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Connolly: Closing the door at the Deer Café

Imagine shopping for 7 pounds of salad for each family member every day. It sounds silly to a human, but it's a daily assignment for a deer, to whom every tree, shrub, vegetable and flower might provide a good munch.

Maybe you've used soaps, rotten eggs, garlic, fish products, hair sweepings from the barber shop floor, sprays from the garden center, and plants with tags that say "deer resistant." But because we share our neighborhoods with a 160-pound vegetarian that lives for about 16 years, the hosta border will disappear one fine June morning unless we have a serious strategy to take our landscapes off the menu at the Deer Café.

As a landscape designer, I've come to believe that only one thing is clear about this topic. No single deer-resistance strategy is 100 percent effective. Even 10-foot fences are only as good as the gate someone remembered to close. Experts converge on three basic strategies.

Think like a deer

Deer play with a different deck of cards than we humans. Their sense of smell is supposedly three times greater than that of most dogs and they use it to locate favorite foods. That means they can be confused by repulsive scents, strategically placed. Most deer-resistance products play on some combination of these traits. The most successful sprays and powders, for instance, rely on both scents and tastes that deer find repulsive.

Deer see much farther than we do and they see in the dark. Yet their close-up vision is poor. That makes them wary of things they can feel but can't see - such as thin high-test wires or fishing lines.

They are superb jumpers - up to 10 feet high or broad from a near standstill. But they can't jump both broad and high in the same jump - a shortcoming that offers some creative fencing alternatives (see below).

They have a hair-trigger startle response that's part of their survival - but we can use it against them by the element of surprise as long as we remember to change startle mechanisms frequently.

Put up a clever fence

Fence is the most reliable and most expensive strategy. The fence needs to accomplish three things. Foil either the high jump or the broad jump (remember, they can't do both); foil fawns in their attempts to wiggle under the fence; and, overcome the human tendency to leave gates open.

When it comes to foiling the high jump, 8-foot to 10-foot of height is needed, a size that many residential areas won't permit. One good alternative is the double deer fence, a clever invention with two lanes of 4-foot to 5-foot fence placed about five feet apart. These are designed to foil the broad jump. They are reportedly almost as effective as the tall fence and some are designed to be quite attractive. It's worth a Google Image search on "double row deer fence."

As far as the gate problem, you can go without a gate if you install a 10-foot-cattle grate. Deer won't cross it.

Make strategic plant selections

Books, websites and garden centers have tried to identify deer's least favorite "salad greens." But deer have different diets at different times of year. Diet varies by gender as well. And even plants that take top honors on deer-resistance lists, may look like a prize chocolate to our ruminant friends when they come home from the nursery all plumped up with nitrogen fertilizer. (Deer seek nitrogen in their foods.)

I'd like to suggest a simpler approach to closing the door to the deer snack bar at your house, which is to emphasize five basic plant groups: the mint and onion families, heaths and heathers, grasses, and ferns.

The mint family contains a surprising number of ornamentals and herbs, including lavender, thyme, rosemary, salvia, lemon balm, bee balm, cat mint, cat nip, agastache, not to mention the true mints. Among the ornamental onions, there are a variety of bulbs available, including the impressive Globemaster giant allium or easy-to-grow drumsticks, or the charming nodding onion.

Ready for more information? Read "Deerproofing Your Yard and Garden" by Rhonda Massingham Hart. Or download two excellent studies from Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (http://www.ct.gov/caes): "Limiting Deer Browse Damage to Landscape Plants" by Jeffrey Ward and "Effectiveness of Deer Repellents in Connecticut" by Jeffrey Ward and Scott Williams. Happy planting!

KATHY CONNOLLY IS A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER AND WILL PRESENT A SEMINAR ON THIS TOPIC AT THE UCONN HADDAM EXTENSION CENTER ON MAY 20. VISIT HER BLOG, CALENDAR AND WEBSITE AT WWW.SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM OR EMAIL HER AT KATHY@SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM.

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