over the years.   We rarely visit our favorite garden center without adding a bag or two of gravel or compost to our order. It is an investment in holding the soil in place and keeping our home’s foundation stable.

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We trust that these new terraced beds, and the reinforced path we’ve created for water to flow down our sloping garden, will meet the challenge of heavy rain and the run-off it generates.  But more than that, we trust they will grow into beautiful additions which bring us many years of enjoyment.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

 

Note: I don’t often like to show parts of our garden that aren’t ‘beautiful.’   We have a lot of rough edges here in our Forest Garden.  It is a work in progress. I hope the techniques we use to hold the slope and garden on uneven land will help others trying to garden in similar circumstances.

I’ll show you this bed again as the plants grow in.  We trust that it will soon be one of our most beautiful areas, filled with photo-worthy foliage and flowers.  We expect it will attract the attention of our turtles, lizards and toads as the season progresses, too.  

For the Daily Post’s

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Security

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Columbine

 

 

Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’

Helleborus argutifolius

Helleborus argutifolius “Snow Fever’ still in its nursery pot.

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Here is a tasty treat for Helleborus lovers: H. ‘Snow Fever.’ 

Known as a Corsican Lenten Rose, this beauty isn’t as cold hardy as some Lenten Rose varieties.  Its parents are native to the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica, and it is rated for USDA zones 6-9.

The Helleborus argutifolius varieties may also be termed Corsican Hellebore or even holly leaf Hellebore.  They are large, bold plants with evergreen leaves which persist year round.  These leaves are thick, with toothed edges; but may grow tattered in severe winter winds and weather.  This beautiful H. ‘Snow Fever’ has variegated foliage with a touch of dark red on its stems and the edges of the leaves.  It is a lovely plant, even right out of the pot, and I was delighted to find it last week at a local garden center.

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Hellebores have found their way into my gardener’s heart because they not only look good year round, but they give a good long season of bloom when little else is actively growing, let alone blooming in our garden!  We already have flower buds on a few of our Helleborus plants, believe it or not.

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Helleborus already in bud this autumn in our garden.

Helleborus already in bud this autumn in our garden.

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Though most come into bloom sometime in February or March here, some bloom right through from late autumn until spring.  Our last Hellebores stop pumping out flowers sometime in late April or May.

Corsican Helleborus is known for its abundant clusters of  green flowers.  But this hybrid promises white flowers, with a shadow of green and lovely pink edges to each petal.  It will grow to around 12″ tall, a bit short for the species, but will expand to a wide clump of around 15″.

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Mid-March 2015

Mid-March 2015

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I’ve come to love growing Hellebores in pots surrounded with bulbs and Violas.  Sometimes I’ll tuck in an evergreen vine.  But these pots look good and remain in dynamic growth all through winter.  The plants still look good through the summer months long after the bulbs have died back and the Violas have finished.  Last summer I simply moved my best pot into the shade and planted some Caladium tubers around the Hellebore, and had a nice display through most of the summer.

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July 2016

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Alternatively,  if I want the pot for something else in late spring;  I’ll move a Helleborus out of its pot and into the ground where it can sink its roots into a permanent home.

These are close to ‘care-free’ perennials.  First, deer and rabbits won’t bother them.  Their leaves are not only tough, they are poisonous.  Every part of a Helleborus is poisonous, so they make a nice underground ‘fence’ of roots if you want to protect an area from voles or moles.

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But Hellebores also prove drought tolerant, tolerate mediocre soil, have few disease issues, need only annual pruning of older leaves, and tend to keep going year after year.  Although common advice dictates they grow best in shade, I’ve had a few keep going strong through the summer in nearly full sun.  That was a pleasant surprise!

The main drawback, for most Helleborus cultivars, is that their leaves aren’t that spectacular.  We grow them for their flowers and as a dependable ground cover plant.  As much as we gardeners love the flowers, pollinators depend on them as an important food source.  These flowers are ready to greet the first of the bees and other insects each year.

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Hellebores

Hellebores given to us as seedlings by a gardening friend.

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But just look at this beauty!  What unusual and eye-catching leaves!

My first one went into a favorite white pot which held geraniums all summer.  The geranium held out through the first frost, and so I rewarded it by re-potting it and bringing it into the garage for the winter.  I like spunky, tough plants!

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I’ve not finished dressing this pot yet, because I want to pick up a few Muscari bulbs to sink into the soil around the Helleborus’s roots before I finish it off with either moss or gravel.  At the moment, there is a bit of Creeping Jenny and  a few Viola starts taking root, which will soon begin to fill the pot with flowers.

I bought a second H. ‘Snow Fever’  on Saturday, and have now planted it in the huge pot where C. ‘Tea Cups’ grew all summer in the front garden.  The Colocasia’s roots will overwinter in a smaller pot indoors, waiting for their chance to head back outdoors next April.

I’ll find a permanent spot for both H. ‘Snow Fever’ in the garden in the spring;  but for now, I want to really enjoy them, up close and featured in  pots.

I’ve surrounded the second one with some starts of Ajuga ‘Black Scallop,’ some Creeping Jenny vines, and the Daffodil bulbs I left in the pot  last spring.  The Ajuga will keep growing all winter, give blue flowers in early spring, and end up transplanted into a garden bed in early summer.

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February 2016

February 2016

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I expect these two pots to give us a great deal of joy over these next few months.  You’ll probably see lots of photos of these special Hellebores as they grow and eventually bloom.

If you love Hellebores,  or are curious to know more about them, I recommend the excellent and beautifully illustrated article in the December Gardens Illustrated on new Helleborus cultivars.  Gardens Illustrated is an UK magazine, but is absolutely the best source for information on plants and horticulture I’ve found.  It doesn’t matter that it is UK based, as much of the information translates just fine to our East coast USA garden!  I like it even better than Fine Gardening, which also offers solid information and advice on garden design, and is based here in the United States.

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February 2016 Hellebores grow here with Autumn 'Brilliance' fern, which also remain evergreen through our winters.

February 2016 Hellebores grow here with Autumn ‘Brilliance’ fern, which also remain evergreen through our winters. Some of the Helleborus foliage shows wind and cold burn, and these older leaves should be removed in early spring to make room for new growth. 

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This is the time of year to shop for Hellebores.  You may not find any blooming, but you will definitely find them available in many garden centers in December.  They are pricey, and named cultivars generally have been grown on in greenhouses for at least a couple of years from tissue culture.  Variegated cultivars, like H. ‘Snow Fever’ may not be easy to find in all parts of the country.  But if you live in Zone 6 or warmer, you might want to try ordering from an online source to give this beautiful plant a try.

To simply get started with Hellebores, though, find a friend or  neighbor who has a patch growing in their garden, and ask whether they might like your help in thinning them.  Hellebores seed their offspring generously, and many gardeners are happy to share seedlings.  You may have to wait a season to see them bloom, but the wait is well worth the reward.

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Hellebores

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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Milorganite Update: Remarkable Success!

An Hydrangea brought as a cutting from our last garden, has been grazed each year in this one... until this spring.

This Hydrangea, brought as a cutting from our last garden, has been grazed each year in this one… until this spring.  Might it finally bloom this summer?

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The early results of our experiment in using Milorganite as a deterrent for deer remain all positive.  A month on, we haven’t seen a single deer in our garden since applying Milorganite in early April.  We haven’t seen a deer, a hoof print, deer droppings, or any damage to the tastiest of our plants.

This is absolutely remarkable!  Spring has proven one of the busiest seasons for deer breaking through our fences and into the garden, right as tasty and tender new foliage emerges.  Damage done in these crucial first few weeks of the growing season has stunted growth and marred the beauty of plants for the entire season… in past years.

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Deer stripped this struggling little Camellia of all its leaves this past March. It happens once or twice each year, yet the Camellia hangs on. New leaves have begun to emerge from its naked stems.

Deer stripped this struggling little Camellia of all its leaves in March. It happens once or twice each year, yet the Camellia hangs on.  New leaves have finally begun to emerge from its naked stems. 

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Deer pressure in the garden increased during the last two weeks of March.  A tea rose was nibbled back to its canes the day after I pruned away the Lantana skeleton protecting it.  All those early leaves and tiny buds simply gone overnight.  That was what pushed us into accepting the counsel of other gardeners to at least experiment with Milorganite.

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This four year old R. 'Pope John Paul II' was grazed within a day when I cut back the Lantana in early March. Protected by Milorganite, it is recovering and has a few flower buds.

This four year old R. ‘Pope John Paul II’ was grazed within a day, in early March, when I cut back the Lantana growing around it. Protected by Milorganite, it is recovering now and even has a few flower buds.

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Milorganite, or Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen, is the heated and pelletized remains from the city of Milwaukee’s sewage treatment plant.  See why I was reluctant to try it?  But it was much easier and more pleasant to use than the various deer repellent sprays I’ve tried over our years in this garden.  I wanted to simply hold my breath while using most of the sprays we’ve tried!

Milorganite is a clean looking, grey material made of tiny dry pellets; much like Osmacote or pelletized lime.  There is no dust or obvious odor to my human nose.

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Wearing gardening gloves, I simply scooped it and broadcast spread it using a discarded plastic food container.  I made a 4′ perimeter along the inside of our fence line, and added an extra stripe of it in the plantings along our street and along our drive.

I also spread it around specific shrubs which need protecting, as added insurance, and in areas we’ve seen deer moving through the garden in past years.

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We spread a double stripe of Milorganite on both the streetside, and the garden side of our deer fences nearest the street.

We spread a double stripe of Milorganite on both the street side, and the garden side of our deer fences nearest the street.  We have Azaleas, native blueberries  and Oak Leaf Hydrangeas to protect in this area.

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I used the entire 36 lb. bag, which is advertised to cover around 2500 square feet.  This was a huge bargain:  We bought the bag at Lowes for under $13.00.  If you’ve paid top dollar for animal repellent sprays then you know a single bottle can cost twice that amount!

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Our Hostas have emerged beautifully this spring. I simply abandoned this part of the garden last season due to pressure from deer crossing through the fence and grazing heavily here.

Our Hostas have emerged beautifully this spring. I simply abandoned this part of the garden last season due to pressure from deer crossing through the fence and grazing heavily here.

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Now, we wondered whether the Milorganite would repel other mammalian visitors to our garden.  Since spreading it, we’ve continued to see rabbits munching on the front lawn and squirrels running about.  But the squirrels already had nests high up in our garden’s trees.  The rabbits were grazing in areas where I hadn’t broadcast the repellent.  We haven’t found any plants damaged by their grazing.

The number of vole tunnels we’ve found this spring has dropped dramatically, too.  Several factors have helped control the voles, particularly the many Daffodils and Hellebores we’ve planted throughout the garden in recent years.  But we’ll assume that perhaps they are avoiding ground treated with Milorganite, too.

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This little Oakleaf Hydrangea, with ferns and bulbs, gets grazed once or twice a year. So far the Milorganite has protected it this spring.

This little Oakleaf Hydrangea, with ferns and bulbs, gets grazed once or twice a year.  The Milorganite has protected it this spring.

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And we’ve been delighted to see new growth on the rose which pushed us over the edge.  It has covered itself in foliage and formed new buds over the last month.  Other roses, heavily grazed in past years, are growing happily this spring.  Covered in buds, they have actually bulked up a little!

Little Azalea shrubs, planted by previous owners of our garden, show signs of recovery, too.  Grazed to their stems over the past few years, they have been barely holding on.  But new growth is bursting forth this spring, and many of them bloomed.

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Hydrangea, Azaleas and Rhododendrons grow in the open Connie Hansen Garden in Lincoln City, OR. Deer have free run of this garden.

Hydrangea, Azaleas and Rhododendrons grow in the open Connie Hansen Garden in Lincoln City, OR.  Deer have free run of this garden.

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We realize that deer, and their fawns, form habits in early spring for where to go each day to graze.  We believe that keeping them out of our garden in these first few months of spring will help them learn to avoid visiting us during the remainder of the year.

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I surround roses and other tasty treats with fragrant herbs, which generally protect them. This baby rose grows protected by chocolate mint.

I surround roses, and other tasty treats, with fragrant herbs, which give some protection from grazing deer. This baby rose grows protected by chocolate mint.

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Deer are actually quite intelligent and resourceful.  And so we opted to re-apply another bag of Milorganite this past week.  Even though we expect an application to last between 6 and 8 weeks based on our reading, we decided to go over the perimeter and the critical areas once again after only 4 weeks.

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The wider view shows Violas also untouched this spring.

The wider view shows Violas also untouched this spring.

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We’ve had a lot of rain, and we didn’t want to take any chance that the scent would weaken and a few deer might slip in.  We probably won’t apply it again until late June or early July.

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The first rose we planted here in 2010, this shrub rose has been grazed repeatedly. In rare years we actually see it bloom. This year it hasn't been touched by grazing and so is bulking up.

The first rose we planted here in 2010, this English shrub rose has been grazed repeatedly. In rare years we actually see it bloom. This year it hasn’t been touched by grazing and so is finally growing a bit.

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But we will continue our integrated approach to discouraging deer in the garden.  Not only will we monitor our perimeter deer fences, but I still plan to plant fragrant herbs throughout the garden.  I picked up a selection of scented Pelargoniums this weekend to plant near our smaller roses, along with Basil and Lavender.

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Pelargonium 'Skeleton Rose' has lovely scent and foliage. Rarely hardy for us, I search it out again each spring.

Pelargonium ‘Skeleton Rose’ has lovely scent and foliage. Rarely hardy for us, I search it out again each spring.

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And we continue adding plants with poisonous leaves and stems, which deer won’t graze anyway.  As awful as that might sound, many of our favorite ornamental plants, like Caladiums, Daffodils and Hellebores are poisonous from leaf to root.

Other favorites have leaves deer don’t care to eat.  Lamb’s Ears, or  Stachys byzantina, most ferns, Lantana, Comphrey, Geraniums, Iris and other garden favorites have leaves with objectionable textures and scents which deer leave strictly alone.  Many ornamentals can be planted in safety no matter how many deer visit one’s garden.

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Ferns and Hellebores won't be bothered by deer.... ever.

Ferns and Hellebores won’t be bothered by deer…. ever.  Here, transplanted seedlings of Hellebore surround a newly planted Maidenhair fern.

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I walked around the garden last week admiring this spring’s growth.  All of our Hostas have emerged and are growing undamaged.  Roses and Azaleas grow ungrazed.  Our beautiful Oak Leaf Hydrangeas are bulking up undamaged, for the first time ever.  Perennials continue waking from their winter’s rest, wildflowers bloom and even the low-hanging branches and fruit on our pear tree have gone untouched.  (Deep contented sigh….)

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Daylily emerges in this bed each spring, but rarely has the chance to bloom. So far the new leaves remain untouched.

Daylily emerges in this bed each spring, but rarely has the chance to bloom. So far the new leaves remain untouched.  Apple mint runs among the Columbines, Iris, Daffodils, ferns and Vinca minor.

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I overheard some of the volunteer gardeners discussing deer damage to new plantings at the Connie Hansen Garden, when I was in Oregon last month.  I didn’t admit to eavesdropping by breaking into their conversation; I’m shy that way most times.  Deer roam freely in their neighborhood, and the split rail fences around the garden present no obstacle to the deer at all.  They were discussing what a particularly damaging spring it has been for their garden.  But I wanted to interject, “Have you tried Milorganite?” 

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Epimedium grows this spring in one of our 'stump gardens.'

Epimedium grows this spring  with Salvia and Hellebore in one of our ‘stump gardens.’

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With the zeal of a recent convert, I’d like to share our success with everyone plagued by deer in their gardens.  Finally, at long last, we seem to have found a product which effectively repels deer; excludes them, actually, long term.  It is working thus far for us, and I hope others with deer problems will soon try it, too.  Please leave a comment if you have experience with Milorganite, or another product which protects your garden from grazing deer.

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May 2, 2016 garden 015

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Because beyond the obvious benefits to our plants, the most exciting benefit has been for the gardeners:  We haven’t found a single tick since our first Milorganite application in early April.  In fact, I’ve had only one tick bite this entire year, and that was in mid-March.  My partner hasn’t had any, despite the many hours we’ve both spent outside in recent weeks.

Keeping deer out of our garden has kept ticks out of the garden, too.

May our good fortune continue….

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May 2, 2016 garden 046~

Woodland Gnome 2016

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May 2, 2016 garden 048

Our Latest Experiment: Milorganite

Connie Hansen Garden, Lincoln City Oregon

The Connie Hansen Garden, in Lincoln City, Oregon, where deer roam freely through the beach front community.  This beautiful garden remains open to the public – and the deer- year round.

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A friend and neighbor, allies in our battle against hungry deer, first mentioned Milorganite several years back.  I’d never heard of the stuff.  She said she was trying it as a deer deterrent with some success.

She and her partner garden on one of the most exposed water front lots in our part of the community.  We collaborated together on our list of deer resistant plants, but I never followed up on her suggestion to try Milorganite.  Now I wish we had…..milorganite

A year or so later, a Gloucester based landscaper suggested it to me again.  He recommended creating a barrier around one’s entire garden by broadcasting a 3′-4′ wide strip of the smelly stuff around the perimeter of any area you need to protect.  He swore deer wouldn’t cross it.  Sounded like a good idea; which I filed away to explore in more detail later.

Meanwhile, our personal battle to protect our garden from the deer continues.  It’s not just the plants we want to protect from their grazing.  Deer carry ticks, and ticks carry Lyme’s disease and other nasty infections.  We’ve both had several bites over the years followed by expensive visits to the doctor, tests, and prescriptions.

Lyme’s disease is one of those infections one never truly gets over; it can linger in the body and flare up later in unexpected ways.  It changes people’s lives in unpleasant ways; another reason to stay away from deer and ticks.  We figured this out, of course, only after we fell in love with the community  and bought our little forest garden.  We’ve learned a great deal since then.

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August 27, 2014 Parkway 021

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After nearly seven years of finding ways to foil the deer, a few somehow still slip into the garden from time to time.  And once in, they find tasties to nibble while spreading ticks and leaving their little ‘gifts.’   We’ve both had ticks latch onto us this spring, already.

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By mid-August of 2014 surrounding shrubs shade the actual raised bed..

By mid-August, our garden grows in with plenty of temptations for grazing deer.

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But a casual conversation with one of the garden experts at Lowes, earlier this week, reminded me of Milorganite.  She gardens on the Northern Neck, along the Piankatank River slightly north of Williamsburg.  And she contends with herds of deer, too.  She highly recommended Milorganite as a deer repellent in the garden.

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August 7, 2014 garden 040

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Now, before we go any further in this story, I need to share with you our real reason for avoiding Milorganite all these years.  I was all set to try it years ago until we learned its true nature:  municipal sewage sludge.  Somehow we just didn’t want to spread dried sewage all around our garden, despite its potential benefits.

Since 1926, the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has processed the sludge from its sewage treatment plant to produce a 5-2-0 natural fertilizer known as Milorganite. Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen” was devised to reduce material in landfills while recycling this natural source of nitrogen as a safe fertilizer for lawns, golf courses, and agriculture.  The dried sewage is heat dried to kill bacteria and other pathogens, then pelletized to produce an easy to apply, dust free organic fertilizer.  But all the processing doesn’t completely remove the odor, which is why Milorganite repels deer.

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Rose scented Geranium

Rose scented geranium has proven a more pleasant deer repellent than sprays.  We plant scented Pelargoniums all around the garden to protect tasty shrubs and perennials.  They also repel mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects.

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If you’ve bought a spray bottle of deer repellent lately, you know it’s very pricey.  Whether you buy Plantskydd , Repells- All, or some other product; you make an investment which often washes away in the next thunderstorm.

After resisting Milorganite these last few years, we finally decided to try it earlier this week.  The little guys have been slipping through our ‘deer fences’ and have already grazed some favorite roses and Camellias just as they leafed out this spring.  We are weary of chasing them out of the garden with no clue as to how they get in or out….

A 36 pound bag of Milorganite, enough to treat 2500 square feet, was only around $13.00 at Lowes.  On Monday afternoon we decided to give it a try, and bought a bag. Produced as a ‘slow release’ fertilizer, it lasts a long time before it completely dissolves into the soil.  How long will it work for us?  That is part of our experiment….

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April 5, 2016 070

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I suited up in my usual garden ‘get up,’ covered head to toe, with hat and gloves; and broadcast the first strip of Milorganite along our street.  Using a recycled plastic quart food container, I shook a light application in the spaces between our shrubs, and especially around the Camellias, from the pavement back to our deer fence behind the shrubs.

It wasn’t bad, really.  It didn’t smell as bad as the sprays we use, and was so much easier to apply.  Our single bag proved sufficient to broadcast a 4′ perimeter around our entire garden, and also to make barriers around vulnerable beds of Azaleas, roses, Hydrangeas, and perennials.  I laid a stripe everywhere we know the deer frequent in our garden.

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Azaleas once filed our front garden. In recent years, a growing herd of deer graze on what little remains.

Azaleas once filed our front garden. In recent years, a growing herd of deer graze on what little remains.

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Although the University of Georgia has published studies on Milorganite as a deer repellent, it isn’t marketed as one.  Its use to repel animals is a ‘word of mouth’ sort of thing between gardeners.  And how long a single application will last depends on any number of variables.  We plan to spread it again by the middle of June, then again in September.  Based on what we’ve read, it should last close to 90 days during the growing season.

Now we watch and wait.  My daydreams of full, lush Azalea shrubs and un-grazed roses may finally come true.  Our hopes to finally watch our Hostas mature, un-nibbled and full, may be realized this year.  Faith, hope and love wax strongest in a gardener’s heart in early spring, before realities set in.

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June 21 Lanai 022~

I’ll let you know how it works, of course.  If Milorganite performs as well as other gardeners have promised, we might actually plant a few vegetables later in the season with hope to harvest a cucumber or two!  I’m curious to learn whether it deters squirrels, rabbits, voles, and other mammals, in addition to deer.  If it does, we will use it faithfully from now on.

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May 15, 2015 roses 010~

We may be holding our noses, metaphorically speaking, but we’ll gladly support the city of Milwaukee in their recycling efforts.  And we’ll spread the word as broadly as we spread the Milorganite!

Have you tried Milorganite in your garden?  If you have, how well does  it work for you?

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It was almost 9 PM when I took these photos of our rabbit on Wednesday evening. A long day, indeed.

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Woodland Gnome 2016

In recognition of Wildlife Wednesday

(Tina has posted some lovely photos of birds visiting her garden this month. 

Please visit her for links to other Wildlife Wednesday posts this April.)

 

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April 5, 2016 051

A mother Cardinal built her nest by our kitchen door. We feel honored by her trust.

 

The Beauty of Hellebores

February 23, 2016 Daffodils 006

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Hellebores are one of the great joys of our winter garden.

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February 23, 2016 Daffodils 020

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Each one is so different.  These are some of the most interesting and exotic flowers we grow.  They are even more special now, when most of the garden remains dormant.

Hellebores provide some of the earliest nectar and pollen for overwintering insects, too.

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February 23, 2016 Daffodils 010

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Hellebores cross-pollinate and sow their seeds abundantly.  Areas where we first established them, more than four years ago now, sport a large crop of ‘volunteers.’

I’ve moved quite a few seedlings to new areas to expand our winter garden.  They  need to grow on for three years or more before they bloom.  Which makes the anticipation build to discover the unique colors and patterns of the seedlings’ blossoms.

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February 23, 2016 Daffodils 021

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Cold and wind take their toll on last year’s evergreen foliage.  This is the time I begin cutting back the older leaves so the flowers and new leaves show better.

Always remember that Hellebores are highly poisonous.  I avoid handling the leaves or sap by wearing gloves.  Then those precious leaves are recycled anywhere we’ve been troubled by voles.  As they decompose into the Earth, they also offer that bit of the garden more protection from their tunneling.

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February 23, 2016 Daffodils 009~

And the plants themselves protect the beds where they are planted.  No creatures dig or graze around them.  Every year they grow more beautiful, blooming so enthusiastically even in shade and less than perfect soil.

Hellebores have become some of my favorite plants in our Forest Garden.

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February 23, 2016 Daffodils 004

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2016

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February 2, 2016 flowers 031

 

 

A “Post Wild World”?

July 27, 2015 Parkway 029

Jamestown Island, July 2015

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Are we gardening in a ‘Post Wild World’? 

Friends invited me to a gathering of area gardeners today. We enjoyed hearing a presentation by landscape architect and newly published author Thomas Rainer,  who shared his philosophy of garden design while promoting his new bookPlanting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, published by Timber Press this past October.

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This is one of the many Crepe Myrtle trees growing around our garden.

This is one of the many Crepe Myrtle trees growing around our garden, with the native trees of our ‘forest’ all around it.

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Yes, urban and suburban development claims ever more of our planet each passing year, with devastating consequences for the environment.  This has been true through my entire life, and probably yours, too.

I jumped on this bandwagon back in the 1970’s, and read any number of excellent books about designing gardens based on nature and using native plants, published by Rodale Press back in the 1980’s.  I internalized these principles long ago.  And still, it pleased me to hear a young landscape architect presenting these well worn principles with a certain freshness and flair.

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Native Hibiscus fill our garden this week. Deer never touch them, and they bloom for more than a month each summer.

Native Hibiscus fill our garden each summer. Deer never touch them, and they bloom for more than a month.

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Rainer summarized his concept as integrating ornamental horticulture with greater use of native North American plants.  He showed many examples of integrated plantings of grasses, perennials and woody plants contained within formal landscape frameworks, such as hardscape, hedges, lawns and permeable pathways.  So far, so good.

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Volunteer Black Eyed Susans have colonized the sunny edge of this clump of Colocasia.

Volunteer Black Eyed Susans have colonized the sunny edge of this clump of Colocasia.

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With skillful use of photos, Rainer demonstrated to us “The irrepressible spirit of plants.” 

Or, as all true gardeners know, wild plants (including what we label weeds) want to grow, with tenacious enthusiasm, everywhere there is a bare patch of Earth.  We examined diversity of species, layering, inter-cropping, and succession in various wild settings; including his neighbor’s ‘hellstrip’ between his unkempt yard and the street.

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Creeping Jenny, easy to divide and transplant, grows quickly into a densly matted ground cover.

Creeping Jenny, easy to divide and transplant, grows quickly into a densely matted ground cover; here with Sedum angelina.

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With much laughter, we also examined photos of various urban and suburban garden installations dotted with puny plants separated by feet of thick mulch.  The point being, that plants tend to grow better in dense communities, as opposed to widely spaced apart in poorly prepared and deeply mulched beds.

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September 30, 2015 Parkway 079

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Rainer discussed the relative amount of care required by these plantings, and made his point that much of the lushest growth in nature is actually self-sown and grown in what we would agree are stressful conditions.  Crowding, temperature extremes, dry climate and thin soil don’t deter plants growing in the environment to which they are adapted.

It is when we, as gardeners decide to create a generic planting bed, and plant without regard to a plant’s specific requirements, that the results are less than plush.

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Connie Hansen Garden, Lincoln City Oregon

The Connie Hansen Garden, Lincoln City Oregon, April 2015

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If you’ve been gardening for more than a few years, you’ve likely experienced these truths yourself; the hard way.

Rainer’s book is lovely and filled with inspiring photos.  You might want to add it to your library, particularly if you are a beginning gardener or one trying to break out of the suburban mold of,  “Wall to wall carpet lawn and meatball shrub foundation plantings.”  It is all in one’s aesthetic and level of ecological awareness, of course.

Many of our neighbors at today’s presentation live in communities with strict rules about which plants one may or may not plant in one’s garden.  Several of our more regulated neighborhoods in Williamsburg enforce the well groomed lawn and evergreen shrub scheme to achieve a look of refined uniformity.  I heard these ladies murmuring to one another from time to time…..

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Our front garden in mid-April

Our front garden in mid-April

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And Rainer’s advice on planning ‘layers’ of plants and covering the ground with living ‘green mulch’ to smother weeds was all sound.  He showed numerous examples of working with ground cover plants and colorful native perennials.  I wish he had also mentioned some of the marvelous native shrubs and small trees which add color and  life to the landscape.   These good ‘bones’ give the landscape character while providing food and habitat for the birds and pollinators who animate a native landscape.

Although he showed us a few of his suburban projects, most of Rainer’s work appears to have been designs for public spaces.  He showed us beautiful installations; in city median strips, parks, and around public buildings.  And so when he finished to genuinely enthusiastic applause and invited questions, the trouble began.

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There is no boundary between the Colonial Parkway, here, and our community.

There is no boundary between the Colonial Parkway, here, and our community.

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And the trouble began because he was speaking to an embattled group of Williamsburg gardeners who manage gardens amidst the realities of a ‘wild world’, which comes right up to our doorsteps.  We aren’t gardening in a safe and sanitized city.  We garden in the woods, backed up to National Park lands, marshes, rivers, creeks, and open fields full of real wild life.

And like so many newbie ‘experts,’ Rainer wasn’t prepared with the answers his audience needed to translate his theoretical ideas into practical reality.

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Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia, won't be nibbled by deer.... although they may have eaten some of its flowers last week....

Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia, won’t be nibbled by deer…. although they may have eaten some of its flowers last week….

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“We have a lot of deer.  Will the plants you’ve described survive deer?” ….. This question, followed by a beat of embarrassed silence, and a generality leaning towards, ‘probably not.’  Rainer sympathized by admitting he had lost a newly planted perennial bed to voles and rabbits colonizing his own Northern Virginia suburban garden.  But he wasn’t prepared to discuss the common plants impervious to deer. 

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May apples with Vinca cover the ground beneath native trees and shrubs.

May apples with ivy and  Vinca minor cover the ground beneath native trees and shrubs.

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“We have a lot of trees.  How do we plant these dense plantings of perennials and ground cover under mature trees?”  Rainer’s answer about purchasing plugs and small potted perennials was spot on.  But when he described boring holes with an auger for said plugs, he lost much of his audience.

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Native Echinacea attracts many pollinators.

Native Echinacea attracts many pollinators in bloom, and birds feast on the seed heads weeks later.

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He also said little about restoring the ecological balance and supporting birds and pollinator species through plant choices.  Perhaps this message was implied;  but not emphasized nearly enough.

There were lots of nice photos of nectar rich Echinacea, Salvia and Liatris throughout his slides; but not enough discussion of habitat creation and planting for a succession of nectar rich bloom.

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Herbs mixed with perennials help keep harmful insects, like chiggers and ticks, away from garden beds.

Herbs, mixed with perennials, help keep harmful insects, like chiggers and ticks, away from garden beds.

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Someone touched on this, but from the ‘dark side.’   Her question was about chiggers, those terrible tiny insects which attack one’s skin beginning here each May.  She wanted to know whether these densely planted, diverse natural plantings would harbor insects.  Well, of course they might.  Chiggers, and ticks, too.

Sadly, Rainer’s best answer was to keep the plantings beds some distance away from the house…..  He never mentioned using herbs to repel insects from our planting beds and from around our homes.  Doesn’t everyone keep a pot of scented Pelargoniums near their porch?

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This variegated geranium is also worth saving. It has bloomed all summer under tough conditions.

This variegated Pelargonium bloomed all summer under tough conditions.

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I left unsatisfied, and without an autographed copy of Rainer’s book under my arm.  I suspect I could find much of his message in those good old Rodale Press books I studied when I was young, and still turn to today.

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October in our garden and the butterflies cover our Lantana.

October in our garden, when the butterflies cover the Lantana.

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My gardening sister and I went for a coffee after the talk, and realized we had much the same impression of Rainer and his presentation.  She reminisced about the gardens her father planted full of strawberries and flowers, fruit trees and tomatoes.  But that was half a century and half a world away now….

Hers is a family of gardeners.  Her sister is currently installing Xeriscapes for clients in California and working with several schools to manage their teaching gardens.

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Voodoo lily and a division of Colocasia 'China Pink' grow in front of our Edgeworthia in part shade.

Voodoo lily and a division of Colocasia ‘China Pink’ grow in front of our Edgeworthia in partial shade.  Black Eyed Susans will bloom later in the summer.  Here, Creeping Jenny grows in to cover the mulch as foliage from spring bulbs dies back to the ground.  All of these plants are either poisonous or so distasteful, the deer ignore them.

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She and I commiserate regularly, sharing plants, problems and solutions as we discover them.  We’ve both come to a sort of peace with our own very wild gardens.   Having learned that squirrels are as greedy in stealing our tomatoes as the deer are in munching flower buds, we have found ways to foil both.

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March 20 2015 fresh 003

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But unlike Rainer, we’ve also learned that wildlife gardening doesn’t have to attract every wild animal in the neighborhood.  We’ve gotten smarter about what we plant and what we don’t.   We have learned to use poisonous plants to good effect, even to repel voles with Daffodils, Hellebores, and other plants with poisonous roots.  We mix all sorts of Alliums into our pots and beds to discourage inquiring rabbits and deer.

We’ve learned to build slightly raised beds over and around tree roots, and to welcome the many ‘native’ plants already encroaching on our gardens.

Through trial, research, flashes of inspiration and a lot of errors, we’ve been gardening and finding satisfaction in our wild forest gardens.  Nothing is ‘post wild’ here, and no augers on electric drills for us, thank you very much….

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April 9, 2015 planting 001

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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October 17, 2014 light 019

Gardening In A Place With Deer

 

Plant ferns with confidence, knowing they will not be eaten by hungry visitors to your garden.

Plant ferns with confidence, knowing they will not be eaten by hungry visitors to your garden.

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Gardening friends across the country share a common frustration with us: deer grazing the valuable ornamental and edible plants in our gardens. This challenge feels as though it is getting more difficult each year as deer populations increase. And its not just deer who show up to feed at the buffet of our well-tended gardens. Rabbits, voles, moles, squirrel and muskrats also destroy plants and steal produce form our gardens each season

Discovering the damage is always a bit of a shock, and always creates frustration. Two Oakleaf Hydrangea shrubs which escaped damage until now were stripped of their leaves sometime yesterday. We’ve had enough rain that spray repellents were washed away. The careful planting of distasteful plants around them was not enough to keep these hungry deer away.

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Hydrangea, 'Ruby Slippers'

Hydrangea, ‘Ruby Slippers’

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A neighbor suggests we plant things especially for the deer, to feed them. While this may sound like a good idea at first, the reality is the deer will eat those plants to the nub, and then continue on to the rest of the garden. The more food available, the more the herd will increase.

Some neighbors enjoy seeing the deer in their yards. They find them beautiful. I have no argument with that. However, the reality is that these gentle and graceful creatures not only decimate the vegetation, they also carry ticks. The ticks often carry Lyme’s Disease and other dangerous diseases, which create life-long illnesses in those who develop the disease.

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August 27, 2014 Parkway 024

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That is why my partner and I have spent the last six years, since we moved to this deer ridden tick infested forest garden, doing everything we can to eliminate the deer from around our home. Some tell us up front we are on a fool’s errand. And maybe they are right. But since I love to garden, the alternative is to simply sell and move on in hopes we won’t find deer in our next neighborhood.

But as man develops nature into more sprawling neighborhoods, the native animals learn to live among us. Their fear of us diminishes with their options.

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Native Hibiscus fill our garden this week.  Deer never touch them, and they bloom for more than a month each summer.

Native Hibiscus fill our garden this week. Deer never touch them, and they bloom for more than a month each summer.

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I first wrote about gardening in spite of the deer two summers ago, in June of 2013. The techniques and plant list I offered then was based on three years of experimentation and conversation with other neighborhood gardeners; and extensive reading on the subject. After another two years of gardening, and watching deer continue to somehow slither in through the fences we’ve constructed to keep them out, I’m ready to revise the plant list and offer somewhat different advice.

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July 16, 2015 Hibiscus 015

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The bottom line is that there are a few plants the deer almost never touch. They will walk right past them without touch a single leaf. And these are the only species one may plant with total peace of mind. Planting other species the deer and other critters find tasty leads to loss. You may enjoy the plants at times, but will be faced with the damage done at others.

Now sometimes it is worth it. Many plants the deer graze will eventually grow to a height and breadth so that grazing may damage, but will not destroy the plant. Many of our roses have now grown to that stage.

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July 16, 2015 Hibiscus 008

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Yes, I love roses and have planted them despite the fact they are simply deer candy. I have lost many rose shrubs to the deer over the past few years. But a few have established and now flourish. I think the secret has been to chose large growing, hardy shrub roses. The smaller tea roses can rarely gain enough size to survive. The same can be said for Rhododendron, Azalea, Hydrangea, and other marginal shrubs.

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The Rhododendron I brought home in February has finally bloomed!  Some may find these electric purple flowers highly strange.....

The Rhododendron I brought home in February finally bloomed!

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Another factor to consider is that newly planted nursery shrubs are already rich in Nitrogen from the grower. A high Nitrogen content makes the plant tastier; like salted French fries to our palate. Nitrogen, and other elements in fertilizer, are considered salts. If we can keep a plant alive, through whatever means, for the first two or three years; it not only grows larger, it also grows less appealing.

When considering how much extra fertilizer to spread around your shrubs and trees, if any, this is an important consideration.  Growing your garden on the lean side might offer additional protection from grazing.

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Camellia susanqua

Camellia susanqua

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We have observed that plants which grow extremely well in some of our gardens, such as Camellias and Hydrangea macrophylla, also called Mophead Hydrangea, get eaten in others.  My mature Camellia bushes are left alone, but I’ve had tremendous damage done to some, but not all, newly planted Camellia bushes.   Sometimes shrub species and perennials that nurserymen and landscape architects recommend as ‘deer resistant’ get eaten, anyway.

Experience is the best teacher. Somehow, deer rarely stick to the published lists of plants they are supposed to avoid.

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Camellia

Camellias begin to bloom here in October.

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Maybe I’ve grown cynical, but now I seek out poisonous plants for our garden. No, I’m not planting poison ivy as ground cover and Castor beans in the flower beds. Although Castor beans have lovely foliage and I plant them some years….

I’m not interested in plants poisonous to the touch. I’m interested in plants which deer and other animals will not graze because of the poisonous compounds in their leaves.

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Caladiums, ferns and Begonias remain my favorite plants for shade.

Caladiums, ferns and Begonias remain my favorite plants for shade.

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These animals are smart, and they know these things instinctively. Even if you lose a Caladium leaf here and there, it won’t happen very much.

The other general group of plants the deer leave alone are the strongly scented herbs. They do not like, and will not bother most herbs. And herbs offer beautiful foliage along with some flowers. Ferns, likewise, rarely suffer from grazing. A frond may disappear from time to time, but the plant remains.

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Bumblebee on Basil

Bumblebee on Basil

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 Rough textured and strongly scented foliage protects other sorts of plants, as well. I’ve never had a Pelargonium grazed. Whether you plant Zonal Geraniums in a flower pot, Ivy Geraniums in a hanging basket, or scented Geraniums in a pot or bed, you can plant with confidence. In fact, I’ve had some success with planting scented Geraniums, some of which will grow very large in a season, around roses and Hydrangea to protect them from grazing. Deer dislike scented plants that much.

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hardy Geranium makes a lovely, deer resistant ground cover all season.

Hardy Geranium makes a lovely, deer resistant ground cover all season.

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Native hardy Geraniums are nearly as safe a bet. If tasted, they won’t be eaten. These make a nice ground cover at the front of a bed and around shrubs.

Many native shrubs and trees remain immune to grazing. Maybe this is why the deer leave naturally overgrown areas to shimmy into our garden buffet. There is a benefit in learning to appreciate the aesthetic of native plants. These may not be first choice from an ornamental point of view, but they will survive.

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Native Mountain Laurel blooms here in May for several weeks.  This small tree remains evergreen all year, with interesting bark and slender trunks.

Native Mountain Laurel blooms here in May for several weeks. This small tree remains evergreen all year, with interesting bark and slender trunks.

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It is very frustrating to realize there is absolutely nothing you can do, short of building an 8” high wire cage around your garden, to protect those fruits and vegetables you would like to grow for your own family. I’ve seen 10” high secured netting draped on heavy frames to protect tomato plants in my neighbors’ garden. Sure, the deer couldn’t get at the plants, but squirrels found their way in to steal the tomatoes. Ditto with potted tomatoes grown ‘out of reach’ on the deck.

Just remember, most animals haven’t a care in the world beyond finding food and staying alive. They have 24/7 to scheme a way in to your garden for dinner. So whether you want to plant blueberry bushes, apple trees, strawberries or a row of beans; it is likely it will be eaten before it ripens in a garden like ours.

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Re-blooming Iris, "Rock Star"

Re-blooming Iris, “Rock Star”

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That said, there are still many beautiful choices in trees, flowering shrubs, perennials, annuals, herbs and ferns from which to choose. Here is a freshly curated list for your consideration. We live in Zone 7b, in coastal Virginia. This list is peculiar to our climate, but many of these plants may grow well in your garden, too.

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Echinacea, or Purple Coneflower, is a favorite of nectar loving insects. A perennial, it is rarely touched by deer and grows more vigorous each year.

Echinacea, or Purple Coneflower, is a favorite of nectar loving insects. A perennial, it is rarely touched by deer and grows more vigorous each year.

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Key to symbols:

!  a native plant in our area

# attracts birds with berries, fruit, nuts, or seeds

*  a nectar producing plant which attracts butterflies and other pollinating insects

+ a nectar producing plant which attracts hummingbirds

$ poisonous

Flowering Trees and Shrubs

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Bamboo provides cover for nesting birds, shelter from the weather, and a steady supply of insects to eat. Deer never touch it.

Bamboo provides cover for nesting birds, shelter from the weather, and a steady supply of insects to eat. Deer never touch it.

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# * + Althea, Rose of Sharon Hibiscus syriacus

Beauty berry grows like the native (weed?) it is.  These self-seed around the garden, and never suffer from hungry deer.  Our birds take great delight in the berries as they ripen.

Beauty berry grows like the native (weed?) it is. These self-seed around the garden, and never suffer from hungry deer. Our birds take great delight in the berries as they ripen.

# * + $ Angel’s Trumpet:  Brugmansia and Datura

Rose of Sharon

Rose of Sharon

 

Bamboo (various species)

! #   Bayberry, or Wax Myrtle Myrica cerifera

! # * Beautyberry Bush Callicarpa americana

# *   Boxwood Buxus sempervirens

! # * + Butterfly Bush Buddleia (various species)

# * + Butterfly Tree or Glory Tree  Clerodendrum trichotomum

Butterfly tree

Butterfly tree

Camellia C. japonica and C. sasanqua

# * +Crepe Myrtle Lagerstroemia

! # * Dogwood Cornus florida

Edgeworthia

# * English Laurel Prunus laurocerasus

Crepe Myrtle begins to bloom in our garden, and will fill the garden with flowers until early September.

Crepe Myrtle begins to bloom in our garden, and will fill the garden with flowers until early September.

# Fig  Ficus carica

* Forsythia

! # * Fringe Tree Chionanthus virginicus

! * Hydrangea arborescens

# Japanese Maple Acer palmatum

# * + $ Ligustrum

* +Lilac Syringa vulgaris

# * Mahonia Mahonia aquifolium

! $ Mountain Laurel Kalmia latifolia (all parts of this plant are highly poisonous)

Lilac

Lilac

! # * Magnolia virginiana and other species

# *Heavenly Bamboo Nandina domestica (all parts of this plant are highly poisonous)

! * & Native Holly Ilex opaca

! # Oakleaf Hydrangea Hydrangea quercifolia

# * + $ Oleander

# * Fire Thorn Pyracantha (various species)

Yucca filamentosa

Yucca filamentosa

! # * +Red Bud Cercis canadensis

# * $ Rhododendron

# * +  Silk Tree or Mimosa Albizia julibrissin

# * St. John’s Wort Hypericum

! # Southern Wax Myrtle  Myrica cerifera

! # + Red Buckeye Aesculus pavia

$ Yew

! #* Adam’s Needle Yucca filamentosa and other species

Perennials and Bulbs

! $ Wolfsbane, Monkshood Aconitum

Echinacea

Echinacea

* $ Bleeding Heart  Dicentra cucullaria

! # * + Butterfly Weed Asclepias tuberose and Asclepias incarnata

* + Canna Lily Canna

Our garden on the fourth of July:; a Salvia grows through Colocasia, punctuated with a dark leafed Canna.

Our garden on the fourth of July:; a Salvia grows through Colocasia, punctuated with a dark leafed Canna.

*  Centaurea ( various species)

# * + $ Columbine

* $ Colocasia Elephant’s Ear

* $ Lily of the Valley  Convallaria majalis

! # * Coreopsis ( various species)

 * + Crocosmia ( various species) 

* $ Daffodil Narcissus ( various species)

! # * Daisy Asteraceae ( various species)

* $ Daphne

Butterfly bush with native Hibiscus

Butterfly bush with Canna and native Hibiscus

* + $ Larkspur Delphinium

# * Dianthus ( various species)

! # * Purple Coneflower Echinacea purpurea

* Euphorbia ( various species)

# * Fall Anemones A. hupehensis

Fern   (click for detailed information)

# * + Gaillardia ( various species)

Male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on Lantana

Male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on Lantana

* Geranium ( various species)

* + Ginger Lily Hedychium ( various species)

! * Goatsbeard Aruncus dioicus

* Goldenrod Solidago rugosa

Gingerlily

Gingerlily

* $ Lenten Rose Hellebore ( various species) (note, this plant is highly poisonous)

* $ Dutch Hyacinth Hyacinthus orientalis

 * #  Iris (Bearded, Dutch, Louisiana, Siberian, etc.)

# Ivy

! # * + Rose Mallow Hibiscus moscheutos

! * +Joe Pye Weed  Eutrochium ( various species)

Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Weed

# * Lambs Ears Stychys Byzantina

* + Mexican (Bush) Sage (Salvia leucantha) or Salvia Mexicana

* Muscari ( various species)

* Oxalis

* Pelargonium ( various species)

* Peony Paeonia ( various species)

* $ Plumeria

* + Red Hot Poker Kniphofia ( various species)

! # * Black Eyed Susans  Rudbeckia ( various species)

Oxalis triangularis grows in a pot outside as part of a small shade garden.  Although leaves are grazed from time to time, the plant is happy here in the partial shade.

Oxalis triangularis grows in a pot outside as part of a small shade garden. Although leaves are grazed from time to time, the plant is happy here in the partial shade.

$ Sauromatum venosum, Voodoo Lily

 

Herbs

Rose scented Pelargonium.

Rose scented Pelargonium.

* $ Artemisia

# * Basil

#*Catmint

apple mint

apple mint

* Comfrey

* Curry

# * Dill

* Fennel

* Germander

* + Lavender

*Marjoram

* Mint

!# *+ Monarda

Salvia with Colocasia

Salvia with Colocasia

* Oregano

# * Parsley

* + Pineapple Sage Salvia elegans

Rosemary

* Sage Salvia species

Annuals and Biennials

Pineapple Sage reliably fills the garden with beauty at the end of the season.  Here it is just coming into bloom as we greet October.

Pineapple Sage reliably fills the garden with beauty at the end of the season. Here it is just coming into bloom as we greet October.

* Angelonia

* $ Caladium

$ Castor Bean Ricinus communis (all parts of this plant are highly poisonous)

# *+Spider Flower Cleome hassleriana

* Dusty Miller Centaurea cineraria

# * +$ Foxglove Digitalis purpurea

# * + Lantana or Shrub Verbena Lantana camara

* + Mandevilla sanderi

* Mexican Heather Cuphea hyssopifolia

* New Guinea Impatiens Impatiens hawkeri

* + Pentas ( various species)

* Plectranthus ( various species)

* Purple Heart Tradescantia pallida

# * + Zinnia elegans

Vines

May apples with Vinca

May apples with Vinca and ivy

! * + Trumpet Creeper Campsis radicans

! * + Honeysuckle Lonicera sempervirens

# * $ Ivy

! # * + $ Passionflower Passiflora incarnata

*  Periwinkle Vinca major & V. minor

# * Star Jasmine Trachelospermum jasminoides

! # * + Virginia Creeper Parthenocissus quinquefolia

To have confidence your garden won’t be grazed, choose plants known to be poisonous. 

Pick Your Poison:

Poisonous ornamental shrubs: 

Narcissus

Narcissus

Angel’s Trumpet:  Brugmansia and Datura

Daphne

European Holly Ilex aquifolium

Hellebores

Hellebores

Elder Sambucus

Ligustrum

Mountain Laurel Kalmia latifolia

Oleander

Rhododendron

Yew

Some species of Oak are poisonous

Poisonous Perennials and Bulbs

Artemesia

Wolfsbane, Monkshood AconitumApril 13, 2015 spring flowers 007

Columbine

Caladium

Daffodil

Bleeding Heart  Dicentra cucullaria

Elephant’s Ear Colocasia

Foxglove Digitalis

Columbine

Columbine

Hellebore

Hyacinth

Lily of the Valley  Convallaria majalis

Larkspur Delphinium

Plumeria

Sauromatum venosum, Voodoo Lily

Poisonous Annuals

Castor Bean Ricinus communis

Tomato leaves (though the deer have grazed my tomatoes)

Potato leaves

Voodoo lily and a division of Colocasia 'China Pink' grow in front of our Edgeworthia in part shade.

Voodoo lily and a division of Colocasia ‘China Pink’ grow in front of our Edgeworthia in part shade.

Poisonous Vines

Ivy Hedera

Poison Ivy

Poison Oak

Passion Flower Passiflora Caerulea (leaves)

 

Plants that will need extraordinary measures to protect in a forest garden include:  Azaleas, Hostas, daylilies, Oriental Lilies, Roses, impatiens, some sedums, Tomatoes, squashes, sweet potato vines, cucumbers, beans, and mophead Hydrangeas.

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All photos by Woodland Gnome

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June 22, 2015 foliage 012

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Related articles

 

Mystery Begonia

June 5, 2015 flowers 008

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Do you know her name?

I would love to know, although she is wonderful whether named or not.

I found this lovely Begonia in a farmer’s market plant stall nearly 10 years ago, and bought her on sight… as a gift for my dad.

He loved her, and kept her over winter in his solarium.  He gave me cuttings, and he and I have both grown those cuttings on and taken more ever since.

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June 11, 2015 garden 020~

We both grow this lovely Begonia now,  and I’ve passed on cuttings to many Begonia loving friends over the years.

This cane Begonia can grow fairly tall; to at least 3′.    Both stems and leaves are sumptuous red, and the generous bracts of  flowers rose pink.  She blooms year round, taking short breaks between outbreaks of loveliness.

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May 25, 2015 foliage 019

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I keep this cane Begonia watered but not wet, and feed with dilute fertilizer monthly.  Cane Begonias have harder, waxier stems than the tuberous Begonias, and so don’t rot easily at the soil line when the soil is too wet.  These are sturdy, forgiving plants.

I  also sprinkle Osmocote on the soil two or three times each year, and trim back long canes from time to time when they get too lanky.   I always plop those pruned canes into a jar of water to allow them to root.

Cane Begonias prefer partial shade, but appreciate time out of doors in the summer.  When we first move them out, they often lose leaves for a few weeks.  These are quickly replaced with sturdier, brighter leaves ready to process the stronger light available in summer.

They don’t like cold or drafts and so come back inside before the weather turns cold.

Deer normally leave cane Begonias alone.  However, they will nibble leaves from time to time when especially hungry.  We’ve had deer somehow sneaking into our garden too frequently in recent weeks.  And they have grazed some of our cane Begonias.  Such a waste….

The remedy is to throw a few whole cloves of garlic into each pot.  Deer hate the aroma of garlic.  Although unsightly, the garlic will protect the plants from grazing.

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This is one of my favorite Begonias from cuttings.  I bought one plant a decade ago, and continue to start new ones from it.  I've given cuttings from this special Begonia to many friends.

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My father asked me to re-pot his red Begonia last weekend.  I think it might be the original plant…

We moved her up to a 14″ coir lined basket, gave her some fresh soil and a sprinkle of Osmocote; and hung her back in her shady summer spot.

Oh, the joy of a basket of cane Begonias in the summer.

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August 2, 2014 010

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She will cover herself in flowers through all of the warm months to come.

Do you know her name?  After many attempts to find this plant online, I’m finally asking for help.  Surely someone else has grown her, too, and can add a bit of information to aid my quest.

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May 25, 2015 foliage 049

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Woodland Gnome 2015

A Bed for Salvias

June 1, 2015 perennial bed 021

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I wanted a bed dedicated primarily to perennial Salvia, and other sun-loving, heat tolerant perennials which appreciate good drainage.

And I didn’t want to dig.

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The bed is located in full sun on sloping land near the bottom of our garden.  Our bamboo forest grows out of the ravine to the left in this photo.  The leaves littering the ground have fallen from the bamboo in our recent hot weather.

The bed is located in full sun on sloping land near the bottom of our garden. Our bamboo forest grows out of the ravine to the left in this photo. The leaves littering the ground have fallen from the bamboo in our recent hot weather.

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I’ve been fantasizing about a bed here for more than a year, but the 12’x12′ enclosed raised bed I drew back in February remains on the legal pad.  I didn’t marshal the necessary resources; beginning with my own energy, to build it.

But I have made a start. 

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May 28, 2015 garden 023

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That is the secret, you know, to all worthwhile accomplishments:  Begin!  Once you begin, things fall into place in delightfully surprising ways.

So I led my partner to the spot, one afternoon a few weeks ago, and explained what I wanted to grow here.  And we agreed on the boundaries (the lawn is his, remember) before heading out to visit our friends at Homestead Garden Center to buy compost and gravel.

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Bamboo tried to poke up into the new bed here.  We break the new growth off at the surface.  Eventually, I'll bring compost down to topdress this entire bed, covering the intruder.

Bamboo tried to poke up into the new bed here. We break the new growth off at the surface. Eventually, I’ll bring more compost down to top dress this entire bed, covering the intruder.

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Now, it is simply not practical to dig on this sharply graded hillside.  Not only do we constantly fight erosion, but this area is laced with hefty bamboo shoots and runners just below the surface.  I realized that the area is too steeply graded to simply lay blocks or timbers to “build” a raised bed.  No hugelkultur here, either, unfortunately.

But there is  an easy and inexpensive way to establish a new planting bed which requires little more than paper and soil…. and time….

After agreeing on the dimension and boundaries of the new perennial bed, my partner marked its edges.  I used the string trimmer to cut back the existing ‘grasses’ to the ground.   We cut open brown paper grocery bags, and laid them within those boundaries to completely cover the existing soil, anchoring them with handfuls of compost as we worked.  There is some overlap, but not a great deal.  I covered the paper grocery bags with several inches of compost, mounding it a little deeper where the first plants were to go.

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May 20, 2015 garden 016~

After the entire bed was covered in compost, and the outer edges of the bed marked with handfuls of pea gravel, I began planting the Salvias and Lavenders I had collected for this bed directly into the compost, on top of the paper.

When using this method, it is especially important to loosen the outer roots on the rootball before planting, to encourage them to grow into the surrounding soil more quickly.

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Two weeks of growth in this bed, taken from the same spot as the previous photo.

Two weeks of growth in this bed, shown  from the same spot as the previous photo.

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The Iris have had the most trouble with this planting method, since they are division, and didn’t have large root systems when they were moved.

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June 1, 2015 perennial bed 011~

Now, you might think this is “extreme gardening.”  Extremely lazy, you’re thinking? 

Don’t worry, I’ve done my time “double digging” beds and borders in previous gardens.  And since then, I’ve learned that it is much smarter to be kind to the soil, and its complex web of life, by disturbing it as little as possible.  Like cats and children, soil will find its own way if we just remember to feed it regularly….

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This  large creamy Marigold is one of my favorite varieties.  The Patton family grow these from seed each year to offer at their Homestead Garden Center near Toano.

This large creamy Marigold is one of my favorite varieties. The Patton family grow these from seed each year to offer at their Homestead Garden Center near Toano.

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The soil is actually pretty good here.  While there is solid clay at the top of the property, there is pretty good loam on this slope.  It is more than sufficient to feed the flowering perennials I intend to grow here.

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June 1, 2015 perennial bed 019

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As the paper decomposes, and earthworms gather beneath it, the paper and compost will be carried deeper into the Earth, mixing  into the existing soil along with the earthworm castings through their life processes.  It is an elegant system, designed by nature millions of years ago.  All I need to do is understand it and work with it.

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June 1, 2015 perennial bed 015

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The toughest time for this scheme is the first month, as the plants begin to grow.  You see, we’ve had a heatwave these last few weeks.  The perennials didn’t really get a chance to sink their roots through the paper and into the Earth below before the weather shifted from gentle spring to full-on summer.   But with a little  watering, and a good rain or two, they are all showing growth.

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May 28, 2015 garden 025

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The bed now holds four varieties of Salvia, including a golden culinary sage; two varieties of Basil; two Lavender plants;  Asclepias incarnata; Rosemary; Coreopsis; Santalina; German re-blooming Iris dug and transplanted from other parts of the garden; and some beautiful cream marigolds.  I selected these plants to attract and feed butterflies and hummingbirds.  All of these varieties remain unattractive to deer, and should not entice them into the garden from the nearby ravine.

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May 20, 2015 garden 017

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This is an extension of the  ‘butterfly and hummingbird garden’ growing further up the slope.

I expect all of these plants to show a lot of growth in June, and this bed should bloom from now until frost in various shades of blues, purples, creams, and gold.

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June 1, 2015 perennial bed 016

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I will re-evaluate its progress this fall to decide whether or not we will move any closer to those grand plans I drew back in the winter.

I have some mail order Gooseberry shrubs growing in pots, which were ordered for the original plan.  They may find a home here, yet.  And the Okra?  There is still time to plant some seeds…. maybe when it rains….

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May 20, the morning after this bed was planted.  The plants have shown good growth in the two weeks they have been adjusting to this new bed.

May 20, the morning after this bed was planted. The plants have shown good growth in the two weeks they have been adjusting to this new bed.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

 

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